RAVENS LINEBACKER Ray Lewis can't forget the ultimate snubs. After turning in one of the best seasons ever by a defensive player, including a sensational Super Bowl performance in early 2001, the national acclaim went to his teammates.
Quarterback Trent Dilfer went to Disney, and Jonathan Ogden, Michael McCrary, Rod Woodson, Shannon Sharpe and even Qadry Ismail went on the Wheaties box.
Anyone but Ray Lewis.
But when the NFL draft begins tomorrow, Ray Lewis is going to be all over the TV screens in commercials for Reebok and EA Sports.
What happened? Has time allowed for corporate forgiveness? How did Lewis reshape his image?
Nearly three years after Lewis pleaded guilty to misdemeanor obstruction-of-justice charges in a double-murder trial in Atlanta, the corporate world is finding out that Lewis' personality is as engaging on the field as off it.
"Ray cut some baggage and Ira [new marketing director Ira Rainess] has him moving in other directions," said Sandy Sanoval, who is the director of athlete relations for EA Sports, a manufacturer of video games. "Companies are finding out that Ray has great screen presence and an awesome personality."
What happened is that the Ravens kept Lewis, who turns 28 on May 15, as the centerpiece of their marketing campaign. Then Lewis hired Rainess, 36, a force behind a lot of Cal Ripken's marketing success until Ripken retired in 2001. And thirdly, everyone loves a winner, one with charisma and a smile.
Corporate executives are getting a chance to meet Lewis up close and personal, and they like what they see.
"We first featured Ray in the Madden [video] game about two years ago," Sanoval said. "We had about 11 or more players. We basically wanted guys to talk a little trash, and promote the game. But one personality stood out more than the others, and it was Ray. We had him in for more interviews, and he was awesome. Once the other guys in our company met him, they were overwhelmed by his personality.
"When you first meet Ray, you see this well-built, intimidating guy," Sanoval said. "But once you spend a little time with him, he is not the same guy he is on the field. He is a quiet young man who comes across extremely well on camera. Reebok called us and asked us about Ray, and we told them we had a great marriage. He has always treated our company well. Here is a guy, whom if he had not been in that position [on trial in 2000], would have made zillions of dollars off the field. There are still opportunities there to do so."
The EA commercials reportedly will have Lewis hassling rookies such as Southern California quarterback Carson Palmer and Arizona State defensive end Terrell Suggs about their proper place in the NFL. In the Reebok ads, Lewis is working out, promoting new athletic gear.
"When people didn't want to touch me, it's because they didn't know me," Lewis said. "They didn't know that I was different from what they read in the paper or saw on TV. They automatically assumed I was this intimidator, not a guy who likes practical jokes, or was the class clown or has ambitions of acting. My goals and beliefs have never changed."
Neither did the Ravens' opinion of Lewis. After the trial ended, the Ravens could have easily discarded Lewis in promotions for other team stars such as Ogden, McCrary, outside linebacker Peter Boulware or then-tight end Sharpe.
Instead, Lewis kept appearing in the team's newspaper ads and on applications for season tickets. Lewis' mug was sprawled even more on billboards in Baltimore.
If the nation wasn't ready to forgive and forget, the city and the Ravens were.
"If you watched the trial steadily, you could see the charade of the Atlanta Police Department," said Kevin Byrne, the Ravens' vice president of public relations. "Every time Ray Lewis has stepped onto the field or into our building, he has raised expectations because of his electrifying personality. We felt if we continued to put him out there, his personality would carry him.
"He is still going to carry that shadow with him, but it's different now," Byrne said. "No longer are we going to see Ray Lewis, accused of what happened in Atlanta, but Ray Lewis, maybe the greatest player in the league."
Even before Atlanta, Lewis worked for national endorsements, but he never hired the right people. Then he met Rainess. According to those close to Ripken, Rainess was looking to become a player agent and wanted more national exposure for his clients.
Ripken wanted more of a local presence because of the opening of his stadium in Aberdeen. Ripken was to sell more "grass roots" baseball. Their relationship ended amicably.
But as one great player left, another entered. Rainess had the connections, and Lewis had the personality.
"I didn't have to sell him; it wasn't like that," Rainess said. "When we first talked, it was about his goals and objectives, and then my goals and objectives and where we wanted to go. We felt that we could accomplish some of his goals, especially in charity work in Baltimore.