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An Interview With Ray Lewis

Marvin R. Shanken interviews the controversial and intense Ray Lewis, who overcame all odds to become one of football’s greatest players
| By Marvin R. Shanken | From Ray Lewis, September/October 2016
An Interview With Ray Lewis
Photo/David Yellen

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.]

Shanken: And points—
Lewis: In the history of the game. [The Ravens gave up 165 points that year, better than any other team in a 16-game season.]

Shanken: And you won a big game at the end, what's that game called?
Lewis: Super Bowl.

Shanken: And who was the MVP?
Lewis: I was the MVP of that game.

Shanken: Now what was that like?
Lewis: I never shied away from telling people what I was coming into this business to do. And that was to be the greatest to ever put on a pair of cleats, regardless of position. That year, there was one person in the way of us getting to Tampa. His name was Eddie George. He was the most physical thing you've ever seen run a football.

Shanken: What happened to Eddie George?
Lewis: One play. It was a delayed screen. I watched that screen [on film] over 200 times, plus. McNair, rest in peace, McNair comes out in the game and I look to the left, I say, oh my gosh—this has got to be this play. I said, "I promise you I'm going to knock him out." I took off. By the time the ball touched Eddie's hands, soon as it touched him, I caught Eddie on what a linebacker calls the sweet spot. [Lewis points to the side of his head.] Everything that I had been through in life I gave to that hit. And I looked at the sideline, Tennessee's side, I said: "Come get him. Y'all ride over." Because he was that dude. The year before he had touched the ball 403 times, broken Earl Campbell's record.

Shanken: He was in your way.
Lewis: He was in my way. The only way Baltimore could be really recognized was that guy had to be slowed down.

Shanken: So you won the Super Bowl, and then life went on, and you had some good seasons, some bad seasons, and then the second Super Bowl.
Lewis: '12.

Shanken: Before the 2012 season starts, did you have it in your mind that you were going to retire at the end of the year?
Lewis: There were two people that knew; my oldest two kids.

Shanken: Nobody on the Ravens. And obviously your dream was to go out on top.
Lewis: Yeah.

Shanken: Did you think before the season began you had the team to go all the way?
Lewis: Yeah. Because 2011, we let one go with New England [in the] AFC championship. It was personal, because I wanted to go back to New England to win that ring. I knew it was going to have to go through New England. October 7, we're playing against the Cowboys, Romo gets ready to throw a pass, I go up to block it, and I pop my triceps from the bone.

An Interview With Ray Lewis
Lewis at the bar in New York’s Grand Havana Room.

Shanken: And the team doctor said, "You're done."
Lewis: She's crying. She said, "Nobody's ever come back from a triceps tear, Ray." Wednesday I had surgery. Ten days after I was riding my bike, but I couldn't grip it. And I sat on my bike and I said "Grip the freakin' handlebars and stop freakin' crying." And I gripped the handlebars. I had a team of nine different doctors that I went around, every day for ten weeks. I came back [after] 10 weeks. I was 80 to 85 [percent]. And I told my coach I need to speak to the team [before the playoffs]. It was all about life. It was all about respecting coaches. It was all about why I don't curse in front of coaches, why I respect being on time, and why I never miss practices. And in the last 30 seconds I said, "This is my last ride." That's when I announced my retirement, told them I was done.

Shanken: What happened in that Super Bowl?
Lewis: [Ravens Defensive Coordinator] Dean Pees said, "Your last ride, how you want to go out?" I said, "We're running cover zeros [man-to-man coverage], all the way—Every damn play." He said, "Why?" I said, "Because Kaepernick can't beat us throwing." Fourth down came and I sat there lined up and I went to every guy. I said, "Give me one play. Nobody got to be no hero. Just give me one play of everybody doing their job and I can live the rest of my life as a champion." And I saw that ball go over my head and I said, "Every damn pain I've ever felt." Muhammad Ali had one of the greatest quotes ever: "I hated every day of training but if it meant living my life as a champion, the rest of my life, I'd do it all over again." When that ball went over my head, man, I said, "You're a champion for the rest of your life." I don't believe we would have won the Super Bowl if I didn't get hurt.

Shanken: You played your whole career for one team. Any regrets?
Lewis: None.

Shanken: Any other team you would've wanted to play for?
Lewis: Not one. I would never put on another jersey. Never.

Shanken: The coaches all said it was your team.
Lewis: It was.

Shanken: You were the leader.
Lewis: That credit goes to Ozzie Newsome. Ozzie figured that out in '98, '99. He said, "How involved do you want to be with this team?" I said, "I want to know everything out there."

Shanken: All in.
Lewis: All in. [Head coach Brian] Billick simply said, "What do we need to win?" I said, "Give me ten points.... Give me seven early—game over." We went 52 straight games without seeing a 100-yard rusher—52 straight games. We went through the entire playoffs in 2000, we gave up one touchdown, Eddie George on the opening drive in Adelphia Coliseum. Denver didn't score. Tennessee scored once. We go to the black hole [the Oakland Raiders' home field] with Rich Gannon, Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, Tyrone Wheatley, and the No. 1 offense in the game. They didn't score, 13-3. We get to the Super Bowl. I said, "What defense has ever
allowed no touchdowns?" They said, "It's never been done." I said, "Until today. They won't score." [The Ravens beat the Giants 34-7, with New York's only points coming on a kickoff
return, a play not charged against the defense.]

Shanken: Are you still connected with the Ravens?
Lewis: I always will be.

Shanken: Something happened that I'm not even sure you want me to bring up. Do you want to talk about that?
Lewis: I told you, every moment in life is intentional. What I had to go through individually, as a person, not only prepared me for a journey that I couldn't predict, but it prepared me to go through one of the most controversial seasons of my life.

Shanken: OK, so we're at a point where we come to what was the most compelling part of your life, in terms of challenge. You went out with a bunch of guys, you're wearing a fur coat, you're hanging around with some bad dudes. Tell me about that night.
Lewis: Yeah. I tell my sons this all the time, I'm never concerned about you, I'm concerned about the people and the company you keep. Twenty-four years old and my heart is the reason why I was in trouble, and got in that trouble because I wasn't man enough to tell the wrong people, "You're not bad people, you're just not going where I'm going. So that means me and you really don't agree." Am I man enough to say that now? Absolutely. Was I man enough at 24? Absolutely not. So I leave this club and this chaos breaks out and my life changed in 30 seconds. Immediately.

Shanken: Ray Lewis was immature.
Lewis: Very immature.

Shanken: And Ray Lewis was all about Ray Lewis.
Lewis: Yeah. And you know what, to frame that a little better, I was about trying to make a lot of people happy. I was paying rent for people, I was paying kids' tuitions. But it wasn't the right people.

Shanken: So you go back to your hotel. Apparently you were in a limo with a bunch of people, some of them you didn't even know, and there are gunshots that actually hit the car. You got a flat tire and you went back to your hotel and on TV you see that two guys have been murdered. And according to published articles you told the guys you were with not to say a word. So then the police come. And they arrest you. And then, a day or two later, they charge you with murder.
Lewis: Double murder.

Shanken: Double murder. And you weren't there.
Lewis: Never in the fight.

Shanken: Now according to the detective, Ken Allen, who we spoke to, he said you never should have been charged with murder. "I don't think Ray Lewis murdered anybody," he said.
Lewis: They were able to get a judge to sign an indictment in less than 24 hours on a weekend. And the first guy walked up to me and said, "You will never be charged or indicted with this charge." I said, "You're charging me for what?" I was found guilty of obstruction of justice because I simply said to the cop, "I don't know everybody that was in the limo." That's what they charged me with. That's what I was guilty of. The prosecutors, [District Attorney] Paul Howard and [Assistant District Attorney] Clint Rucker, both of those guys I looked in the eye and I said, "You're going to have to see me one day again because you know you don't have enough on me." One of them looked at me dead smack in my face and said, "We know you didn't do it, but you're going to take the fall."

Shanken: Do you have any sense of what motivated this guy to come after Ray Lewis?
Lewis: Yeah. Cowards exist at every level. At every level.

Shanken: Now, in your book, you talk about, you're in jail for 10 days—
Lewis: Fifteen.

Shanken: OK. You don't go into it, but you say you were tortured. The detective said there's no way he was tortured, he's making it up, he was treated wonderfully. So, tell me how they tortured you?
Lewis: For like the first seven, eight days I never ate anything outside of orange halves.

Shanken: They weren't giving you any food?
Lewis: If you saw the moldy baloney and things that they were trying to . . . I was not an animal. And I was not going to succumb to that. So every day [my friend] would bring me a bunch of orange halves. He snuck them in for me.

An Interview With Ray Lewis
Lewis with Shanken in the offices of Cigar Aficionado magazine.

Shanken: Did they physically—
Lewis: They know everything that happened to me. I was a museum piece for them. I was this "thing" that brought attention to them.

Shanken: But how did they torture you?
Lewis: Let me say this, what happened to me, those 15 days, I will live for the rest of my life. And I'm OK now with that.

Shanken: So horrendous that you can't speak of it.
Lewis: I never will. Never.

Shanken: Did they say to you, if you want to get out of jail you must agree to guilt of a lesser crime?
Lewis: Of obstruction of justice.

Shanken: Otherwise you can't get out of jail?
Lewis: Yes.

Shanken: That's what I read between the lines.
Lewis: It was exactly what they did.

Shanken: So you had no choice—sign the lesser plea agreement or stay in jail?
Lewis: The judge brought us in the back room. What was never shared, and this is what's crazy to me, it's that they have facts. Facts! They had tape recordings of police officers interviewing my driver saying, "Don't you see Ray Lewis on that . . . Don't you see him in that fight? If you don't see him we're charging you with double murder." There are factual tapes of that! Let me tell you something, it's so much about Atlanta, about what those folks did, that was never told to the public. So when you talk about torture, to play with someone's life? I sat there in court and my lawyer says to me, "Man, I think we got a tape, we got a confession from this girl, we're going to get you clear out of this." I said, "Well tell the judge right now. What're we waiting on?" And then we get into court and we go into the chambers and they tell me, "Don't worry you can get out. This is the plea."

Shanken: And by you admitting to that, which you needed to get out, you could not come back and sue the city.
Lewis: I could not come back and sue the damn city. Remember this, the DA Paul Howard [and] Clint Rucker walked in, sitting there with my lawyers, clearly, I'm sitting right here and he says, "We have nothing on him." So why am I here? Because you went on national TV and said without a shadow of a doubt we can prove that Ray Lewis stabbed and killed two men. That man said that out of his own mouth and they never had one piece of evidence that I was ever in a fight and had testimonies of at least 12 people that clearly put me totally opposite of the altercation. People don't understand how cruel the world really is.

Shanken: You came from a poor family, your mother had you when she was 15, you had four brothers and sisters. No money. She had three jobs. You never got into drugs or other things, you were a God-fearing man, you practiced religion your whole life. And yet, in casual conversations, and you don't want to hear it, but it's true, and you know it's true, when I speak to people about Ray Lewis, who don't necessarily follow football, they say to me, "Oh that's the guy that killed two people in Atlanta."
Lewis: Absolutely.

Shanken: How do you feel about Paul Howard, the DA that tried to destroy your life?
Lewis: I forgave him. Because my duty as a child of God is to forgive and keep moving. I pray for them. When I saw what was happening and when I saw what happened, I gave up trying to be liked. And with those guys, their names are in my Bibles, that hopefully God blesses them.

Shanken: That is a very generous thought. Sometimes we wonder if God is so good and so powerful, why do so many bad things happen? Why are there wars? Why are there murders? Why is there disease and so on and so forth? So jumping to another place. You're black, African-American, the detective and the mayor of Atlanta were black and you're from Baltimore. I'm white. Look what happened in Baltimore with Freddie Gray. I can understand prejudice. I can understand what happened to Freddie Gray and the city, whether the police were guilty or innocent almost doesn't matter, but the thing that doesn't equate in Atlanta is that they were black and they were doing this to another black man. But how involved did you get in your city during this time of national crisis, with Freddie Gray?
Lewis: I'm on the ground now. I won't stop. There are things I have coming now that will help change what's going on in Baltimore. Last year we broke a 40-year-old record, since 1942 we had never had as many homicides in Baltimore. Right now we're at 127 and we're just in the month of June. Chicago....

An Interview With Ray Lewis
Lewis with his two Super Bowl rings, and the ring for being named MVP in Super Bowl XXXV.

Shanken: Chicago is off the map.
Lewis: ...It's even worse. Miami, it's even worse. There's a war that Jim Brown, Ali, that all those guys passed down to me. Why? Because I think everybody in the streets, everybody knows who I'm for, what I'm for and what I stand for. I love these conversations that we're having now, I hold these conversations at my house to enlighten people on life. Marv, I do more for people in broken neighborhoods than probably anybody you'll ever know. And you won't find one camera.

Shanken: It seems like mayors, governments, aren't doing enough, and in some cases it appears they're not even trying to help the kids in the street, Chicago in particular. To prevent them from killing each other. Why is that?
Lewis: Because they don't know what it feels like. They don't walk in the streets. You know what America has told us? Make it out and don't go back. That's what we've been told. Build the big houses, go away. Get far away from all that other stuff because there's too much going on. I'm the opposite. I'm not leaving. It'll never stop. It'll never stop for me because my fight is the same fight Jim Brown had.

Shanken: In virtually every city . . .
Lewis: Every city, it looks exactly the same. Lack of development. No produce. Drugs on every corner. Liquor stores on every corner. No hope.

Shanken: Broken families.
Lewis: Disturbed families.

Shanken: Families without fathers. You know it better than anybody.
Lewis: Anybody. And most don't make it out. Most don't make it out.

Shanken: And quite often the children are born to a young mother who can't see how to live a day, let alone take care of a child with no help.
Lewis: No help. And every community looks exactly the same. The day we took prayer out of schools, everything changed.

Shanken: What's your relationship with your father like now?
Lewis: My father now? He's the craziest man I've ever met in my life.

Shanken: Are you close?
Lewis: Yeah, I gave up everything . . .

Shanken: Did he ever explain to you why he left you?
Lewis: The first time I got in the car with him, we rode six hours from one part of North Carolina to another part of North Carolina and I never said a word. I got in the car, passenger side. He told me everything, why he wasn't there. Women, drugs, alcohol, all this stuff, career, all this. I never said a word. We pull up to a green house in a small little part of North Carolina. And we walk in the house and I walk in the door and I meet my grandfather. And I'm like, "Oh my gosh."

Shanken: This is your other grandfather?
Lewis: This is my daddy's father, who I had never met.

Shanken: And you're 33 at the time?
Lewis: 33. And we walk in the house and I just hear my father say to his dad, "Why did you leave me?" And I laid on the floor and I said, "This is way too much."

Shanken: So your father did to you—
Lewis: What his father did to him. We got back in the car, he said, "You got what you needed?" I said, "Better yet, I got what I wanted." Which was, I'll never leave my kids. Ever. Ever. And that day, I told him, I said, "The curse will be broken." Y'all wasn't there? That's cool. But there's not one birthday, one birth, one graduation, one dance recital, one football game—That was my commitment to my family. What my kids will never understand was I was determined to break these curses, of listening to these fathers make all these excuses of why I could not be there. I said, "Dad, as of this day, all I'm asking you to do, is don't ask me for nothing, just be my father. That's all I need from you. I don't need nothing from you. Nothing. My sisters, my family, I have made sure that we're OK, so all I need you to do is be a father." So that's the thing. Sometimes I go in and out with him, because me being 41-years-old, me having my own kids. But I always wanted to introduce my kids to the whole family. I wanted my kids to know their grandfather. 

Click here to view videos of the conversation between Lewis and Shanken.

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