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An Interview With Ray Lewis

Photo/David Yellen

Marvin R. Shanken interviews the controversial and intense Ray Lewis, who overcame all odds to become one of football’s greatest players

Do you think you know Ray Lewis? You may know the player who ruled the NFL for 17 seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, a linebacker of immense strength and desire who learned the art of defense as a Miami Hurricane and always seemed to know where the ball was going. He led the Ravens to two Super Bowl victories, was named Super Bowl MVP in 2000, and was a key member of what many believe is the greatest defense of all time.
Or you may think you know the Ray Lewis who stood accused of a double homicide in Atlanta, a charge that was later dropped and a crime that he—and even the lead detective in the case, Ken Allen—says never should have been levied against him.
But you likely don't know where Lewis came from: born in poverty in Bartow, Florida, and abandoned at birth by his father, left behind without even a name and raised by his 15-year-old mother. And you probably don't know the abuse they suffered, punishment that drove him to strengthen his body and regard the physical challenges of football as nothing in comparison.
This summer, Lewis sat down with Cigar Aficionado editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken for a wide-ranging conversation over cigars to show the world the real man behind the one everyone thinks they know.
Shanken: I feel like you need to hear this. [Takes out his iPhone and presses play, showing Ray Lewis a video of a speech Lewis made at Harvard in 2012 that was recorded by NFL Productions.]
Lewis (voice on screen): "As a young child my momma had me at 15 years old. My father walked out on my mom and left me in the incubator with no name. I'm 36 years old. I spent my first Father's Day with my father at 33 years old. Then my mom was in some rough relationships, and so we would see these bruises and when we would see these black eyes on her face I would say, ‘Mom, why do you keep going through this?' And a lot of people always look at me and they always say, ‘Man, how did you become this great football player?' It wasn't football that drove me. It was making sure a man would never put his hands on my mom again, is what drove me."
Shanken: That's one of the most powerful things I've ever heard in my life.
Lewis: Ten years old, I made up my mind that last altercation we had was that. My mom would never be touched again.
Shanken: It's all hypothetical, but would Ray Lewis today, and would Ray Lewis the football player, be Ray Lewis who he became had it not been for your experience and relationship with your mom?
Lewis: No. Impossible. And I tell people all the time if there was anything to change I wouldn't change nothing. Because that drove me. I look at my kids, I look at athletes—there's a burn that has always been in the pit of my stomach.
Shanken: What was the high in your life?
Lewis: The high in my life has always been my mom. To see her endure. When I was 10 years old, I tugged on her dress and I said "One of these days you're never going to have to work another day in your life." And I meant that. My junior year in high school, she takes all of her five kids and she moves us to Memphis, Tennessee. I end up running away for a few days, and she found me sitting on the floor. She knew I wanted to go back to Florida so bad. She gave me $39 and said, "I think I'm making the biggest mistake of my life by sending you back." She handed me a book with $20 worth of food stamps. She said, "That's all I got."
An Interview With Ray Lewis
Shanken: And you went back to Florida by yourself?
Lewis: Yeah.
Shanken: And how old were you?
Lewis: Seventeen.
Shanken: Where did you live?
Lewis: Well, I shuffled around. I ended up staying with my grandmother because I could go to a certain school. The happiest moment of my life was when I called mom and I said, "I got a scholarship. College."
Shanken: What was the low?
Lewis: The day that my mom said she can't do anything more. My mom was in a very rough spot in life. She was broke. I said, "OK, pack up everybody and you guys come stay with me." Then I said, "Mom, I got to go. To the draft."
Shanken: Your signing bonus. What was it—$1 million?
Lewis: $1.2 million.
Shanken: Did you get it up front?
Lewis: Up front.
Shanken: Did that include your salary?
Lewis: Plus salary.
Shanken: So you could help your family.
Lewis: I had done everything in college that there was to do.
Shanken: You hear this a lot, where kids playing college football give up their senior year, or more, because they need to help their families. Is there something wrong with the system?
Lewis: Yeah, because you're asking kids to give up their life to pursue another life which does not pay financially.
Shanken: So how do college kids keep clean and handle the responsibilities of their own lives and their families' needs? Why doesn't the NCAA change the system so it works for everybody?
Lewis: I've been asking that question for over 20-plus years. Money. They don't want to share that. I'll give you an example: 2003 to 2010, I had the No. 1 selling jersey in the world, any sport. And I asked one of the reps one time, ‘If you gave me $5 off of each jersey that was sold, I don't need to be paid through a contract.' So who makes all the money? The league. In college who makes all the money? The school. But there's no game if you don't have athletes, so why aren't we paid?
Shanken: And why doesn't the NFL, with all the wealth and success it has, create or enforce a system with the NCAA so that kids can finish college?
Lewis: The NFL is the only sport that tells you the higher you go, the less we try to respect you. I beg to differ. I am greater than I will ever be now, then when I was playing. Why? Because now I do it for me. You put somebody next to a Hall-of-Famer, there's no comparison. You're wishing, you're hoping he makes it to that pedestal. That guy's already made it. Compare apples to oranges. I'm not going to put Odell Beckham in the same conversation I'm going to put Jerry Rice. Generals in the military, they're the highest paid. Why? Because they have the greatest experience. Hall-of-Famers should be the highest paid because they have the greatest experience. But it's the opposite in sports. It's the next new athlete. But I tell you, the day I walk into Canton, Lord willing, I think I'll give a totally different approach on the way the Hall of Fame should be looked at. You look at Earl Campbell, you look at Jim Brown, you look at these guys who gave the league everything and now it says, "We're done with you now."
Shanken: It's business.
Lewis: It's business. But in every business, the higher you climb the ladder, the higher your paycheck. That never stops for a general.
Shanken: Let's go back to college. You were offered a scholarship to Florida State. You go in for a meeting and they say "You're going to play right behind—"
Lewis: Derrick Brooks [who played 14 seasons with Tampa Bay]. "And by the time you're at junior year you should be big enough to start."
Shanken: And what did you say?
Lewis: Thank you, but no thank you.
Shanken: And you walked out?
Lewis: I said, "How you know I'm not better than Derrick Brooks right now?" And I walked out. I got back to school and I saw my high school coach who was six-foot-five fall onto his knees. He said "You messed up your future!"
Shanken: A full scholarship—
Lewis: A full scholarship to Florida State. [Laughs]
Shanken: So it says in your book that you then went through the next few months with no offers. You weren't going to college!
Lewis: I wasn't going to college. We started looking at alternate routes. Dennis Erickson and Art Kehoe [of the Miami Hurricanes] saw me playing my last high school game at Kathleen Stadium. They were recruiting a player by the name of Jammi German from Fort Meyers, who was the No. 1 player in the nation at the time. We played them in the last round of the playoffs. I had a game so freakin' ridiculous it was stupid. Stats wise, number wise. Four days before signing day, Dennis Erickson called. The guy that had that last scholarship blew out his knee and they said, "We have one more scholarship, and we're going to offer it to you."
Shanken: Do you know who that guy was?
Lewis: No.
Shanken: You should find out and send him a Christmas card, because it's quite possible that your response to Florida State could have cost you your career.
Lewis: Possibly. Could have.
Shanken: And now you're a freshman.
Lewis: Yeah, and not even in the media guide. We're playing Virginia Tech, second game of the year. [Starter] Robert Bass goes down. Instead of Randy Shannon screaming "James Burgess, get in," he says, "I want Ray Lewis."
An Interview With Ray Lewis
Shanken: You were shocked.
Lewis: I was shocked. I just went out and did what I did.
Shanken: So that game, how many tackles?
Lewis: I ended up with 14 tackles—I didn't play until the second half.
Shanken: Which is humongous.
Lewis: The Colorado game, the following week, on ABC, I had, what, 19 tackles, a sack, four pass breakups. The reporter asked me, "How good do you think you could be?" And I said, "Honestly, before I leave here, I may be the greatest Hurricane ever to walk up out of the University of Miami." I'll never forget the calls I got. But one of the calls was from Michael Irvin, and Mike called me and he said, "Damn it, that's what we need. We got your back."
Shanken: All right so, you decided to go in the NFL draft after your third season, and who did you want to play for?
Lewis: The Miami Dolphins. It was the perfect fit. They had the 20th pick, [former Hurricanes coach] Jimmy Johnson was the head coach at the time, and all of the ducks were in row. And they take this big kid, defensive tackle, out of Baylor, and I look at the TV and I'm saying, "Are you serious?" And so when I didn't go to the Dolphins, I'm like OK, so I'm going 27. Green Bay had that pick. I'm on the phone with Green Bay. And the 26th pick comes up and the phone rings. The voice says "Ray Lewis this is Ozzie Newsome [General Manager of the Baltimore Ravens]. We're about to draft you." And I'm like, "With who?" He was like, "With Baltimore." Baltimore? Baltimore don't have a team [laughs]. And then he starts breaking it down: they're the old Cleveland Browns, moving to Baltimore. No name, no face, no logo, no identity [laughs]. We were 4-12, we were 6-10...
Shanken: So when was the first positive year?
Lewis: '99.
Shanken: Let's talk about the 2000 season.
Lewis: It was the most dominant team defense I've ever been on in my life. We weren't talking about first downs, we was talking about one yard. One yard.
Shanken: And now if I'm not mistaken, your team allowed the least amount of yards—
Lewis: In the history of the game. [Baltimore allowed 970 rushing yards, the best ever in a 16-game season.]
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