Pulling down college degree is R. Lewis' proudest tackle

May 09, 2004|By MIKE PRESTON

RAVENS inside linebacker Ray Lewis has won the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player and been honored as the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year, but his greatest achievement may come Saturday when he walks across a stage on the University of Maryland campus.

Nearly eight years after he left the University of Miami as a junior to enter the NFL draft, and on the day of his 29th birthday, Lewis will earn a bachelor of arts degree from Maryland in business administration.

Talk about euphoria. To Lewis, this is better than taking out Eddie George and Steve McNair in a playoff game, or earning a sixth consecutive Pro Bowl appearance. Lewis will have a cheering section of 45 close friends and family members at graduation.

"This is better than those awards. This is an idea you start with as a child, and no one can take it from you," Lewis said. "You really don't know if you can be a Most Valuable Player, but this is something you can achieve if you make up your mind, and think about going as high as you can."

Lewis, a business law major at Miami, had promised his mother, Sunseria, that he would return to get the final 24 credits needed to graduate shortly before he announced he was going pro. He took classes online and on campus during the offseasons.

We've all heard numerous stories about athletes who said they were going to return to graduate, only to obtain fame and fortune, and throw out the idea as quickly as Major League Baseball ditched putting the Spider-Man 2 movie logo on the bases.

It's a sad commentary, especially when the stardom subsides and the athletes have nothing to rely on. But Lewis is impressive. He earned his degree while in the prime of his career. He is unquestionably the best defensive player in the league, and has tons of money and notoriety.

And now he will have a college degree.

For Lewis, there was never any doubt about going back. He is the first of one brother and three sisters to earn a college degree.

"Back at Miami, I had like a 3.2 grade point average until I started leaving and began preparing for football," said Lewis. "It was always important to me, and I told my mom I was going to go back and get it.

"Actually, she just found out about the graduation when she saw the bill for my cap and gown," Lewis said. "This is special for her and me."

The degree is part of what Lewis describes as preparing for the afterlife of pro football. He was the second player ever drafted by the Ravens, the 26th overall pick in 1996.

He knows he can't play forever. Actually to play as long as he has, with his kamikaze style, is another major accomplishment. A career-ending knee or shoulder injury is still only one play away.

But nearly a year ago, Lewis established a mortgage company. There are plans to open a chain of 12 Ray's Full Moon Barbecue restaurants, and then seven 24-hour fitness centers along the East Coast within the next 16 months.

Lewis says he isn't just putting his name on the restaurants, but will actively run them along with several partners.

"No, no, it's my chain, my hand will be in it, I'm running these restaurants, too," said Lewis, when asked if he was just lending out his name. "When I got into this league, I didn't envision myself playing 15 or 16 years. There is so much more to life. I've had my ups and downs, but God is showing up and showing out in my life. This is an exciting time in my life."

Lewis has been involved in countless charity events. Over the weekend, he held his third annual auction and celebrity bowling event, drawing such names as Tracy McGrady, Rod Woodson, Evander Holyfield, Deion Sanders and Ed Reed. The event, along with an auction that was held that featured signed memorabilia from sports celebrities, is expected to raise several hundred thousand dollars.

Lewis is already drawing up plans to rebuild a park in his hometown of Lakeland, Fla. Football and baseball fields will be put in along with a basketball court that will feature a three-on-three contest every year with a grand prize of $10,000.

Lewis says it will be named Passion Park and it will become a pulpit for his message to children about staying in school and getting a college degree. Lewis also plans to pursue a master's degree after he stops playing.

"Hopefully, there is a message to my teammates in getting this degree as well," Lewis said. "A lot of athletes don't go back, but I had the discipline and the will. Now the youngsters can see that I'm not just talking, I backed it up. I truly believe that once you make up your mind to do something, you can achieve it as long as your priorities are in order."

Lewis expects to get the same kind of rush walking across the stage Saturday as he does walking onto a football field on Sundays.

"It's going to be like wow, this is everything I've ever dreamed of," Lewis said. "I have this degree I can put up on my office wall. It will be the dream come true."

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