Of the many side stories surrounding the game is that, win or lose, the game marks the swan song of one of football's greats, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who is hanging up his cleats after 17 seasons.
Kudos are pouring in from fans, sportscasters and even NFL brass for Lewis, who is from Lakeland. National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell is considering hiring Lewis as a special adviser. Lewis, he says, is a "tremendous voice of reason."
Then again, as Anna Burns Welker, wife of New England Patriots player Wes Welker, scornfully pointed out on her Facebook page after the Pats lost to the Ravens on the way to the Super Bowl, there's another Ray Lewis.
"6 kids 4 wives. Acquitted for murder. Paid a family off. Yay. What a hall of fame player! A true role model!"
Actually, he never married any of the women. And 13 years ago, just after Super Bowl XXXIV, I couldn't imagine Goodell all a-gush about Lewis. Not after the All-Pro was charged with two counts of murder in the stabbing deaths of two people outside an Atlanta nightclub.
Fast-forward, and Lewis pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, a misdemeanor, and testified against two of his cohorts. For his role in the deaths, Lewis received one year of probation and a $250,000 fine from the NFL — and an epiphany.
Ever since, Lewis has been in reputation-renovation mode. In October, the Maryland Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame presented its "Outstanding American" award for contributions that transcend football.
Talk about an extreme makeover.
But for a moment, let's consider this tale of two sports heroes from these parts: Lewis and former Orlando Magic star Vince Carter.
On the court, Carter was famous for soaring dunks. Off the court, he was known for helping his Daytona Beach community soar.
In 1998, his rookie season, Carter set up his Embassy of Hope Foundation to help poor kids and their families. In 2007, he and his mother, Michelle Carter-Scott, donated $1.6 million to the Stewart-Marchman Foundation. That money became a new 100-bed substance-abuse treatment facility known as The Vince Carter Sanctuary.
Remembering his old stomping grounds, Carter contributed $2.5 million to Mainland High School, where he attended. Today, kids play hoops inside the Vince Carter Athletic Center.
Yet his commitment goes beyond stroking a check. Nor is it about naming rights. It is genuine commitment. Commitment that the Children's Home Society recognized in naming Carter the 2000 "Child Advocate of the Year." Former Gov. Charlie Crist, too, recognized him as a Points of Light recipient for his altruism.
Even with Carter's entrepreneurial interests, such as his namesake restaurant in Daytona Beach, he decided to open the eatery in his backyard rather than in New Jersey where he played at the time, because, as he told the Daytona Beach News Journal at the time, "Daytona Beach had been good to me."
In Lewis' case, as a recent USA Today article reported, you can't drive down any streets bearing Ray Lewis' name in Lakeland. And the former Kathleen High School standout wasn't inducted into the school's Hall of Fame until four years ago. Lewis operates a foundation in his adopted hometown of Baltimore, and people lionize him there — but not universally in his hometown.
Lewis, unlike Carter, forgot, in many ways, where he came from.
We all love a good redemption story. And yes, Lewis should be get some ink for trying to turn his life around. But what about the seemingly rare athlete who stays off the police blotter and stays involved in the community? Like Carter.
Don't forget them Sunday during the Lewis love fest.
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