(CNN) — It’s not hard to find Ray Lewis in prayer. You might catch a glimpse of it on the sidelines before a game. In the locker room. Even on the cover of Sports Illustrated — the muscular Baltimore Ravens linebacker standing bare-chested in a swimming pool, his palms pressed together.
To some, Lewis’ frequent expressions of faith are the marks of a life redeemed, a long 13-year journey from murder accusations — later dropped by prosecutors — in the death of two men hours after the 2000 Super Bowl in Atlanta.
But for others, the show of faith is little more than an act.
“Stop acting like you are one of the people that come out of the Bible,” said Greg Wilson, whose nephew Jacinth Baker died along with a friend in the infamous melee 13 years ago that almost derailed Lewis’ career.
“If you’re redeemed — and he’s always quoting Scriptures — then you would have stood up like a man and said what happened,” Wilson said.
For many football fans, Lewis’ story begins at the University of Miami, where he quickly made his mark on the football field — taking All-America honors each of the three years he played before surrendering his final year of eligibility to enter the 1996 NFL draft.
The Ravens picked him 26th overall, fifth among linebackers. And he made a quick name for himself, earning AFC defensive player of the week honors in his first regular season game.
He went on to earn 13 Pro Bowl invitations.
But for Lewis, of course, the story begins years before, during his childhood in Lakeland, Florida. That’s when, he says, his walk with God began.
“My mom did a heck of a job raising a man to put my complete faith in God from Day One,” Lewis told reporters gathered for the Super Bowl on Wednesday. “From 9 years old, when I was ordained as a junior deacon, she always said that some days, you may find yourself away from God, but you will find yourself back.”
A pivotal night
On January 31, 2000, hours after watching the St. Louis Rams beat the Tennessee Titans in the Super Bowl, Lewis and a few friends were out at the Cobalt Lounge in Atlanta’s Buckhead Village celebrating football’s biggest night.
As they left, around 4 a.m., a fight erupted.
It’s unclear who started the fight, but it became an all-out brawl when Baker smashed a champagne bottle over the head of Reginald Oakley, a friend of Lewis’.
What else happened during those pivotal moments remains something of a mystery. How did the fight start? Why? And who killed Baker and his friend, Richard Lollar?
To this day, even one of the men arrested that night says he’s still not entirely clear on what happened.
What is clear is that, within minutes, Baker and Lollar lay dead in the street as Lewis and his friends raced away in a limousine.
The next day, police arrested Lewis, Oakley and another friend, Joseph Sweeting, on murder charges.
At the time, Atlanta prosecutors said they had a trail of blood and eyewitness testimony to prove Lewis and the others were involved.
The limo driver, Duane Fassett, told investigators he heard Oakley and Sweeting tell others in the limo that they had stabbed the victims, according to multiple news reports at the time. Lewis, according to Fassett’s account, told everyone to keep quiet, saying he wouldn’t allow his football career to end this way.
Lewis and his defense attorney, however, have long maintained Lewis was trying to act as a peacemaker, to get his friends back in the limo and away from trouble.
When the trial started, the case crumbled on live television. Witnesses changed their stories. Defense lawyers tore down the claims of witnesses who had troubled pasts or had spent the night drinking.
Prosecutors “put their case together with Band-Aids and it didn’t hold together,” Lewis’ attorney, Ed Garland, told CNN this week.
The district attorney’s office ended up dropping the murder charges against Lewis in the middle of the trial to cut a plea deal. Lewis agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice and testify against his friends.
But in the end, that wasn’t enough to win prosecutors a conviction. The jury acquitted Oakley and Sweeting, too.
No was ever convicted in the killings.
Ray Lewis’ path to redemption had begun.
A year later, Lewis was back at the Super Bowl, this time as a player. He earned Most Valuable Player honors in a 34-7 rout of the New York Giants.
In the ensuing years, Lewis stuck close to a growing faith, one nurtured during rollicking prayer services at Empowerment Temple AME Church in Baltimore.
“God has done something in my life — and not just for me to see it,” Sports Illustrated quoted Lewis as saying during a service there in 2006. “God has done something in my life for every hater, every enemy.”
Strong faith comes naturally to Lewis, said his pastor, the Rev. Jamal Bryant.
“He’s a jack-leg preacher without a license, no Bible college, but it’s just in him,” Bryant said. “He can’t help it. He’s spoken here a couple of times. I’ve put him up to do our Bible study and he’s like Billy Graham and Bishop (T.D.) Jakes wrapped into one.”
So while most of the football world still knew him as Ray Lewis, his fans in Baltimore were learning a different name for him.
Reverend Ray, they would come to call him.
Lewis announced last year that he would make this season his last, and analysts say both he and his Ravens team have played inspired football in reaching the Super Bowl.
Along the way, he’s spoken frequently of his faith, putting it on display for everyone to see.
“You can go build buildings. You can have a nice whatever you want to have,” Lewis told reporters this week. “But, impact is totally different, and when you talk about the walk of Jesus, his whole walk was impact.”
“My life is based off impact,” Lewis said, “grabbing somebody and letting them know that life is to be lived together to figure out the wrongs and rights and teach somebody else those morals and ethics so they don’t go back down those same roads.”
Off the field, he heads a foundation to provide help to disadvantaged kids through food drives, auctions and other events.
“We got to change the way our children think. We got to change the way these gangs are dictating and running our streets,” Lewis said during a sermon at Empowerment Temple last year. “We have the ability to do that! But it’s called tough love.”
Not everyone is buying Lewis’ tale of redemption.
“You got all this attention glorifying him, and then he was involved in what happened down in Atlanta, but yet still people don’t seem to care,” Wilson –stabbing victim Jacinth Baker’s uncle — told CNN. “They are more interested in football.”
It’s true that many of the homages in the media to Lewis have made scant or no mention of what happened in Atlanta.
But it still comes up frequently.
People mentioned “Lewis” and “murder” in nearly one of every 10 messages posted about him to social media websites in late January, according to analytics firm Fizziology. About 18% of the 63,319 posts about him were negative. But 40% were positive, the company said.
Some in sports media have been critical, as well. NBC Radio host Amani Toomer, the former New York Giants wide receiver, told USA Today last week that he thinks Lewis is a hypocrite.
“If you want to say you’re Mr. Religious and all of that, have a clean record. Don’t say all of that stuff if you know there’s stuff that might come back,” the newspaper quoted him as saying. “Those are the things that, when I look at him, I just think hypocrisy.”
On Tuesday, as he prepared to close out his career with one last game, Lewis declined to talk about the Atlanta killings, as he has so often since they happened.
“Nobody here is really qualified to ask those questions,” Lewis told reporters, according to numerous media reports.
Revisiting the scene
For 13 years, Reginald Oakley has also remained silent about what happened in Atlanta.
But this week, he agreed to walk through the Atlanta neighborhood where the killings happened and talk about that night.
It’s the first time, he said, he’s returned to the scene. The neighborhood has changed drastically, but the memories are still fresh.
“It was self-defense for me because someone attacked me,” Oakley told CNN.
He still maintains he did not stab anyone.
But for the first time, Oakley cast doubt on Lewis’ version of what happened that night. Lewis wasn’t a peacemaker, he says, but a participant in the fight.
“I don’t know if he was wrestling or fighting, but I know he was right in the mix with everybody else,” Oakley said. “I think he was just standing up for himself. It’s just too bad that when the police asked him what happened he wouldn’t come clean.”
But Garland, the defense lawyer, remains unrelenting in his defense of the football star.
“He was not involved in the fight; he didn’t cause it,” Garland said. “He didn’t take an act or step or statement to make this happen. He was no more guilty than the other 100 people on the street.”
The convoluted accounts of what happened that night still anger the families of the victims.
“All of them were involved in it and nobody wants to tell the truth with exactly what happened,” Wilson said.
And he just doesn’t understand how football fans can get swept up by the story of Lewis’ redemption.
To him, Lewis is a criminal ringleader “hiding behind the Bible.”
“This will never fade,” Wilson said. “I hope it haunts them for the rest of their life until the day they die and then they burn in hell.”
But if Lewis is thinking back on what happened in Atlanta, he’s not letting on. He was all smiles during Super Bowl media appearances this week, even while batting down fresh accusations claiming he used a banned performance-enhancing substance.
He hasn’t gone out this week, he says. He doesn’t want to. All he’s thinking about is football.
“You draw up a lot of storybook endings, but for me, how else would I rather go out than be on the biggest stage ever,” Lewis said, “giving everything I’ve got for my teammates to be able to touch that Lombardi trophy.”
Of course, the true end to Lewis’ playing career will come in a few years when he is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
It’s just a few miles down the road from where Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar, childhood friends from Akron, Ohio, were buried 13 years ago.
By Ed Lavandera and Michael Pearson
CNN’s Carol Costello contributed to this report.
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