Now they're all in it together. Lewis starts bellowing, the crowd loses all control, clapping, stomping. He's going for a big finish: voice cracking, face wet, the words coming fast. Ray Lewis is feeling so justified that he's like a runaway train. And for all his spiritual growth these past few years, for all he will tell you about his new walk, it's clear now that Lewis retains every bit of swagger, menace, that palpable promise of violence that made him one of football's greatest defensive players. He's not about to let this testimony end in a haze of peace or love. No, this is payback, a bit of that Miami Hurricanes in-your-face, a holy f--- you to the world that tried to shut him away.
"Church: Every time I step on the football field, He's prepared a table for me in the presence of my enemy!" Lewis says, and now he's jeering. "And every time they think they want to say something to me? Every time they think they want to boo me? They have to pay--to come see me."
And it's over. Bryant steps toward him, reaches for the microphone, but Lewis is too far gone. He flings the mike down, and it hits the stage with a reverberating thunk. God's linebacker stalks away, certain he's feeling nothing but grace.
A week later, on Oct. 2, Lewis is sitting at a table in the lunchroom at the Ravens' practice facility in Owings Mills, Md. "Then I watch TV," he is saying about the aftermath of his trial six years ago, "and I hear [one victim's] younger brother say, 'Oh, Ray Lewis is going to get his one day. Just like he killed my brother, he going to die.' This is on TV, a 13-year-old child. All because of what y'all wanted to report that was dead-ass wrong! So the rest of my life I don't know if somebody's going to walk up to me and put a pistol to my head. For the rest of my life."
You could say he's paranoid, except that after District Attorney Paul Howard dropped the murder charges against him for the deaths of two men from Akron, Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar, Lewis testified against the remaining defendants, his former friends Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting. Both men were acquitted in June 2000, and that fall Sweeting released a rap song lambasting Lewis as a snitch, reportedly with such lyrics as Oakley should have stabbed ya, and If I knew what I know now, it'd have been three bodies. In February 2005 the FBI investigated death threats e-mailed to Lewis's charitable foundation.
When the Ravens go on the road, Lewis still draws increased security at hotels and stadiums, and his attitude from moment to moment ranges from devil-may-care bravado to perspective-warping fear. An hour after the subject of Atlanta has passed and the conversation has long shifted to children and faith, Lewis abruptly points to a TV hanging over the table. "Look," he says. Reports from Pennsylvania Dutch country flash on the screen, the crawl detailing the shooting of five Amish schoolgirls. "Right there: 'Murders were revenge for a 20-year-old incident.'" He nods, eyes full of meaning. "See?"
But he moves on because, well, what choice is there? One by one, a dozen teammates stop to assure Lewis they'll be at his barbecue restaurant for the weekly get-together later that night--one more sign that Lewis, the face of the franchise, is back as its heart too. Last year, sidelined for the final 10 games with the torn hamstring and unhappy with Ravens management, he had been a distracting, isolated figure, his misery confirmed when he publicly ripped the team's defensive schemes before the April draft. Taken together it felt like the beginning of a bad-taste end to Lewis's Baltimore career; the team even briefly scrapped their game-day player introductions, always capped by Lewis's signature gyrations.
Then, during the Ravens' 4--0 start, Lewis reasserted control of the locker room, of M&T Bank Stadium and of the intros: His dance has returned. He again leads the team in tackles, quieting questions about age and health. "Ray strikes fear in a lot of people--even when you're on his team," said Baltimore defensive end Trevor Pryce, an off-season acquisition, after the Ravens' loss to the Carolina Panthers on Oct. 15. "He hit me in the face today, friendly fire, and I was like, 'Oh, my Lord.' I can't imagine getting 20 of those a game as a running back. When you see him as an opponent, the city of Baltimore and this team built him up for so long that you expect, I'm Ray Lewis, I'm on billboards. There's none of that. From the first day I got here, he started preaching, 'We need to win. We, we, we.'"
Such a one-year turnaround was small change for Lewis, a lock Hall of Famer who has spent six years disproving F. Scott Fitzgerald's lament that there are no second acts in American lives. Fitzgerald, of course, wrote in a time before talk-show mea culpas and high-speed news cycles made almost anyone famous and any deed forgivable. But even by today's standards, the second act of Lewis's public life has been a marvel of image rehabilitation. Murder suspect one night after the Super Bowl in 2000 and Most Valuable Player of the Super Bowl the following year, he once seemed the embodiment of the Entitled Athlete, the culmination of a thuggish era that featured O.J. Simpson, Latrell Sprewell and Rae Carruth. When the Ravens won it all, Lewis got no trip to Disneyland, no spot on the Wheaties box, but he was still the best player in the NFL--and for the image-obsessed league, a dancing, jawing, unrepentant nightmare.
Yet since then, Lewis's charity efforts--his annual donation of Thanksgiving meals to 400 Baltimore families, his purchase of Christmas gifts for 100 needy kids, his providing of school supplies to 1,200 city students--have helped make him Baltimore's most-beloved public figure. Lewis's replica jerseys fill the 70,000-seat stadium; his face is indeed plastered all over the city, as once-wary corporations such as EA Sports and Reebok and KBank use his name to sell product. Even the league that fined him $250,000 for his role in the Atlanta incident surrendered; in recent years he has appeared in ads for NFL Equipment and worked as an NFL Network analyst. The cynical will say Lewis bought his way back into favor, but it's not as easy as it sounds: Neither O.J. nor former Green Bay Packers tight end Mark Chmura nor any other recently scandalized athlete has come close to Lewis's recovery.