NEW ORLEANS – At 12:18 p.m. Tuesday, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis sat at a raised table and wrapped a towel around his neck, and from there, the Super Bowl media day circus was on.
Lewis will be one of the faces of Super Bowl week, for reasons he embraces and others he’d like to forget. He’s a certain future Hall of Famer and a man whose words often veer toward faith and family. But there also are questions about whether he used performance-enhancing drugs and his involvement in the death of two young men outside an Atlanta nightclub in 2000.
“I think when you talk about a legend,” said Lewis, who will retire after the championship game, “when you talk about leaving a legacy, I think it is all about what your peers speak about you.”
The crowd around Lewis, about 200 members of the media and fans – some of the latter in costume – was the biggest Super Bowl media day pack, so large that a small grandstand was installed. Some used ladders for a clear look, and others forced their way toward the front to ask questions.
At 12:22, the first question came regarding “deer antler spray,” which Sports Illustrated reported earlier Tuesday, Lewis sought from an Alabama supplement company during his recovery from a torn triceps earlier this season. The spray includes small amounts of a substance, insulin-like growth factor, banned by the NFL and other pro leagues, the magazine reported in an online story. Lewis spoke with the owner of the company and received instructions on how to take the substance, Sports Illustrated reported.
When asked about it Tuesday, Lewis shrugged off the question, saying he wouldn’t give the report or its source any press by acknowledging it.
“To even entertain stupidity like that,” he said, “tell them to go get their story off somebody else.” As he repeatedly was asked about the matter, though, Lewis’s patience seemed to erode; he eventually flatly denied taking the product.
“Nah,” he said when asked again later. “Never.”
A dozen years ago, former teammate Shannon Sharpe came to Lewis’ defense when the linebacker repeatedly was asked about the January 2000 deaths of Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker in a brawl outside an Atlanta nightclub. Lewis pleaded guilty to misdemeanor obstruction of justice in connection with the slayings and murder charges against him were dropped. Two of Lewis’ acquaintances at the time later were acquitted.
This time the topic came up, not for the last time, at 12:24 and Lewis was on his own. He told reporters that they weren’t qualified to ask about the incident and that it was inappropriate to discuss it during Super Bowl week.
“I live with that every day,” Lewis said when asked whether he thinks about the families of Lollar and Baker, and then he asked that the subject be changed.
Two minutes after the subject of murder was raised, a man in a wig, oversized sunglasses and a Viking costume asked Lewis about the ways of the samurai warrior. At 12:48 p.m., someone asked the linebacker whether he was familiar with “catfishing,” the term for creating a false identity through social media, usually to pursue a romance. Lewis said he was – and believed that “I may have been catfished once or twice.”
He added that he thought it was “hilarious” that famous people could be duped so easily, referring vaguely to the hoax involving Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, whose online relationship with a leukemia-stricken woman turned out to be a con.
Lewis mentioned his faith many times throughout the roughly one-hour session, and said he turned to God often during his darkest days. He also mentored other NFL players, including Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whose own off-the-field issues have stained an otherwise outstanding career.
Lewis said he spoke to Roethlisberger about looking toward the future, rather than dwelling on the past.
“It ain’t what you go through that actually defines who you are,” he said. “It’s your mind-set while you’re going through it. Don’t let people beat you down so much that you give up on yourself. ... Like I told him: ‘Whatever you went through, bro, don’t let it define where you go next. Let your next steps be determined off what you want to do in life.’ To myself, it’s kind of the same.”
By 1 p.m., the crowd had thinned, but the urgency was no weaker. Reporters and others shouted questions at Lewis. Among them was a man dressed in a superhero costume (who asked about opposing players breaking into Lewis’ locker), another in a referee outfit (who asked about Lewis’ first sack, against Jim Harbaugh, now the San Francisco 49ers’ coach) and a man in a 49ers hat who posed the “most important question of the day,” which was to ask for Lewis’ hat. Lewis declined.
At 1:14 p.m., with the Ravens’ media-day obligations counting down on a giant clock behind Lewis, someone asked how he handles all this, then and now, difficulty and ease, glory and villainy.
“I wake up ‘me,’ “ he said, “every day.”