There have been some famous Godfathers in this country we live in. John Gotti was a real life Mafioso, Vito Corleone was the undisputed Godfather in American Cinema, and James Brown (knock me out) will always be remembered as the Godfather of Soul.
Among National Football League players that role has been filled by one Ray Anthony Lewis.
That wasn’t always the case; when drafted with the 26th pick in the 1996 draft, Lewis was considered a talented underclassman, yet three linebackers (Kevin Hardy, John Mobley and Reggie Brown) were selected ahead of him. While two of those men went on to have good careers in the league, their NFL legacies are buried deep in the shadows cast by Ray’s.
His numbers are staggering: 17 years, 13 Pro-Bowls, 10 times All-Pro, 2 times Defensive MVP, the MVP of Super Bowl XXXV, most years and games (227) at his position, the only player ever to have over 40 sacks and 30 interceptions, and on and on. His accolades on the football field are countless, and the amount of respect he has garnered from his peers is immeasurable.
Those numbers, no matter how impressive, are not what make Ray the Godfather; what elevates him to that position is the way he has handled his journey. He has overcome a lot in the course of his career, risen to every occasion, and displayed a leadership that transcends his sport. The late Bert Sugar, the greatest boxing writer ever, once said when asked about the declining state of his sport, “Ray Lewis is the best heavyweight in the world today.”
Some purists will tell you that Dick Butkis was better, and some will contend the same about Jack Lambert. I have seen a lot of film on Butkis, and I saw Lambert play in person and on T.V. They were great, both delivering sledge hammer hits and striking fear into the hearts of ball carriers, but Ray measures up in that regard, and in my humble opinion is every bit as good on the field. It is on the sidelines where I believe Ray Ray separated himself. And those motivational speeches and dances he does before kickoff; the ones that get other players and fans alike pumped to the point of adrenaline overdoses? Well even Tony Robbins has to admire that act. I can’t under any circumstances, see leaving Ray on the bench behind anyone, those two included. He is simply the best middle-linebacker to ever play the game.
Veteran players all value what Ray has to say, young players look to him as a mentor, the press corps hang on his every word. It’s as if he has become like E. F. Hutton from those old commercials; “When Ray Lewis talks, people listen.”
He overcame his legal troubles early in his career, and he’s gone on to be respected as a player, a man, a father (6 kids), and a person of faith. He embodies the American dream and the idea that redemption is available to those who seek it. His charitable work is well documented and wide-ranging, and a section of Baltimore’s North Avenue has been renamed Ray Lewis Way in honor of his efforts in that arena.
Sadly, and to my discredit, I was one of those who judged Ray without full knowledge of the facts well over a decade ago, and his exemplary behavior since then has put my rush to judgment to shame. There is precious little chance that Ray will ever read this, but if he does, please accept my humblest and heartfelt apology, Ray.
Ray will miss the rest of the season with a torn triceps, and the Ravens defense will miss him on the field. But more than his play, I believe his leadership will be missed. He is 37 now, and he has a son that will be playing football at Miami, his Alma Mater next year. Sources close to him have said he hopes to watch his boy play. Has Ray Lewis played his last down in the NFL? I don’t know if even he knows the answer to that question. If he does decide that this is the end of his career, it is the end of a great career. He has a ring, and he’ll wear a yellow jacket in his first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame.
Among the many definitions of the word godfather are: a male sponsor or guardian, a powerful leader, a person who is regarded as the originator or principle shaper of a movement, and a person you would leave your kids with in the event of your death.
Ray Lewis fits all of these definitions in one form or another, and he’s earned the title of the Godfather of the NFL.
About the Author
Written by Steve Massey
Steve Massey is the author of Grid Iron Audible at @prosportsblogging.com, a weekly column covering all things NFL related. He is originally from California, but now resides in Northern Arkansas with his beautiful wife and best friend, Debbie. Follow Steve on Twitter @SteveMassey9