Ray Lewis' farewell tour makes its last stop. But will it end in salvation or downfall, asks Romilly Evans...
Ray Lewis has spent most of his life on defense. It's a life's work which has seen the legendary linebacker collect 13 Pro Bowl invitations, two defensive player of the year honours and one Super Bowl MVP title. His place in the Hall of Fame is assured. However, judging by the criticism swarming around him ahead of this weekend's Super Bowl, his induction into the Hall of Infamy won't be far behind.
Not that you would've guessed it throughout the course of the season to date. Lewis was sidelined for much of the campaign after sustaining a triceps tear in October against the Dallas Cowboys. While his recovery was swift, the 37-year-old knew his time was nigh. And on his return in early January for the Wildcard Round of the postseason, Lewis announced that this would be his final play-off push.
Since then, every game has potentially been Lewis' last. And he has played accordingly, making a staggering 44 tackles already in the play-offs, which puts him on the threshold of becoming the leading postseason tackler this century.
He is also part of a Baltimore Ravens outfit who have become the only side to have prevailed twice on the road against Tom Brady and his New England Patriots, the most successful team in recent play-off history. And if that wasn't enough, Lewis even stopped the other great quarterback of the modern era, Peyton Manning, the week before in Denver.
In short, milestones have careered effortlessly by for this braveheart, whose warrior status first galvanised the Ravens to Super Bowl success in 2001. Back then, however, Lewis was at the helm of perhaps the greatest defense in the annals of the NFL.
By comparison, this year's Ravens D is erratic, banged-up in the secondary and running on empty after three games that have tested their physicality and endurance to the limit. Every week, it appears their collective needle is in the red. Every week, they find just enough fuel in the reserve tank.
Lewis is proving the fire of this unlikely combustion. His one-man, pre-game war dance rivals the Haka for passion, while his motivational team-talks surpass the most evangelical preachers. Many don't care for such god-talk, finding it conspicuous and self-serving in the limited scope of football. After all, Lewis only need take a minute out of his day to read the evening headlines and discover all the things that his god is failing to accomplish in the lives of others. But hey, maybe God's just a Ravens fan.
Still, seeing as many NFL locker rooms hang together along questionable Christian dogmas, it would be churlish to chastise the Ravens and single Lewis out. Perhaps that's why another movement of recrimination has gathered pace in Super Bowl week where every aspect is picked over and scrutinised.
It's a sentiment which was voiced last week by Wes Welker's wife, Anna, who opened a Pandora's box of ills on Lewis after her husband's Patriots had lost the AFC Championship: "six kids by four wives, acquitted for murder, paid a family off, what a role model!"
Simple sour grapes, one might opine. Like Mrs Welker, though, having praised Lewis every step of the way to New Orleans, certain factions of the media have turned on Lewis by parading the murder charges levelled against him in January 2000. Lewis and two friends were embroiled in a double-homicide investigation, after which Lewis was acquitted but pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of obstruction of justice for giving the police a misleading statement.
At the very least, Lewis clearly exhibited poor judgment. But he has paid for it in a settlement, heavy fines and a ban. He is certainly a long way from the OJ Simpson figure to which many are comparing him. However, scrutiny season has only just begun in the circus of Super Bowl fortnight. So this is a week where Lewis will again be forced to defend himself on and off the pitch, if he is to emerge with dignity and credit as his life is re-examined. At least he's got well-practised.
If it's impossible to divorce the personal from the professional on Super Bowl Sunday, it's worth remembering that Lewis has contributed on numerous fronts in a 17-year career. He has established his own non-profit foundation, providing personal and economic assistance to disadvantaged youth, in a heartfelt response to the abandonment issues of his own troubled childhood and absent father.
On the football field, he has also acted as a mentor and inspiration to younger teammates who have responded to his leadership and selfless legacy that the Ravens are a common project where their combined sum "will be greater if they have dedicated parts." Lewis knows there is a place for individual brilliance but not for selfishness.
He has also talked of "channelling the spirit." This weekend he may have to channel the anger instead and maintain his discipline. Lewis may not be the retiring type, but this is his definitive swansong and composure is crucial.
Sure, his is no Cinderfella story. It's a complicated and layered tale of gritty realities, breaking free of cultural chains and embracing immaculate footballing instincts. But even if chapters five, eight and ten were ripped out in rage, we still might enjoy a happy ending.