CANTON, Ohio – A lighted glass platform at the Pro Football Hall of Fame awaits the bronze bust of Ray Lewis, the Baltimore Ravens icon to be inducted next week, capping a career among the sport’s most remarkable: a Super Bowl ring for each hand, a collection of Pro Bowl appearances and the love of a city and region grateful for his hard-charging work ethic and fiery oratory.
Like the 9-foot-tall, 1,200-pound statue of Lewis that greets fans outside M&T Bank Stadium, the man still looms large over Baltimore. Five years after his final game, his No. 52 jersey remains among the NFL’s most popular. Kids still imitate his signature “squirrel” dance – high knees, long side steps, head flung back and chest thrust forward. YouTube videos and speaking gigs in the style of his legendary locker room talks guide listeners in channeling pain into greatness, rejecting violence as a force for change and glorifying God for the gifts of this world.
But 25 miles from Canton, where the Ravens star is to be enshrined along with seven other football heroes in the Hall of Fame Class of 2018 on Aug. 4, one Akron family continues to mourn the loss of their loved one in a fight involving Lewis 18 years ago.
Stabbing deaths: Handsome Lollar says he still believes Lewis is guilty in the 2000 stabbing deaths of his older brother Richard Lollar, 24, and Lollar’s childhood friend Jacinth Baker, 21, in a brawl outside an Atlanta nightclub after that year’s Super Bowl.
Lewis and two other men were charged with murder in those deaths. During their trial, Lewis pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, a misdemeanor, and the murder charges were dropped.
Lewis was sentenced to a year of probation. His fellow defendants, Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting, were tried and acquitted.
Lewis paid undisclosed sums to settle claims brought by Richard Lollar’s fiancee and his daughter, who was born a month after his death, and Baker’s grandmother, according to media reports.
Handsome Lollar, 28, called Lewis’ induction into the Hall of Fame “a black eye to the NFL.”
A Ravens spokesman said Lewis was unavailable for an interview on the subject. Spokesman Chad Steele said Lewis has already addressed the matter, but he did not point to any specific comments.
Lewis told The Baltimore Sun in 2010 that “no day leaves this Earth without me asking God to ease the pain of anybody who was affected by that whole ordeal.”
He also said the experience helped make him who he is.
“You ask me if I’d trade anything, and I couldn’t,” Lewis said. “I couldn’t because I wouldn’t be the man that I am today.
“The end result is who I am now. And that means if I had to go through all that again to come to the point of who I am right now, why change it?”
How it unfolded: At the time of the killings, Lewis was 24 and a rising star on the football field, described by fellow players as the best linebacker in the league.
The altercation unfolded at around 4 a.m. on Jan. 31, 2000, hours after the St. Louis Rams toppled the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV. Lewis and his friends had spilled out of the Cobalt Lounge and onto the streets of the trendy Buckhead entertainment district of Atlanta. Someone in Lollar and Baker’s group argued with Lewis’ group, and the fight escalated.
“A Moet bottle smashed into the side of my head,” Oakley wrote in his self-published book “Memories of Murder.” “All hell broke loose around us.”
Lollar and Baker were both stabbed in the heart, and bled to death on the street, prosecutors said during the trial. Lewis, Oakley and Sweeting sped away in a 40-foot black limousine, prosecutors said. Someone opened fire, hitting it with bullets and flattening a tire.
One witness in the trial testified that he saw Lewis cock a fist during the fight, but didn’t see whether he landed a blow. He also described Lewis as trying, early in the fight, to end it peacefully.
In his plea deal, Lewis admitted to telling the people in the limo that they should keep quiet about what they saw.
He was sentenced to a year of probation. The NFL fined him $250,000 for “conduct detrimental to the league,” at the time, the largest such fine the sport’s history.
When Sweeting and Oakley went to trial, Lewis testified against them. He said the men bought knives the day they went to party at the Cobalt Lounge.
Oakley, then 31, was a barber from Baltimore. Sweeting, 34 at the time, was a music producer whom Lewis knew from his time at the University of Miami. Both were acquitted of all charges.
Lollar, a barber, and Baker, an artist, had moved from Akron to an Atlanta suburb. Baker’s family declined to be interviewed for this article.
Getting back on the field: Lewis returned to Baltimore, declared his innocence and returned to the football field. He faced boos at road games, and some called him a killer. He told The Baltimore Sun in 2010 that he received death threats, and began using an assumed name to check into hotels.
Handsome Lollar said his family watched from afar as Lewis’ star soared. A year after the killings, he led the Ravens to their first Super Bowl championship and was named Super Bowl MVP. He was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year twice and first-team All Pro seven times, and made the Pro Bowl 13 times.
In Baltimore and beyond, Lewis also became known as a vocal Christian, an inspirational leader and a generous philanthropist.
Remembering Lollar: While fans celebrate at the Hall of Fame with a parade, autograph sessions, an exhibition game between the Ravens and the Chicago Bears and fireworks, Lollar wants the crowds to consider his brother.
Richard Lollar, the oldest of nine siblings, “was my father and my big brother at the same time,” Handsome said.
“That day really is the reason I am who I am,” he said. “It really impacted my life. I suffered a lot from that – sleepless nights, crying nights.”
Handsome Lollar was 10 when his brother was killed. He stopped playing football, he said, and for 15 years wouldn’t let anyone cut his hair. His brother had given him his last trim.
He said he tries to honor his brother with his life. Friends call him “Rich,” he named his son King Richard, and has a tattoo that says “So many tears. Rest in peace, Rich” with images of heaven’s gates. He launched a clothing line, “I am Rich” in memory of his brother. From a strip mall in west Akron, he sells embroidered T-shirts, hats, logo slides and track suits.
Their aunt Cindy Lollar-Owens, also of Akron, said Richard Lollar was into fashion and loved clothing. She traveled to Atlanta for the murder trial; in her mind, she said, she can still see the cream-colored sweater he wore the night he was killed, stained with blood.
For years, she protested Lewis in news media and outside NFL games. She said she wants to organize a boycott of the ceremony, but does not know where to start.
“I never gave up,” Lollar-Owens said. But she said she is resigned to the fact Lewis is being inducted into the Hall of Fame.
“There is nothing we can do,” she said. “They’re going to give it to him.”
An enormous banner outside the Hall of Fame features the “Class of 2018,” a smiling image of Lewis at the center.
Lewis grew up in Florida and starred at the University of Miami before becoming the Ravens’ second-ever draft pick in 1996. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
Garceau gives his take: Scott Garceau is Baltimore’s representative on the 48-member Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. The sports talk radio host on 105.7 The Fan presented Lewis’ name for consideration at the annual selection meeting in February in Minneapolis.
Lewis’ plea to obstruction of justice in the Atlanta killing was not part of the process.
When considering candidates for enshrinement, the Baseball Hall of Fame considers character off the field. But candidates for the Pro Football Hall of Fame are judged only on their achievements, positive and negative, as a player, coach or contributor.
To be elected, a finalist must receive at least 80 percent of the 48 votes.
“We are only supposed to assess players on what they did on the football field,” Garceau said. “For instance, if a player had three DUIs, that’s something we’re not supposed to bring up. We’re to judge them on what they did between the lines.”
When he presented Lewis’ name, Garceau said, “there was no conversation about Ray. It was like the room knew he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and that nothing more need be said.”
“We don’t have to be God or judge or jury; we can just judge players on their football abilities,” Garceau said. “But I still think that, though (off-the-field character) is not supposed to be considered, human nature will consider it at times.”
Believing in Lewis’ innocence: At the Hall of Fame recently, the Rev. Shawn Ellis of Irwin, Pa., studied the platform that will hold the bronzed bust of Lewis, to be lit brightly, like the 317 others, against a stark black slab.
To Ellis, who grew up in Howard County, Lewis’ legacy is one of a passionate and dedicated player. He is aware of the killings, and the murder charges that were dropped. But he believes Lewis’ innocence. He points to his lifestyle in the last 18 years.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Ellis said. “There are certain players who are great and certain players who make others great. That’s Ray Lewis. As a player, there’s nobody like him.”