NEW ORLEANS -- Not long after Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger got into trouble in Milledgeville, Ga., in March 2010, he reached out to Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. Roethlisberger was facing a sexual assault allegation from an incident in the bathroom of a college bar. His reputation was damaged almost beyond recognition. Who better to call than Lewis? Who knows more about rehabilitating an image?
In January 2000, Lewis was involved in a double-homicide in Atlanta after a party at Super Bowl XXXIV. He was charged with murder and aggravated-assault but later was allowed to plead to a misdemeanor obstruction of justice charge in exchange for testifying against two other men in the case. Neither Reginald Oakley nor Joseph Sweeting was convicted. Lewis was sentenced to 12 months of probation. He later reached financial settlements with the families of the victims -- Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar -- pre-empting civil litigation. The murders of Baker and Lollar remain unsolved.
Today, Lewis is the face of the NFL, certainly the face of Super Bowl XLVII. His Ravens will play the San Francisco 49ers Sunday night. Lewis, who will retire after the game after 17 spectacular seasons, is everywhere. You can't turn on ESPN without seeing him. He does national television advertisements. He preaches his faith nonstop on every media outlet, to the point that he was spoofed this past weekend on NBC's "Saturday Night Live."
"If we win the Super Bowl, I'm going to go to the 50-yard line of the Superdome, kneel down and then I'm going to ascend into heaven!" gushed Kenan Thompson, the terrific actor who portrayed Lewis.
"I was in tears," Lewis said Tuesday of the skit. "I thought it was hilarious."
It's pretty wonderful being Ray Lewis these days.
Has there ever been a more amazing transformation in sports?
"I wake up every day as me," Lewis said when asked how he pulled it off.
Lewis has become so big, so powerful, so bulletproof that he was able to brush off questions at Super Bowl XLVII media day about his alleged use of a substance that is banned by the NFL after he tore his right triceps in a game in October. Sports Illustrated reported in its edition that comes out Monday that Lewis used deer-antler spray to hasten the healing process. He dismissed the allegation as a flawed, baseless "2-year-old story" and said he wouldn't address such "stupidity." He said he never has used the substance. "Every test I've ever took in the NFL, there's never been a question that I've ever even thought about using anything."
It was not a topic that Lewis wanted to discuss further, leaving each of us to determine his legacy. One of the NFL's all-time greats or just another cheater? I'm leaning toward cheat. Lewis said Tuesday that doctors told him no player has recovered so fast from his triceps injury. "I told [them] no one has ever been Ray Lewis before," he said.
Lewis also made it clear he didn't want to talk about his involvement in the double-murder case, which trumps his fabulous play in the minds of a lot of people. They always will believe he got away with murder. I'm thinking Anna Burns Welker -- wife of New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker -- spoke for a lot of Lewis detractors last week when she posted on Facebook after the Ravens beat the Patriots in the AFC championship game: "If anyone is bored, please go to Ray Lewis' Wikipedia page. 6 kids 4 wives. Acquitted for murder. Paid a family off. Yay! What a hall of fame player. A true role model!"
Ms. Welker quickly pulled the post and apologized.
"I truly forgive her," Lewis said, referring again to his faith.
Lewis was belligerent when asked about the murders at Super Bowl XXXV media day in January 2001, the most recent time the Ravens played in the big game. They won that day, beating the New York Giants, with Lewis the game's Most Valuable Player. At least this time, he provided a semi-thoughtful answer when asked what he would tell the family members of Baker and Lollar, who have said they have a hard time seeing him at this Super Bowl with the light shining so brightly on him.
"Honestly, this is not the appropriate time for that," Lewis said. "The sympathy I have for that family, what me and my family have endured because of all of that ... nobody here is really qualified to ask those questions. I just truly feel this is God's time. ... I live with that every day. You can take a break from it. I don't. I live with it every day of my life. ... I'd rather not speak about that today."
Soon, Lewis was back to preaching from his pulpit.
There was this gem:
"My only purpose in life is to help people and encourage people and make our world a better place."
"You always want your legacy to be that you leave a great name. Hopefully, I did that."
And, finally, this:
"This time isn't about me. This time is about my teammates and getting them to win this game."
We know better, right? This time is all about Lewis. Blame us in the media for keeping the spotlight on him. We can't seem to get enough of him. But give Lewis credit, too. He knows about selling his brand. He's a master at it.
It's no wonder Roethlisberger called Lewis.
"I told Ben, 'It ain't what you go through that actually defines who you are. It's your mindset while you're going through it. Don't ever let people beat you down so much to where you give up on yourself. ... Whatever you went through, bro, don't let it define where you go next. Let your next steps be determined [by you] on what you want to do in life. ... Sometimes, the only way to overcome is to keep going, keep going no matter what.'
"That's always been a great motto of mine."
Roethlisberger has followed the advice. He has done a nice job rebuilding his image. But he still has much work to do to reach Lewis' level. Good luck with that.
Sports figures -- even icons -- fall frequently. Just recently, there was Lance Armstrong. Before him, there was Joe Paterno. On a much lesser scale, there was Manti Te'o.
But no sports figure has ascended like Lewis. Not to heaven just yet, like they suggested on the "SNL" spoof. But to astonishing heights for a guy linked to a double-homicide.
There might never be another sports figure like him.
It's up to each of us to decide if that's a good thing or bad.
Ron Cook: email@example.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published January 30, 2013 5:00 AM