In 1996, the Cleveland Browns relocated to Baltimore and were rebranded as the Baltimore Ravens.
In their first draft as a “new” organization, Baltimore picked University of Miami linebacker Ray Lewis with the 26th overall selection in the first round.
That single transaction would help set the tone for the franchise as Lewis would lead a lethal Ravens defense to two Super Bowl championships.
He also made a name for himself as one of the best linebackers of all time.
— SportzStew Ⓥ (@sportzstewcom) October 11, 2021
However, Lewis had to overcome a major hurdle early in his career when he was identified as a murder suspect in 2000.
After conquering that nightmare, Lewis devoted his life to God and did his part to better the hearts and minds of those around him.
This is the story of Ray Lewis.
Man of the House
Ray Lewis was born Raymond Anthony Jenkins on May 15, 1975, in Bartow, Florida.
Ravens Flock, let's wish a very happy 47th birthday to the 2-time Super Bowl champion Ray Lewis 🥳 pic.twitter.com/8A0L0objb2
— Ravens Nation (@RavensNationCP) May 15, 2022
Jenkins was the oldest of five children, and his birth father wasn’t around much.
In fact, while still an adolescent, Jenkins was the de facto man of the house while his mother worked.
Finally, Jenkins became so fed up with the absence of his father that he changed his last name to Lewis (the surname of his mother’s boyfriend) right before he began high school.
Although he rarely had a break from raising his younger siblings, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
The Lakeland area where Lewis grew up was rough, and Lewis was able to avoid temptation because of his obligations.
“(In the early ’90s), crack cocaine stormed Lakeland,” Lewis said. “It killed our city. We had some of the top athletes ever. Either they were selling it or they were on it.”
Lewis’s mother was also thankful that her young son had to steer clear of temptation.
“I didn’t give them time to get into trouble. And if they did do something, I was right there on them, no matter what,” she said.
Additionally, Sunseria Jenkins made sure her kids attended church to stay grounded in the Lord.
“That’s why Ray has that quote, ‘Discipline is even when no one is looking, you have to be disciplined in yourself.’ … I made them respect me, and I made them respect God,” Jenkins said.
Whenever he could, Lewis got together with his neighborhood friends to play football, and he also began playing organized football at the age of 10.
“The hardest thing to do is to work hard when no one is watching.” – Ray Lewis pic.twitter.com/LVd2Qy0bQc
— Aaron Shabo (@34therealdeal8) August 18, 2022
The street games prepared Lewis for his future career and taught him to get up when knocked down.
“It created a certain type of attitude, a no-worry-type attitude,” Lewis said. “Once you got done with that game and got home, you played the best game of your life. You played the Super Bowl of your life.”
High School Phenom
Lewis found inspiration from his mom and from playing football. He also found the will to succeed for one simple reason.
“Being broke,” Lewis said. “There was nothing else to think about. Seriously, I tell people all the time. … You guys just don’t know. When you have nothing, the passion that’s created to make something, it goes beyond. You don’t even think about getting tired.”
When he started playing football for Kathleen High School as a sophomore, his coaches and teammates found that Lewis was made to play the game.
“Initially, physically, he looked the part,” former Kathleen athletic director Gary Lineberger said. “He was a sophomore coming out of junior high. He was 5-11, 6-foot, 185 pounds, so he looked the part. As we got into things, he had that football intelligence that we come to find out later, he picked things up quick, he was naturally aggressive and loved to practice.”
“It was just his work ethic,” said Irving Strickland, who went to Kathleen with Lewis. “His work ethic was the same then as it is now.”
As a sophomore, Lewis played strong safety. When he was a junior, Lewis was moved to linebacker and found a home.
He was so talented that he was named second-team All-County that season.
Stellar Senior Year
During his senior year, Lewis had become one of the top dogs in his region.
There were a number of great players in the area, but Lewis stood out on the gridiron.
“He could go from sideline to sideline better than anyone I’ve been around,” Lewis’ high school coach Ernest Joe said. “He’s up in the hole just like that on a blitz, just have a 100 mph motor. He never slowed down. You never had to tell him to hustle or pick his feet up. It’s just wide open.”
Not only did Lewis shine as a defender, but he also played running back during his senior season.
He performed well enough that Steve Spurrier, the then head coach at the University of Florida, recruited Lewis to play the position for the Gators.
However, linebacker was his position of choice, and Lewis led with ferocity.
He helped Kathleen High finish the 1992 season with a winning record and a first-round playoff victory.
During the game, Lewis scored the only touchdown.
The following week, Kathleen was bounced from the playoffs, but Lewis was honored with first-team All-State and All-County honors.
Ray lewis as a 189-pound state wrestling champion at lakeland kathleen high school pic.twitter.com/DFzmpXN5
— Aaron Wilson (@AaronWilson_NFL) October 28, 2012
While in high school, Lewis also participated in ROTC and was a gifted wrestler who won the Class 4A state championship during his final year.
Seminole or Hurricane?
As he neared his high school graduation, Lewis was sought after by several large schools.
All the colleges in Florida wanted him and it eventually came down to the Florida State Seminoles or the University of Miami Hurricanes.
Both programs were frequently battling for the national championship and were loaded with good players.
During his recruiting trip to Florida State, Seminoles defensive coordinator Chuck Amato said something to Lewis that immediately soured him on the program.
The coach took Lewis aside and told him he would most likely have to sit his first two years behind Derrick Brooks, the Seminoles’ all-world linebacker.
In fact, Amato believed that by the time Brooks left the program, Lewis might be “big enough” to start in his place.
— 247Sports (@247Sports) January 30, 2020
The statement struck Lewis the wrong way.
“I said, ‘How you know I’m not better than Derrick Brooks right now?’ And I walked out. I got back to school, and I saw my high school coach, who was six-foot-five, fall onto his knees. He said, ‘You messed up your future!’” said Lewis.
As much as he loved his high school coach, Lewis was set in his decision to stiff-arm Florida State and accept a scholarship to play for the Hurricanes.
Lewis Shines for “The U”
To say that the Miami Hurricanes were good in the 1990s is an understatement.
By the time Lewis arrived in the fall of 1993, the program already had four national titles and looked poised to add several more.
Lewis fit in well with the squad coached by Dennis Erickson.
Erickson was known for his high-speed, one-back spread offense and the ‘Canes’ defense was just as lethal.
There was so much competition for starting spots that Lewis did not crack the starting lineup for most of his freshman season.
Lewis never stopped working, though, and would become a starter for the final five games of ‘93.
“He was good from the time he stepped onto the field,” former Miami defensive coordinator Greg McMackin said. “He had a great football feeling. He’s the most aggressive player that I’ve ever coached — that includes the NFL and all the Miami kids. He was just very aggressive.”
As the Hurricanes finished the year 9-3 and lost to the Arizona Wildcats in the Fiesta Bowl, Erickson knew that Lewis was something special.
“He had that mentality at a young age,” Erickson said. “He knew what he wanted to do, and it was just natural for him. You’ve got to understand, when he came to Miami — for him to come and play as a freshman — that is quite an accomplishment at that school. He was a leader from the beginning.”
Miami went 10-2 in 1994 and lost to the Nebraska Cornhuskers by a touchdown in the Orange Bowl.
It’s crazy how The Rock, Warren Sapp and Ray Lewis played for the Miami Hurricanes at the same time. Did that defense lead college football in trash talk or what? 😂 pic.twitter.com/D1bIdLioxO
— Luke Johnson (@Scoop_Johnson) May 5, 2021
During the season, Lewis, along with teammate Warren Sapp, helped defeat their rival, Florida State, 34-20.
The defense was particularly nasty and ended the season with the number one ranking in the country.
“I will put that ’94 defense, seriously, statistically, up against any defense ever in college football,” said Lewis, who led the team with 152 tackles. “It was a very, very dominant group of men.”
Lewis Leaves Early
After the 1994 season, Erickson left to coach the Seattle Seahawks.
Butch Davis took over in 1995 and guided the team to an 8-3 record but didn’t participate in a bowl due to NCAA sanctions.
Lewis collected 160 tackles, which was good enough for second best in team history.
For the second year in a row, he was named first-team All-Big East and first-team All-American and finished a close second for the Butkus Award after the season.
— NFL_Central (@Central_NFL) July 2, 2015
Additionally, Lewis was named the Hurricane’s MVP for 1995 and led the Big East in tackles during his sophomore and junior years.
Once the ‘95 season concluded, Lewis decided that he had proved his ability in college and wanted to try his hand as a pro.
He announced his intention to forgo his senior year and enter the 1996 NFL Draft.
Lewis ended his Hurricanes career ranked in the top five for most accumulated tackles.
First Round Pick
The Cleveland Browns were an aging team that made the playoffs after the 1994 season with Bill Belichick at the helm.
During the 1995 season, Cleveland owner Art Modell informed the media that he was relocating the franchise to Maryland after the year.
That decision ruined a promising year. The Browns missed the playoffs, and Belichick was fired. In fact, the city was so upset by the move that, in a compromise, Modell was instead forced to establish a new team in Baltimore – the Baltimore Ravens.
When the franchise moved to Baltimore, it had a decent roster, but it needed an infusion of youth.
In the 1996 NFL Draft, the organization selected UCLA tackle, Jonathan Ogden, with the fourth overall pick and then snagged Lewis with their 26th pick in the first round.
26 years ago today the Ravens drafted both Jonathan Ogden & Ray Lewis in the same 1st round 🤯 pic.twitter.com/dKvqkXeizh
— PFF (@PFF) April 20, 2022
In the fifth round, the Ravens drafted receiver Jermaine Lewis from Maryland.
Despite Ray Lewis starting 13 games and collecting 110 total tackles, 2.5 sacks, and an interception as a rookie, it wasn’t enough to help Baltimore overcome a 4-12 record.
The team won six games in 1997 and 1998 and head coach Ted Marchibroda was replaced with former Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Brian Billick after the ‘98 season.
Lewis acclimated to the pro game quickly.
In 1997, he led the NFL in tackles with 184, including a whopping 156 solo stops (along with a pick and four sacks).
Both marks would prove to be the best in his career.
Lewis was voted to the Pro Bowl after the year and received second-team All-Pro honors.
He repeated both awards in 1998 when he had 120 tackles, two interceptions, and three sacks.
Billick got the franchise to eight wins in 1999 as Lewis once again led the league in total tackles and solo stops with 165 and 130, respectively.
He also defended eight passes, pulled down three picks, and had 3.5 sacks.
Lewis was voted to the Pro Bowl for the third time and was a first-team All-Pro for the first of seven times.
Since the Ravens failed to qualify for the playoffs after the ‘99 season, the only way for the players to attend Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta was to go as fans.
That’s what Lewis and a few friends did in late January of 2000.
After the game on January 30, Lewis and his buddies were at a place called the Cobalt Lounge in Atlanta.
As they were leaving in the early morning hours of January 31, Lewis’s group got into a heated argument with a different group of men.
The argument resulted in a skirmish and two members of the opposing group, Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker, were both stabbed to death.
🚨 EPISODE 39 – JACINTH BAKER AND RICHARD LOLLAR / RAY LEWIS MURDER TRIAL 🎙 is LIVE on ALL digital streaming platforms ‼️ Please click the link below to select your preferred platform, subscribe & listen 🎧
— What A Crime to Be Alive (@WhatACrimePod) October 29, 2021
Lewis and his friends were questioned and were later charged with assault and indicted for murder.
While awaiting trial, Lewis was held in jail
The trio initially lied about the events of that night, but Lewis would change his story and testify against his friends, Joseph Sweeting and Reginald Oakley, during the trial.
Lewis was then charged with obstruction of justice while Oakley and Sweeting were found not guilty due to a lack of evidence.
The judge in the case sentenced Lewis to one year of probation and the order not to consume alcohol or drugs during the probation.
Additionally, the NFL fined Lewis $250,000, the highest fine ever for a player not involved in substance abuse.
There still remains speculation about Lewis’ role during the stabbings.
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) October 21, 2015
He was wearing a white suit that night, and it could not be found after the altercation.
Blood belonging to Baker was also found in the limo that Lewis, Oakley, and Sweeting were in.
In 2004, Lewis reached a settlement with the families of both victims.
From Murder Suspect to Super Bowl MVP
With the threat of life-long imprisonment behind him, Lewis made a concentrated effort to turn his life around.
He eliminated any negative distractions including withdrawing from friends and acquaintances who were bad influences.
He renewed his faith in God and sought to become a good teammate and leader on the field.
In 2000, Lewis had 137 total tackles, three sacks, and two interceptions.
He was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year while also garnering first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors.
Meanwhile, Baltimore was stacked with a defense that included Lewis, defensive linemen Tony Siragusa, Rob Burnett, linebacker Peter Boulware, and defensive backs Rod Woodson, Duane Starks, and Chris McAlister.
The offense was led by former first-round pick Trent Dilfer and was ranked 14th in the NFL.
Baltimore’s defense was ruthless as the top-ranked unit in the league and allowed just 970 rushing yards for the entire year.
That mark is a record for a 16-game season.
“We were bullies,” Lewis said. “We were the one team that nobody ever picked that year, which was so awesome. We had so much confidence in each other about what we could do.”
The Ravens finished the year with a franchise-best 12-4 record and beat Denver, Tennessee, and Oakland in the first three rounds of the postseason.
January 7, 2001. Ravens. Titans. Ray Lewis. Eddie George. AFC Divisional Round.
Just a little more than half dozen minutes left and this happened. [via CBS/NFL] pic.twitter.com/l8Rt6fUD90
— Kyle J. Andrews (@KyleJAndrews_) January 4, 2021
Baltimore next faced the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV, the first Super Bowl appearance in team history.
The game wasn’t even close and was a tale of the three Lewises.
Ray Lewis had five total tackles and deflected four passes.
Jermaine Lewis was a jack-of-all-trades, gaining 152 all-purpose yards and scoring an 84-yard kick return during the game.
Rookie running back Jamal Lewis scored during the contest as well to put a cap on a 102-yard day and an excellent first year as a pro.
By the end of the game, the Giants had failed to score a touchdown on offense and lost the game 34-7.
— SportsLegends Museum (@SportsLegendsMD) January 28, 2014
One year after his professional life almost ended on Super Bowl Sunday, Lewis was voted the Super Bowl XXXV MVP.
Lewis Is Honored Again
For the next few seasons, Baltimore struggled to find consistency.
The team made the playoffs in 2001, 2003, and 2006, but failed to advance past the Divisional round.
Although the franchise was finding the road difficult, Lewis continued to shine.
In 2001, he was the leading tackler in the NFL for the third time as he gobbled up 162 total and 114 solo tackles along with 3.5 sacks and three interceptions for 115 return yards.
After a 2003 season where he posted 163 total tackles, 1.5 sacks, a career-best 14 passes defended, and a career-high six picks with one returned for a score, Lewis was voted NFL Defensive Player of the Year for a second time.
Not only was Lewis popular for his play on the field, but he was also noted for his exhilarating, squirming “squirrel dance” when coming out of the tunnel before games.
The Ray Lewis dance. Timeless.
— B/R Gridiron (@brgridiron) January 6, 2019
According to Lewis, the dance had originated several years before when he was a member of a dance team called the Hardy Boys when he was in middle school.
“In my hometown, Kirby Lee, a childhood friend of mine who was in the armed forces, always used to do this dance. We named the dance ‘The Squirrel,’ the way the squirrel moves,” Lewis explained. “He always did it. I’ll never forget it, I got in front of the mirror and I started flowing with it. The next week, I go to Marvin [Lewis, then the Ravens defensive coordinator] and say, ‘Look man, they’re going to introduce the defense. The stadium needs some excitement.’ He was like, ‘Go ahead and do your thing.'”
The dance became a tradition that was part of the Ravens pregame until the day Lewis retired.
Baltimore Returns to the Super Bowl
In 2008, Billick was fired, and new coach John Harbaugh took over.
The Ravens started winning again and advanced to the AFC Championship game that year before losing to Pittsburgh.
2009 and 2010 saw losses in the Divisional round and then another loss in the AFC title game to New England in 2011.
Lewis continued posting triple-digit tackles through the 2010 season and consistently made the Pro Bowl.
In 2011, he made the Pro Bowl for the final time on the strength of 95 total tackles, two sacks, seven passes defended, and one interception.
There were occasions where Lewis could have pulled up stakes and gone to a different team, but loyalty to the organization that drafted him made Lewis stay put.
“I am loyal to the core. I’m not putting on another uniform. It doesn’t even feel right to me. I’m serious; I don’t know how guys do it. Make money? Go do it. But legacy? I’ll never give up my legacy. I’ll never turn in my legacy,” explained Lewis.
By the 2012 season, Lewis was slowing down, and his body wasn’t responding to injuries in year 17 like it did in Year 1.
That year, he started only six games due to injury and had 57 total tackles, a forced fumble, and one pass defended.
Baltimore finished the season 10-6 and surprised opponents by defeating Indianapolis, Denver, and New England in the playoffs.
Just like that, the Ravens were in their second title game where they would face the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.
(2013) Ray Lewis and Ed Reed during Super Bowl XLVII. 💪 pic.twitter.com/e1ZAR1wPQ2
— Timeless Sports (@timelesssports_) December 18, 2017
The game was unique in that Harbaugh would face off against his brother, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh.
Not only that but the contest was known for the Ravens nearly squandering a huge lead.
Up 28-6 in the third quarter, there was suddenly a power outage that lasted for over 20 minutes.
When power was restored, San Francisco found new life.
The Niners scored on three straight possessions to close the gap to 29-23.
Both teams then traded scores until Baltimore finally outlasted its foe 34-31.
Ravens hold off furious comeback by 49ers to win Super Bowl XLVII, 34-31. Ray Lewis' last ride ends in a championship. pic.twitter.com/9Bmtm7Cw
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) February 4, 2013
During the game, Lewis contributed one pass deflection and two tackles.
Lewis had already told fans and the media during the 2012 season that he would retire after the year.
Once he brought home his second world title after Super Bowl XLVII, Lewis stepped down after 17 years.
During his career, Lewis had totals of 31 interceptions including three returned for scores, 96 passes defended, 41.5 sacks, and 2,059 total tackles including 1,568 solo stops.
He was a two-time Super Bowl champion, Super Bowl MVP, two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, seven-time first-team All-Pro, three-time second-team All-Pro, 13-time Pro Bowler, and NFL tackle leader three times.
Lewis was also named to the NFL’s 2000s All-Decade Team as well as the 100th Anniversary All-Time Team and added to the Ravens Ring of Honor.
Busy in Retirement
Lewis hasn’t slowed down in retirement.
He briefly owned a restaurant while he played, and he has dabbled in other business interests since leaving the game.
Lewis spent time as a commentator for ESPN and Fox Sports 1 and has been heavily involved in charity work.
Is Ray Lewis the 🐐 LB? pic.twitter.com/y5VgosheD7
— OutOfSightSports🚀 ™️ (@OOSSports) August 11, 2022
In 2018, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame during his first year of eligibility.
Lewis’ bio on the HoF site reads, “Wins and losses come a dime a dozen. But effort? Nobody can judge that. Because effort is between you and you.”
Lewis is married and has six children.
Two of his sons, Ray Lewis III and Rayshaud, followed in their father’s footsteps and played football including stops in college.
In August of 2022, ESPN ranked Lewis as the greatest linebacker in NFL history.
“What separates the greats from one another is not physical skill. It’s preparation, football intelligence, instincts and execution,” analyst Louis Riddick said. “Lewis made some of the most spectacular individual defensive plays we have ever seen because he was the very best at getting the most out of everything he had mentally before the ball was even snapped, allowing his physical skills to shine. That is being a GOAT in my eyes.”