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MVP caps Lewis' strange journey

The Ravens LB travels from a murder charge to best player in the Super Bowl.

By BOB HARIG

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 29, 2001


TAMPA -- His journey to hell and back will not include a trip to Walt Disney World, but as most of the football-watching world knows by now, Ray Lewis is not about Fantasy Land.

It was cold, stark reality that saw Lewis charged with murder, the memory of that orange jump suit marking his darkest days, a year of doubt dogging him despite being acquitted.

That year came to an amazing conclusion Sunday night as the Baltimore Ravens defeated the New York Giants 34-7 at Raymond James Stadium and Lewis was named Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XXXV.

"It's a storybook nobody would believe," said Lewis, the NFL's defensive player of the year. "To be here after what happened last year ... there's no feeling like this. If I could explain it, it wouldn't be a true feeling. My body is tingling."

Lewis, 25, who grew up in Bartow, then starred at Lakeland Kathleen High and the University of Miami, continued his season-long defensive dominance, making five tackles and batting down four passes as the Ravens did not allow an offensive touchdown.

His numbers may not have been overwhelming, but Lewis' presence certainly was a huge factor. And he likely was rewarded for being the leader of what will go down as perhaps the best defense in NFL history.

"He was all over the field," said Giants quarterback Kerry Collins, who was intercepted four times and completed 15 of 39 passes for 112 yards. "You see him in pass coverage as well as in run defense. He's a guy who just plays the whole field."

The Giants had 152 net yards, with 66 on the ground and 33 total in the second half. They committed five turnovers.

If there was hope among Lewis detractors that he would wilt under the game's most intense spotlight, it didn't happen. He shined even brighter.

"If people want to see me stumble now, they'll have to see me stumble with a ring on my finger," Lewis said.

There had to be days and nights when Lewis could not have dreamed of such a moment. It was a year ago Wednesday, the day after the Super Bowl in Atlanta, that Lewis was charged with murder, felony murder and aggravated assault after a brawl in which two men were stabbed to death outside a night club.

The charges eventually were dropped, with Lewis pleading to a misdemeanor of obstructing justice and testifying for the prosecution against two others charged with murder in the killings.

That didn't erase the fact that Lewis spent 15 days in jail, that no conviction came for the crime and that Lewis showed little remorse.

In fact, it was one of the biggest stories of Super Bowl week, with coach Brian Billick chastising the media for continuing to make an issue of the subject and Lewis trying to deflect the questions without the hoped-for compassion for the victims.

"The disappointing thing is this is the greatest show on earth," Lewis said of the Super Bowl. "And there was so much focus on Ray Lewis."

"Ray's a man's man," said Ravens owner Art Modell, who testified on Lewis' behalf at the trial last year. "He's been mishandled. He was innocent. He's taken a bad rap. He's a man's man and did it on the field, where he knows best."

There was little question about that from the start. When Lewis strutted onto the field during introductions, he did a wild dance, touching the grass. "It was to symbolize that this is our turf," he said. "Our team and our defense ride on that. It's part of my approach and the team plays off that."

You can't deny that, or his dominance. Lewis was all over the field. If he wasn't making a tackle, he was forcing a ballcarrier to another Ravens defender or breaking up a pass.

"Ray's a great player," Giants receiver Ike Hilliard said. "He's the defensive player of the year, the MVP of the Super Bowl. He definitely deserves it. He's a warrior. He's all around the football, makes a lot of plays. You have to give him credit."

"Ray is the heart and soul of our defense, the heart and soul of our team, for that matter," Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister said. "For him to come out and have such a showing and not let everything around him at the Super Bowl try and get to him, just shows what kind of person and player he really is."

Lewis apparently won't be headed to Disney World this week or any time soon. The traditional MVP and "I'm going to Disney" post-game message never occurred. Lewis said he was never asked to be part of the promotion. Instead, he'll receive the Pete Rozelle Trophy and a 2001 F Series Super Duty Ford truck.

He won't be driving it back to Lakeland, because Lewis will go to Baltimore to participate in a parade with his teammates and revel in the victory.

Then he'll head to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl, where he can terrorize ballcarriers one more week.

It's been a long way from hell to paradise.

"The Man upstairs said I would never take you through hell without taking you to triumph," Lewis said. "That's where I'm standing now."

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