Just as Baltimoreans remember Johnny Unitas, coolly cocking the ball during a fourth-quarter comeback, they will forever dream of the young No. 52, dashing from sideline to sideline to corral every ballcarrier in sight. They'll picture the hips shimmying and the chest thrusting as Lewis emerged from the tunnel at M&T Bank Stadium to the beats of Nelly's "Hot in Herre." They'll recall the fire in his eyes and the music in his voice as he barked at teammates, "Any dogs in the house?"
It's a complicated legacy to be sure. Around the country, many have never gotten past the murder charges Lewis faced in connection with the fatal stabbing of two men outside an Atlanta club the night of the 2000 Super Bowl. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor obstruction-of-justice charge and agreed to testify against his co-defendants, later reaching financial settlements with the families of both victims to avoid civil trials.
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Lewis stood in the eye of a media storm as he led the Ravens to the Super Bowl in 2001, a year after the Atlanta incident. He wasn't asked about it nearly as much this year, though when he was, he said he lives with it every day.
Atlanta aside, other fans see Lewis as a phony because of his outspoken Christianity and showy leadership.
His hold on a football nation is undeniable, however. No other player's jersey was close to as prevalent on the streets of New Orleans in the past week. And stars from around the NFL have paid verbal homage to Lewis, not only as an on-field force but as a personal counselor on the travails of public life.
For a few moments on Sunday night, all the complexity washed away and Lewis was just a man who had given his life to football, celebrating the perfect ending.
"Daddy gets to come home now," Lewis said. "It is the most ultimate feeling ever. This is the way you do it. No other way to go out and end a career. This is how you do it."