13 years after Atlanta, Ray Lewis tries for a "storybook" ending to his career
It's not hard to find Ray Lewis in prayer. You might catch a glimpse of it on the sidelines before a game. In the locker room. Even on the cover of Sports Illustrated -- the muscular Baltimore Ravens linebacker standing bare-chested in a swimming pool, his palms pressed together.
To some, Lewis' frequent expressions of faith are the marks of a life redeemed, a long 13-year journey from murder accusations -- later dropped by prosecutors -- in the death of two men hours after the 2000 Super Bowl in Atlanta.
But for others, the show of faith is little more than an act.
"Stop acting like you are one of the people that come out of the Bible," said Greg Wilson, whose nephew Jacinth Baker died along with a friend in the infamous melee 13 years ago that almost derailed Lewis' career.
"If you're redeemed -- and he's always quoting Scriptures -- then you would have stood up like a man and said what happened," Wilson said.
For many football fans, Lewis' story begins at the University of Miami, where he quickly made his mark on the football field -- taking All-America honors each of the three years he played before surrendering his final year of eligibility to enter the 1996 NFL draft.
The Ravens picked him 26th overall, fifth among linebackers. And he made a quick name for himself, earning AFC defensive player of the week honors in his first regular season game.
He went on to earn 13 Pro Bowl invitations.
But for Lewis, of course, the story begins years before, during his childhood in Lakeland, Florida. That's when, he says, his walk with God began.
"My mom did a heck of a job raising a man to put my complete faith in God from Day One," Lewis told reporters gathered for the Super Bowl on Wednesday. "From 9 years old, when I was ordained as a junior deacon, she always said that some days, you may find yourself away from God, but you will find yourself back."
A Pivotal Night
On January 31, 2000, hours after watching the St. Louis Rams beat the Tennessee Titans in the Super Bowl, Lewis and a few friends were out at the Cobalt Lounge in Atlanta's Buckhead Village celebrating football's biggest night.
As they left, around 4 a.m., a fight erupted.
It's unclear who started the fight, but it became an all-out brawl when Baker smashed a champagne bottle over the head of Reginald Oakley, a friend of Lewis'.
What else happened during those pivotal moments remains something of a mystery. How did the fight start? Why? And who killed Baker and his friend, Richard Lollar?
To this day, even one of the men arrested that night says he's still not entirely clear on what happened.
What is clear is that, within minutes, Baker and Lollar lay dead in the street as Lewis and his friends raced away in a limousine.
The next day, police arrested Lewis, Oakley and another friend, Joseph Sweeting, on murder charges.
At the time, Atlanta prosecutors said they had a trail of blood and eyewitness testimony to prove Lewis and the others were involved.
The limo driver, Duane Fassett, told investigators he heard Oakley and Sweeting tell others in the limo that they had stabbed the victims, according to multiple news reports at the time. Lewis, according to Fassett's account, told everyone to keep quiet, saying he wouldn't allow his football career to end this way.
Lewis and his defense attorney, however, have long maintained Lewis was trying to act as a peacemaker, to get his friends back in the limo and away from trouble.
When the trial started, the case crumbled on live television. Witnesses changed their stories. Defense lawyers tore down the claims of witnesses who had troubled pasts or had spent the night drinking.
Prosecutors "put their case together with Band-Aids and it didn't hold together," Lewis' attorney, Ed Garland, told CNN this week.
The district attorney's office ended up dropping the murder charges against Lewis in the middle of the trial to cut a plea deal. Lewis agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice and testify against his friends.
But in the end, that wasn't enough to win prosecutors a conviction. The jury acquitted Oakley and Sweeting, too.
No was ever convicted in the killings.
Ray Lewis' path to redemption had begun.
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Ed Lavandera and Michael Pearson