With every dance step, another skeptic forgets. With every tackle, another critic forgives.
Ray Lewis is once again an untarnished star, and doesn't America love him for it? No one takes the field with such oversized passion. No one has a better smile in victory. No one does a grander job of playing the role of aging veteran. At 37, Lewis is admired, respected, even beloved.
Ah, but what about the murders?
You remember those, right?
Once, Lewis was in handcuffs. Once, he was in jail, charged with the deaths of two men after a brawl outside an Atlanta nightclub. Once, he sat on a podium at the Super Bowl, staring straight ahead, suggesting he was a victim in the proceedings.
Back then, the world seemed suspicious of what Lewis knew, of what he did, of what he felt. Answers were hard to find, and Lewis wasn't giving any himself.
In some ways, this is the most amazing part of the Ray Lewis story, the way he went from there to here, from scandal to stardom. Has another athlete ever cleaned up his image so thoroughly? Lewis has been great enough for long enough, it is almost as if the suspicion … disappeared. He is such an entertaining football player that it has become inconvenient to think of him as anything else.
How does this happen? We are such a suspicious nation, and we have no problem disagreeing with the jury or the drug test. How many people do you know who still believe O.J. Simpson was guilty, or Lizzie Borden, or Robert Blake? How many people are still angry at Pete Rose, at Barry Bonds, at Tiger Woods for the headlines that featured them?
As for Lewis? Evidently, he has hit so many running backs that everyone else seems to have developed amnesia.
These days, analysts seem to line up to pat Lewis on the back. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell bear-hugs him. His jersey sales are among the best in the NFL. And as the playoffs have turned into Lewis' farewell tour, anyone who brings up a 13-year-old scandal is quickly dismissed.
Since that night, Lewis has made 10 of his 13 Pro Bowls, and he has been defensive player of the year twice, and he has been the Super Bowl MVP. He is assured of the Hall of Fame.
Still, as we look at a player's legacy, shouldn't we remember it all? As Lewis takes the field for what might be the final time tonight in the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots, shouldn't we spare a thought for the two men who died?
Let's be honest here. No one knows what happened outside a nightclub called Cobalt in the wee hours of Jan. 31, 2000. Only that two men — Richard Lollar, 24, and Jacinth "Shorty" Baker, 21 — died after being stabbed repeatedly during a melee with Lewis' group. And that no one has ever been found guilty of the crime.
Looking back, the Atlanta prosecutors looked clownish in their attempts to go after Lewis. The whole case seemed rushed and reckless, and there never seemed to be any real evidence against the former University of Miami star from Bartow. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge — obstruction of justice — in exchange for his testimony about two other suspects, but they were found not guilty.
Even so, should the deaths of two men be so easily dismissed? What happened to the white suit that Lewis was wearing? What did he say in his testimony? In the end, was Lewis more concerned with helping his friends than with helping to solve the murders? How much were his settlements with the two families?
Did America simply get tired of wondering? Or, in the end, was watching Lewis play just too much fun to care?
Lewis is a wonderful player. One of the most mesmerizing linebackers who has ever played. You can debate his name with Mike Singletary, or with Dick Butkus, or with Jack Lambert or anyone else. Those who have played with him rave about his leadership skills. In Baltimore, he will be remembered as the finest Raven of them all.
Today, against Tom Brady and the Patriots, you will hear much about that. You will hear about his leadership skills. You will hear about his force, his power, his enthusiasm.
Somewhere along the line, maybe someone will wonder what happened that night. Shouldn't someone remember? Shouldn't someone care?
After all, isn't that part of the Ray Lewis story, too?
Listen to Gary Shelton weekdays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. on 98.7-FM the Fan.