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Waving goodbye to a NFL warrior

Al Jazeera presenter Tony Harris remembers meeting Ray Lewis when he wasn't a Baltimore hero, but behind bars.
Last modified: 16 Jan 2013 20:03

American professional football, the NFL playoffs, has reached the semi-final round. Four teams, the Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers, New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens will battle it out on Sunday with two tickets on the line for the Super Bowl, a game that is among the most popular single sporting events in the world every year.

In the lead up to the conference championship games, I've been having a Youtube moment.

You know the kind of moment where you watch the same clip over and over again. I'm sure I'm responsible for at least a hundred of the billion hits of Gangnum style by PSY.

This time though I'm watching Ray Lewis, number 52 in the purple and black for my Baltimore Ravens perform his signature pre-game dance one last time for the home fans at M&T Bank Stadium. Lewis is calling it a career at the end of this, his 17th season in the NFL. And his emotional return to the starting lineup after injury two weeks ago has fueled an improbable playoff run.

If you haven't seen it, 'Ray's dance' starts with a blood-curdling scream, something that rattles your bones to hear it up close. And then it's slide to the right, slide to the left, back it up, front knee into the air, and then a piston-like right jab. And for good measure, one more ripper of a guttural scream.

I shouldn't forget the scrum of teammates that then engulf him. Oh, and out of that scrum comes a familiar call and response for Ravens fans: "What time is it?" "Game time!" "What time is it?" "Game time!" "Any dogs in the house?" "Woof, woof, woof, woof!" "Any dogs in the house?" "Woof, Woof, Woof Woof!"

Many in the stands for Lewis' final home game would have reflected on what Ray Lewis has meant to the city of Baltimore, mending the wounded psyche of the city after their beloved Baltimore Colts were uprooted from the city and moved to Indianapolis with his boundless energy and warrior approach to the game.

I'll never forget how he led a pathetic offensive team to a Super Bowl win in 2001 on the strength of an iron-clad defence which he anchored. But as I watched Lewis' last dance on Youtube, I was reminded of one of the darkest chapters of his life and my limited role in a horrible drama.

It culminated in the day in 2000 that I went to see him in the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta, Georgia. Just days before, there had been a nightclub, drinking, closing time, taunting outside the club and an altercation. As a result, two men, Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar were dead and Ray Lewis and two co-defendants were charged with murder and aggravated-assault.

Lewis agreed to see me in prison, in part, because of my job and his desire to communicate to his fans. I was anchor of an evening newscast in Baltimore, and pre-game show host for the Baltimore Ravens radio network at the time of the murders. Over the years since his arrival to the city in 1996, we'd gotten to know one another a bit socially. Now, in his most perilous moment, he figured I'd be a sympathetic listener. I played my role.

There were things we talked about that day that I'll never repeat, nothing to do with the facts of the case - we didn't talk about his version of events that night. But there were things I shared with the media about our talk, his mood, tone, physical appearance and claims of his faith sustaining him. Ray Lewis ended up pleading guilty to an obstruction of justice charge in the murder case and went on to become Super Bowl MVP the following year in Tampa.

I, like everyone else, marveled at how Lewis could focus on the single task of winning in that Super Bowl year. Lewis and a few others know exactly what happened on a night in 2000 when two people were killed. Not only that, but his misleading statements to police made the truth of that night harder for police and the families of the victims to come by. What I do know is that Lewis started the process of encasing what happened that night in quick drying cement in that jail cell in Fulton County, Georgia.

I have to tell you, a wry smile creeps across my face when reporters sit in front of cameras and talk to other reporters about their athlete 'friends' who are in trouble. My view now is that we should never do it. I wish I hadn't. The truth is, you're neither friend nor reporter in those moments. You're simply a tool, a pawn, nothing more. And if you're curious, no, I haven't spoken to Ray Lewis since that day in prison.

After defeating certain hall of famer Peyton Manning, Lewis, arguable the best linebacker ever takes on the best quarterback many have ever seen in Tom Brady for another trip to the Super Bowl.

And when the last ride ends, whenever it ends for number 52, I'll thank him for 17 amazing seasons and reflect on the day I watched him stare into the abyss and then escape to dance another day.

Tony Harris is a news presenter for Al Jazeera English.