A golden child, destined for fame

Character: Family and friends who watched Ray Lewis grow up say the Ravens star plays hard and parties hard but is at heart a peaceful and grounded man.

February 06, 2000|By Todd Richissin and Kurt Streeter | Todd Richissin and Kurt Streeter,SUN STAFF

LAKELAND, Fla. -- On a hot summer day in 1990, coach Ernest Joe strode across the practice field at Kathleen High School here and spotted a flash that nearly took his breath away: A sinewy young man darting between blockers like a hungry lion.

It was Ray Lewis.

"All I remember from that moment was how he moved," Joe says. "Ray could run better and run faster than anybody I had ever seen. Nothing could stop him."

From the perspective of residents of this small central Florida town, from accounts at the University of Miami, where Lewis lived up to his promise to play like no other middle linebacker its team had ever seen, and according to those who know him from Baltimore, where he became as popular with Ravens fans as he became feared by opponents, nothing had been able to stop Ray Anthony Lewis, ever.

Then came Super Bowl Sunday.

Then came some sort of altercation.

Then came the stabbing deaths of two young men on an Atlanta street -- and knives found in Lewis' limousine.

And with that, Ray Anthony Lewis has been stopped, at least temporarily, locked in an Atlanta jail, he and his attorney professing his innocence, his family and friends swearing the allegations could never be true.

More than any other athlete from the dusty northern edge of Lakeland, Lewis was destined for greatness, says his former high school coach. Nothing -- not being fatherless, not school and certainly not his athletic opponents -- was ever going to get in his way.

"Now this," sighs Joe, as he strolls across the football field. "This community feels like it's been hit in the gut."

The Ravens' No. 52 is a favorite son in Lakeland. In the predominantly black part of town, an area populated by "country folk and their children," as Joe puts its, Lewis is seen as a brother and a son, a student and an athlete, a religious man and a dance-till-you-drop guy who loves good times.

In Lakeland's white community, he is less well known but nonetheless revered.

"He crossed all the barriers of this place," observes Lewis' high school wrestling coach, Steve Poole. "Ray isn't seen as black or white or anything to us. He's just Ray -- great athlete, great guy."

You can scour Lakeland -- an orange-growing, phosphate-mining town of about 75,000 residents some 45 minutes east of Tampa -- and hardly hear a bad word about Lewis.

Walks to football practice

"Even when he was a child, he had something absolutely special about him," says Gillis McKinney, Lewis' 57-year-old step-grandfather, who helped raise the Ravens star from the time he was 10.

McKinney, like so many others here, says he has never seen a young boy so determined, so energetic. McKinney remembers Lewis walking to football practice three miles away when he was 11 and 12, his uniform, pads and helmet on.

"Didn't matter to Ray. If there was a day we couldn't drive him to practice, he was going to walk," McKinney says. "Even back then, Ray was so self-motivated nothing could keep him from his goals. He was so loyal to his team, he wouldn't even think of skipping a practice."

There never seemed a moment when Lewis would rest, recalls McKinney, who along with his wife, Elease, raised Lewis and two of his cousins. "He was a whirlwind," he says. Always at practice, at a game or a wrestling match, then home, where Lewis was forced to study and wasn't allowed to go out too late.

He was always dressing up for something: the Friday night football games at the high school's 2,000-seat Johnny Johnson stadium; the ROTC days at school, when Lewis would don a crisp black and navy blue uniform and march off for drills; the Sundays, when he would put on a suit and tie and spend his mornings at Greater Faith Missionary Baptist Church in the nearby town of Mulberry.

Raised by grandparents

Lewis spent about the first 10 years of his life in nearby Mulberry, living with his mother, Sunseria Keith, now 39. Even then, says McKinney, he spent countless days with his grandparents. So it just made sense for them to take over the task of raising him.

"It's not like his mom was out of the picture or anything," says McKinney, sitting on a black felt couch in his living room. "She always worked and she and Ray were close. We just kind of ended up having him move in with us. We loved every minute of it."

The neighborhood where Lewis spent his formative years is generally a peaceful, quiet place. Most of the homes are small, bungalow-style dwellings with neat yards and porches filled with people and chatter.

Lewis grew up around "lots of older folks," says McKinney. "Some retired, everyone nice," he says. They were teachers and miners and police officers. Most everyone worked.

"We're not wealthy, not poor," says McKinney, walking by the oak tree that looms in the front yard of his yellow two-story house. "We're workers. That's where Ray Lewis came from."

Popping and locking

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