We know the pro athlete's stats, but not his heart

This Just In...

February 02, 2000|By DAN RODRICKS

THE LAST TIME Ray Lewis was in Atlanta, he wore his Ravens uniform, not detention center scrubs. He was there with his teammates to play the Falcons. I know because I watched on television. It was a warm October Sunday here in Baltimore. I put the portable television in the garage, fooled with the rabbit ears and angled the screen away from the sun's glaring reflection. I set some bratwurst on the grill in the driveway. Throughout the fall, my 9-year-old son shared this experience each Sunday. We did some nice male bonding with the Ravens on television in the garage.

It wasn't club-level seating, but it was still pretty nice.

They didn't make the playoffs, but the '99 Ravens were a lot more entertaining than the '99 Orioles.

And Ray Lewis was often the best part of the show.

A superb athlete, a physical genius, smaller than most linebackers in the National Football League, Lewis is capable of things that take your breath away -- even if the only sports you appreciate are gymnastics and figure skating.

He did something in that Atlanta game that made us gasp in the garage.

It happened in the second quarter. A bulked-up running back for the Falcons caught a pass in the middle of the field.

Because this runner appeared in a wide camera shot on the TV screen, and because there was no other player in the picture, he seemed alone, with acres of running room around him. But, a split-second later, Ray Lewis appeared from the left side of the screen. Suddenly, this Falcons runner seemed to be standing still.

In the next instant, Lewis gained several yards on him, grabbed the running back's shoulder pads at the collar, stopped him and, with one hand, pulled him straight down to the Georgia Dome turf. Lewis seemed to be using the guy to put an exclamation point at the end of a sentence.

Never did Lewis' speed and strength appear more stunning.

I went back yesterday and looked it up: Lewis had 12 tackles in the Atlanta game, more than anyone else. Twelve tackles in one game by one man is impressive. It indicates not only speed and strength, but football smarts and a tenacity that sports fans appreciate.

Some sports fans.

Not all sports fans.

And certainly not people who think there are more important things in life anyway.

A lot of people will see what I just described as physical violence, organized and glamorized. These people will today be expressing little surprise that a man who engages in such a sport could now be accused of a horrific crime in Atlanta.

I've danced around that criticism of college and professional football for years -- that it's violent sport thriving in America's violent culture, right along with our bullet-riddled movies, big-body-count television dramas, dark video games, and our if-it-bleeds-it-leads television news shows.

It has become harder in recent years to argue against that view and dismiss it as a stretch. It became harder yesterday.

It makes me wonder whether my son and I wouldn't be better off on a trail, hiking and biking through the woods on a Sunday afternoon, instead of rooting for the Ravens in the garage. Maybe the spectacle of grown men smashing each other on a football field is no better than those stupid, violent television shows I keep him from watching.

But I'm going to have to think on that one.

I like football and won't apologize for it. I watched it with my father and brothers. I watch it now with my son. I like it in stadiums or on TV. Millions of people do. And they manage to watch and enjoy this sport, year after year, without becoming violent themselves.

But too many players have problems with off-the-field violence and other destructive behaviors. And the NFL and the NCAA have both gone too long without addressing it in a serious way.

I'm not a sportswriter. I've never interviewed Ray Lewis. He's one of my son's favorite players -- along with Jermaine Lewis, Michael McCrary and Tony Siragusa -- and signed an autograph for him at Ravens training camp. I saw him again ringside at the World Wrestling Federation's "Raw Is War" at the Baltimore Arena. He was seated next to a teammate I had interviewed, offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, a giant man with a pleasant nature. I've met and spoken with other Ravens players; they all seemed like good guys, nice to kids, patient with autograph seekers.

But that's all I'd venture on any of them. I don't really know any of them well enough to say what kind of men they are.

Do you?

We could watch every second of every game they play and never really know them. We could speak of them as athletes, but not as men.

Let's face it: Professional athletes are very familiar strangers.

We know the ones we cheer by their numbers, by their statistics, by what we see in video highlights. We know them as block letters on uniforms. We know them as posters.

What we only rarely know is the journey a football player has had in life, the people who've influenced him, the content of his character. We never know these great athletes by the private lives they lead, or the friends they keep. If we admire them, it's just a physical thing.

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