OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The brown eyes sparkle when Ray Lewis talks about playing in a Super Bowl near his hometown of Lakeland, Fla., where he was a 180-pound safety in high school. His family still lives there, including so many cousins he can't possibly get them all tickets.
Lewis' cell phone rang constantly at his locker stall Thursday, even as it stood vacant.
When the subject turns to his double-murder charges, the trial, the two weeks in which he was identified by an orange jumpsuit, Lewis' eyes glaze over and his shoulders slump. The NFL's Defensive Player of the Year knows there will be no hiding from his past at the Super Bowl, where "The Ray Lewis Story' will be played over and over like a worn-out vinyl record stuck in the same groove.
Perhaps it would be different if the stabbing murders of Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker in suburban Atlanta during the early morning hours after Super Bowl XXXIV had been solved. Lewis struck a plea deal with prosecutors to testify against his co-defendants, but they were acquitted. He was convicted of obstruction of justice and fined a record $250,000 by commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
Just as trying has been the public's perception of Lewis as another star athlete led astray. The story may gain even more momentum after the jury in the Rae Carruth murder trial returned with a guilty verdict on three counts last week.
As the tempest brews around him, Lewis fights to keep his mind on football and away from an offseason he once referred to as "pure hell." "This is a free country ... sometimes," Lewis said, chuckling softly at the bite to his statement. "The press can ask whatever question they want to ask, and I answer the way I want to answer. If I tell you I don't want to talk about it, it's a done deal."
The Ravens have not tried to shield Lewis from the media, nor will the NFL when the team arrives in Tampa Monday night. Coach Brian Billick said the team will handle the situation the same way it has since training camp: "First off, always, a deep appreciation for the loss of life," Billick said. "Ray takes that seriously and this team takes that seriously and we'll never lose sight of that. Secondly, a deep loyalty and understanding of Ray Lewis, an appreciation for Ray Lewis, a faith in Ray Lewis that has been borne out. Some people will never understand that because they emotionally are not going to be able to detach themselves from the facts of what actually happened.
"... We understand it's a topic that you all will talk about, but I don't believe you'll find any of our players willing to engage in that discussion. That's not being naive, that's not stonewalling, it's simply an issue that we have moved on from."
Teammate Rod Woodson, the veteran safety said, "Lewis hasn't withered under any circumstances."
Lewis admitted that his saga reads "like one of those books you get so interested in you can't put down." Billick said sometimes it's easy to forget Lewis is only 25. The Ravens linebacker already is being talked about in the company of Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, Ray Nitschke and Jack Lambert.
It will take some doing for Lewis to surpass his seven tackles and a recovered fumble in the Ravens' 16-3 victory over the Oakland Raiders in the AFC Championship Game, a feat that prompted Raiders Coach Jon Gruden to refer to the NFL's premier linebacker as "Lennox Lewis." The weary look on Lewis' face -- "I'm an old man now," he joked -- is a cover. He has been the Ravens' steam engine since Baltimore picked him 26th overall in the 1996 draft.
Lewis lets down his guard now only in the company of people who believed in him. "I'm feeling the best right now I've probably ever felt, at 25. I'm like I'm 19," Lewis said. "This feels good. There's nothing like it right now, on this ride, doing the things we're doing, just to be here when nobody else probably thought we were going to be here.
"It's like saying, yeah, you can pat yourself on the back."
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