More than 70,000 people will attend Ray Lewis's retirement party. Another 100 million or so will watch it on television. When the final game of one's NFL career happens to be a Super Bowl, it is never going to be a low-key affair.
Lewis would not have it any other way. Every athlete dreams of walking away a champion but not all of them revel in the spotlight like the Baltimore Ravens linebacker. At 37 Lewis no longer dominates opponents as he once did but his capacity for capturing attention might be stronger than ever.
All eyes have been on Lewis since he announced this season would be his last. After 17 seasons, two Defensive Player of the Year awards and 13 trips to the NFL's all-star game, the Pro Bowl, Lewis is recognised as one of the greatest linebackers of all time. As such, his retirement was always sure to garner plenty of publicity, yet his timing was also particular. Lewis informed team-mates of his decision four days before their play-off opener.
That game, against the Indianapolis Colts, was in Baltimore and Lewis wanted the opportunity to bid a proper farewell to the home fans. In doing so he ensured that Baltimore's entire post-season run would be re-cast as the Ray Lewis Farewell Tour. Appointments with Indianapolis, Denver and New England were preceded by endless tributes and accolades. Team-mates and opponents lined up together to sing No52's praises.
Any of those games could have been Lewis's last but the Ravens kept on winning – eventually setting up an appointment with the San Francisco 49ers at Super Bowl XLVII. Now he would have the chance to finish his career on the greatest stage of all.
But then the narrative took an unexpected twist. In an article published by Sports Illustrated on Tuesday Lewis was linked with doping – alleged to have obtained a supplement, made with deer velvet extract, which contained the banned substance IGF-1. The accusation came from Mitch Ross, who claimed to have supplied Lewis with the supplement and advised him on how it could aid his recovery from a torn triceps injury suffered in October.
Lewis dismissed the allegation, asserting that Ross, the owner of Sports with Alternatives to Steroids, was simply trying to drum up cheap publicity. "It's just sad that someone could have so much attention on a stage this big where the dreams are really real," said Lewis. "I don't need it. My team-mates don't need it. The 49ers don't need it.
"Nobody needs it because it just shows you how people plan things and try to attack people from the outside. The guy has no credibility. He's been sued four or five times over the same BS."
This was, in Lewis's words, "the trick of the devil", trying to distract people's minds away from what truly mattered. His Baltimore team-mates offered their support. "We're not going to pay it any mind," said his fellow Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs. "We know it's all feathers in the wind."
More cynical observers noted that trouble has had a habit of following Lewis around. After all, his previous Super Bowl appearance – in January 2001 – arrived less than a year after he pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in a murder trial.
Only Lewis, along with the handful of others present, truly knows what happened outside Atlanta's Cobalt Lounge nightclub on 31 January 2000. Then 24, Lewis had flown into town to sample the Super Bowl festivities as a fan. In the small hours of the morning after the game he was with a group that became involved in a fight outside the club. It finished with two young men – Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar – stabbed to death.
Lewis was initially charged with murder, along with two of the friends who had been with him that night – Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting. The charge against the player was dropped, however, when he made his obstruction of justice plea and agreed to testify against his fellow defendants. Lewis was handed a 12-month suspended sentence but, despite his testimony, Oakley and Sweeting would later be acquitted by a jury.
Nobody was convicted of the two men's murder. Questions were asked, but never answered, about the apparent disappearance of a white suit Lewis had been wearing on the night the killings took place. When members of the deceased men's families initiated civil proceedings against him, Lewis twice chose to settle out of court.
The player's violent on-field persona played into the hands of those who presumed him guilty. That next season, after being fined $250,000 by the NFL for his actions in Atlanta, Lewis emerged as the leader of a brash and bad-tempered Baltimore defense that traded on physical intimidation. The Ravens bullied their way through the 2000-01 playoffs, giving up 23 points in four postseason games, and demolishing the New York Giants 34-7 at Super Bowl XXXV.
Lewis was named as the game's Most Valuable Player, yet the unease over his role in Atlanta was evident from the lack of endorsement deals that followed. Even when the cereal manufacturer General Mills sought out five Ravens players to appear on commemorative boxes of Wheaties, they found a way to overlook him.
Such negative perceptions have proved hard to shake. Lewis is loved in Baltimore, where he has not only played for his entire career but also expended considerable amounts of time, money and energy on charitable works – helping disadvantaged children in some of the city's poorest neighbourhoods. Further afield, though, many continue to view him with scepticism.
That point was rammed home a fortnight ago, after Baltimore beat New England in the AFC Championship game. Shortly after the Ravens sealed a 28-13 win, Anna Welker – wife of the Patriots wide receiver Wes – posted on Facebook advising her friends to "please go to Ray Lewis' Wikipedia page. 6 kids 4 wives. Acquitted for murder. Paid a family off. Yay. What a hall of fame player! A true role model!"
She subsequently apologised and deleted the post, but not before many others had agreed with her. Even Lewis has admitted regret over some of those life choices. During a 2006 interview with Sports Illustrated, Lewis spoke candidly on the subject of birth control, saying: "You know how foolish I was? One thing Ray's going to tell you: Don't you sleep with no woman without a condom."
The image Lewis seeks to portray these days is not that of the flawless being but rather the reformed sinner – one who turned his life around and now believes fervently in his capacity to help others to do the same. Asked this week how he had changed since the 2001 Super Bowl, Lewis spoke of a transition from "follower" to self-proclaimed spiritual leader of his team.
His is an overtly religious message, Lewis telling the Guardian in an interview this past summer that the murder allegations were part of God's plan. "He knew that I would never turn my back on him," said Lewis. "Now he receives all the glory because he was able to expose who I was as a person, through a tragedy."
Fans are familiar with the public face of Lewis's leadership. They have seen the wild-eyed sideline speeches and heard him bellow at the top of his lungs. They have watched Lewis orchestrate his trademark pre-game chant – inciting his fellow Ravens with cries of "Any dogs in the house?" and drawing a chorus of barking noises in response.
Lewis, indeed, might have a future career in motivational speaking to look forward to. In the past year he has delivered talks to a variety of sports groups and teams, many of them on an entirely impromptu basis. He spoke to the Loloya University men's lacrosse team three days before they won their national championship, and did the same for Stanford's men's basketball program before a National Invitational Tournament semi-final.
In July he travelled to Britain to speak to an amateur American football team, the London Warriors, seeking to use the sport to keep kids out of gangs. No compensation was sought or received by Lewis for his travel or his time – he had simply responded to a letter written to him by the team.
Even the most decorated Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps, has credited Lewis with convincing him to get back in the pool after the 2008 Beijing Games. "We've talked about so much the last couple years of my career," Phelps told the Washington Post last month. "He just helped me get through a lot of hard times, and I wouldn't have been able to do it without him. He's been telling me, 'One more shot. We're gonna have one more shot.' And he did it."
Yet it is not what Lewis says that impresses his coaches so much as what he does. At team interview sessions this week Baltimore's defensive co-ordinator, Dean Pees, waxed lyrical about Lewis's leadership by example. "Nothing I could ever say to our young players would help them more than the example he provides," said Pees.
"When I'm up front [in the team meeting room] putting in a game plan, [Lewis] sits there taking notes, writing stuff down – not sitting in the back behaving like 'don't you know who I am?'
"The players get Tuesday off each week but when you meet on Wednesday, he knows everything about our next opponent already because he has studied. For the young players to see a guy who has been doing that for 17 years but still treats his profession like he's a rookie … there's nothing I could say to those players to make them do that but when they see Ray they just do it naturally."
According to his team-mates, the Lewis we see on game-day is a very different character from the one who greets them at practice. "He's quiet," said the cornerback Cary Williams. "Y'all don't really see that. He's not much of a talker in the locker room. It just so happens that he comes out on Sunday and transforms into this different guy.
"During the week he doesn't say a lot, but he does demand a lot. If he sees something on film and he tells you about it, he expects you to see it, recognise it and make a play on it the next day in practice. If you don't, he's going to hold you accountable."
If Lewis is no longer the athlete he once was – the speed that once defined his game having diminished with age – then he is not a passenger on the field. After sitting out 10 weeks of the regular season with his torn triceps injury, Lewis has not missed a single defensive play throughout the play-off run. His 44 tackles over the past three games are the most for the team. The man in second place, Corey Graham, has 26.
On Sunday Lewis will have one last chance to remind us of just what a player he has been against a San Francisco offense that has scored 73 points over the past two weeks. Success might not change the way he is perceived – either inside the game or out. But it would certainly make for a more enjoyable way to ride off into retirement.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Jimmy theSuperStar