Man of the house Ray Lewis: The Ravens' linebacker strives to take care of his family off the field and of business on the field, having tackled life's hardships and now NFL stardom at the age of 23.

July 19, 1998|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

A moment of triumph washes over the smiling face of Ray Lewis, as the NFL's most promising middle linebacker grabs the remote control and starts the videotape documenting his arrival on the steps of stardom.

A menacing rap soundtrack provides the perfect backdrop to the highlight reel from 1997, a season that sent Lewis to his first Pro Bowl at the age of 22.

There's Lewis fighting off two Tennessee Oilers blockers before dropping running back Eddie George for a short gain. There's Lewis picking off a pass to preserve a victory over the Washington Redskins. There's Lewis doing things middle linebackers have no business doing in this league.

Like the play where he spots speedy San Diego Chargers wide receiver Eric Metcalf a good 10 yards before dragging him down after a relentless, touchdown-saving dash. Next up is the Pittsburgh Steelers' Jerome "The Bus" Bettis, whose rumbling 243 pounds promptly go down in a heap after Lewis meets him, one-on-one, along the line of scrimmage.

The screen on his 60-inch television goes blank. Lewis talks of goals reached and of achievements yet to be savored. All around him, the walls of the recreation room in his contemporary Pikesville home provide the complementary snapshots of a sky-is-the-limit career. Some two dozen pictures of Lewis hang, going back to his collegiate days as a Miami Hurricane and including various action shots culled from his two seasons with the Ravens.

Lewis gestures toward his framed AFC Pro Bowl jersey over the fireplace. He vows to return to Hawaii this season for the NFL's all-star game -- this time as a starter, not an alternate.

"That is a hands-down guarantee, unless I get hurt. I know what I'm going to do. It's as simple as that," Lewis says. "I don't just want another Pro Bowl. I want to be Defensive Player of the Year this year. Or how about Player of the Year? My concern is about being the best middle linebacker. When Ray Lewis is done playing, I want people to say that guy was the best."

Lewis doesn't predict as much as he proclaims. And who can question his bullish talk, considering where he has come from and the hurdles he already has cleared at the age of 23?

Take a look at his life. The oldest of five children, Lewis spent the bulk of his youth assuming the father-figure role in a single-parent household in Lakeland, Fla.

While his mother, Sunseria Keith, was busy working two, sometimes three jobs -- toil that eventually lifted the family out of the Washington Park projects and into its own single-family home on its own piece of land -- Lewis guarded the house and the younger brother and three sisters in it. He made sure they were dressed for school in the morning. He organized dinner in the afternoon. He checked their homework and got them to bed at night.

When he walked into the University of Miami, Lewis weighed barely 200 pounds and was labeled too small to play inside linebacker, a claim that would follow him down the road.

Yet it was Lewis who replaced an injured Robert Bass as a freshman by collecting 17 tackles in his first game. Lewis, 17 at the time, owned the position the next three seasons. He walked away from Miami a consensus All-American, having led the Hurricanes in tackles for 22 straight games.

At 20, a week before the Ravens would draft him in the first round as the 26th overall pick, Lewis lost his closest friend and teammate. Marlin Barnes was bludgeoned to death along with )) his girlfriend after an assailant, furious over a breakup with the woman, broke into his apartment. At Barnes' funeral, Lewis circled the church repeatedly, but could not bring himself to enter.

Then there was the 1997 training camp incident. A year after the outstanding rookie season in which he recorded a team-high 142 tackles and won Defensive Player of the Week honors in his first pro game, Lewis crumpled to the ground after a freakish collision. Two hours later, he was lying in a hospital with a bruised spinal cord.

Lewis overcame yet again. He never missed a game, finishing with a league-high 210 tackles.

"Ray is very tough and very, very smart. If you can get nine guys on the field like Ray Lewis, you're going to be pretty good," said University of Miami linebackers coach Randy Shannon, who stays in touch with Lewis. "We were like big brother-little brother [at Miami], but Ray was made a man early."

Mother knows best

Bennie Thompson, the Ravens' backup safety and Lewis' closest friend on the team, remembers the first, brash impression of Lewis. The Ravens had cut veteran Pepper Johnson, clearing the way for Lewis to start as a 230-pound rookie. Lewis arrived at his first training camp, brimming with attitude and charisma, announcing that the job belonged to him.

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