For the sake of historical context, let’s rewind to what may have been the most passive-aggressive press conference in NFL history.
Tampa, Fla., the morning of Jan. 29, 2001. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue is about to present the MVP trophy for Super Bowl XXXV to Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.
Tagliabue was in the position of honoring a man who, almost exactly one year before, was indicted on a murder charge in the stabbing deaths of two men.
Lewis, clearly the best player in Baltimore’s dominant 34-7 win over the Giants, was about to accept a trophy from a man who had fined him $250,000 for his involvement in the incident, for which he had plea-bargained down to the misdemeanor obstruction of justice.
Tagliabue, who on a good day had the demeanor of a rusty automaton, reached Walter Matthau grump level when Lewis arrived at the Monday morning press conference in a sweatsuit and one of those Gilligan inverted sailor hats pulled down over his eyes.
When the photographers and cameramen complained that the hat obscured Lewis’ face, and Lewis did nothing about it, Tagliabue reached over and bent back the front brim.
When the commish touched Lewis’ hat, I thought he was going to get sacked on the spot.
But when the awkwardness reached its peak, it all suddenly slipped into the surreal, as the overhead speakers in the hotel ballroom began piping in symphonic dance music. Loudly. For probably 20 or 30 seconds before somebody could figure out how to shut it off.
Tagliabue looked stricken. Lewis looked … who knows, nobody could see his eyes.
Now, 12 years later, Ray Lewis returns to the Super Bowl, an elder statesman, a venerated leader, capping his 17-year, Hall of Fame career with a final game against the San Francisco 49ers.
And once again, he will be a highlighted story, with varying subplots of defiance, redemption, athletic fury and competitive obsession. You may take your pick.
That week 12 years ago, Lewis made himself easy to view as a villain. At the Super Bowl a year before, he’d been allegedly involved – to some never-discovered degree – in a fight that left two dead of knife wounds.
At the very least, he collected his crew in the aftermath, hurried them away in his limo, and then lied to the police when they investigated.
On the Tuesday morning media day in 2001, Lewis faced a heavy inquisition. He did so with no apologies, no regrets and a combative tone.
“I’m not here to please y’all … I’m not here to please the country,” he said. And he certainly wasn’t there to please Tagliabue.
It was an awful game, in which the Giants were embarrassed, and in which total completed passes (27) barely outnumbered punts (21).
Lewis’ efforts were rewarded with the MVP honor, but even that carried a snub, because Ravens quarterback Trent Dilfer was invited to do the “I’m going to Disney World” ad afterward, because Lewis was not considered an appropriate representative by the Disney folks.
Since then, Lewis has run his total of Pro Bowls to 13. He has played with distinction through injuries and losing seasons.
He reportedly reached financial settlements with families of the two victims to avoid civil cases. He has kept his nose clean. And he has said the right things. In the eyes of many, he has tackled his way to civic respectability.
He missed 10 games this season with a triceps injury that required surgery, and when he came back, he announced that he will retire when this season is over.
Inspired by the finality of it, the Ravens won three straight playoff games – the last two as road underdogs. Lewis, playing with a giant brace on his arm, has compiled 44 tackles in those three games.
Can he be the first defensive player to win more than one Super Bowl MVP trophy? Absolutely. And won’t it be interesting?
Will the Disney people ask him to do the ad this time? And if they do, would Lewis tell them where they can shove their mouse?
I can guarantee this, if commissioner Roger Goodell is overseeing the Monday morning MVP trophy ceremony, he will give Lewis a full-on, double-armed man-hug.
And if music somehow breaks out on the overhead speakers, I suspect the two might just decide to dance, perhaps a little box-step waltz, with Lewis leading.Dave Boling: 253-0597-8440 firstname.lastname@example.org @DaveBoling