Ray Lewis peered out at the roomful of Ravens waiting to hear from their embattled team leader. A pep talk, it would not be.
In February, 2000, Lewis was charged with murder in the stabbing deaths of two men in Atlanta. Now, five months later, the All-Pro linebacker stood before teammates at training camp in Westminster, knowing that what he said could pull the Ravens together — or push them apart..
Lewis hadn't planned to address the Ravens that day. A friend, Hall of Famer Jim Brown, was in town and had agreed to speak to the players. But when he rose to do so, Brown surprised them all.
"There are many things I can say to you guys today, but I don't think you need to hear from me," Brown told them. "You need to hear from your leader."
Brown sat down. Lewis, then 25, stood up — and held nothing back.
"He put everything out in the open," quarterback Trent Dilfer said. "Instead of sweeping (the incident) under the rug, and having it be the pink elephant in the room, Ray said, 'Here's what's going on, and how I'm dealing with it.' "
Lewis' animated talk lasted 10 minutes, players said.
"He wasn't subdued," safety Kim Herring recalled. "At the end, we all said, 'All right, cool — now let's move forward.'"
Thus began the season that would culminate in a Ravens Super Bowl title and catapult Lewis into the upper echelon of NFL players, where he has stayed for 10 years. To that point he'd been a prodigious talent. That day he transformed into a leader, and he remains one of the most revered motivators in all of sports.
Lewis had reached a plea bargain a month prior. He pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and was given a year's probation. He also testified against two of the men he was with that night — Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting — but without directly implicating them. They were eventually acquitted. Though he has maintained that he acted as a peacekeeper during the street brawl in Atlanta and was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time, Lewis later settled — for a total of about $2 million — with the families of the victims to avoid a civil suit.
Lewis had acted irresponsibly on the night of the tragedy, advising those he was with to not speak to police. The white suit he was wearing has never been found. The NFL fined him $250,000 for violating its personal conduct policy, and in some ways his tarnish spread to the rest of the Ravens. Most of his teammates, though, were able to take an uncomplicated view of the situation; the judicial system had spoken, and now Lewis was an innocent man trudging through unwarranted character assassination. By speaking so frankly on the first day they were gathered as a team, Lewis made clear how he planned to act that year. As with any championship run, a thousand things — from finding the right quarterback to having a few fumbles bounce the right way — had to happen, but if there was a force that gave the team an identity, it was Lewis.
"What he said that day cast a vision for us," kicker Matt Stover said. "Basically, he said 'Follow me,' and we did. It gave us a spark, a trust, a bond that turned something so horribly terrifying and life-changing into such a positive for the team."
Lewis was preaching to the choir, teammates said.
"We all knew what Ray was accused of was false," defensive end Rob Burnett said. "(Mahatma) Gandhi could have talked to the team that day, and it wouldn't have changed our minds about the character of Ray Lewis."
Publicly, however, the issue festered. Whenever the club hit the road, fans targeted Lewis, called him a killer and picketed the places where the team stayed.
"Signs, you can ignore," Burnett said. "But when people have the luxury of seats close to our bench, it gives them a soap box from which to spit venom. The things that came out of their mouths made me want to jump up in the stands and do things that my parents didn't raise me to do."
Now, Lewis admits the threats on his life were so real that he checked into out-of-town hotels under an assumed name. Yet in spite of the danger – or, perhaps, because of it – he played that season with an unprecedented focus and ferocity, teammates said, leading Baltimore to 11 straight victories and a world championship.
With all of the hubbub swirling around Lewis off the field, football became his sanctuary, teammates said.
"He found his peace between the goal lines," guard Edwin Mulitalo said.
At the same time, however, "Ray went out and exerted his anger toward opponents on the field," linebacker Cornell Brown said. "He found he could release that pain outside of him — the things you can't say out loud, but you can say in a hit."
"Yeah, yeah, that's it," he said of his stepped-up intensity in 2000. "If I wouldn't have went through all that (in Atlanta), maybe I wouldn't have had the year that I had."
And, teammates said, maybe the Ravens would have come up short of a title.