But last month, after restating that belief in a phone interview, she called back. "This is my conscience," she said. "I've been praying on it, and I'm saying I believe [ Lewis] was totally set up. I didn't want to say nothing; I was worried about how my family would feel. Come to realize, I've got to live with myself."
Lollar-Owens says that before her father died of cancer in 2002, he told her she had to speak about her change of heart. It has taken her four years. She has talked to Lewis only once, by phone after the 2001 Super Bowl. She says he called to tell her he was sorry for her loss. "There was something in his voice," she says. "I just felt he was innocent."
Ray Lewis knows what his problem is. He'll tell you up front about his faults, about how he was wrong for years in the way he allowed "broke people" to get close enough to jeopardize his career and his reputation, and how he "would walk around and might not treat a woman the right way." But to him those are symptoms of a larger malfunction. It's now conventional wisdom to decry the prevalence of single-mother households in black society, the lack of strong father figures for young males. Lewis offers himself up as Exhibit A. "I had no one at home to confirm, help, release, whatever," he says. "I've got six kids? I've never had a conversation with a man about a woman--ever. I've never had a man sit down and say, 'Son, let me tell you about women.'"
When Ray Lewis was born to the 16-year-old Sunseria on May 15, 1975, his father, Elbert Ray Jackson, set a tone that would endure for three decades: He wasn't around. It was left to Ray Lewis, a friend of Sunseria's, to sign the documents and give the newborn his name. Jackson moved in and out of their lives in Lakeland, Fla., with some regularity, then all but drifted away when Lewis was six. Occasionally Jackson would call to say he was coming to see little Ray, "but he always would lie," Lewis says. "My mother would say, 'Your daddy's coming to get you,' and there were days when I would pack my bag, go outside and just sit there. Sun goes down, my mama comes to grab me, and I would be boo-hoo crying, and she'd say, 'It's gonna be all right.' That was my whole life: It's gonna be all right, it's gonna be all right. So as I'm getting older, I'm like, When is it going to be all right? Great mother, but you can't teach me how to be a man. And I'm screaming inside, Can somebody please help me?"
Ray eventually was the oldest of five brothers and sisters, the man in charge. As a teenager he would braid his sisters' hair, take his little brother Keon Lattimore--now a junior running back at Maryland--to day care, go to school, hit practice, do push-ups until he passed out next to his bed. Lewis became a football and wrestling star at Kathleen High, like his father before him; everyone remarked on how he resembled Ray Jackson. His father's coach, Brian Bain, once gave Lewis a program detailing Jackson's wrestling marks. "I posted it on my wall, and every night I'd see it," Lewis says. "Every one of those records? I shattered them, and every time, I shattered them with pain. It was like, Yeah! It's over! His name is out of there! That was my push: to erase everything about him."
When Ray was in high school, Sunseria showed him a letter stating that Jackson had legally changed his son's name to Ray Jackson. Lewis ignored it. "I will never walk in his name," Lewis said then. "Ever."
The absence of a father figure--a "lack of," Lewis simply calls it--has been an ongoing crisis that he has been speaking about from the moment he broke into prominence as a Miami freshman in 1993. SI's attempts to contact Jackson were unsuccessful, but Sunseria, McCall and Ernest Joe, Lewis's high school football coach, all confirm that Jackson was absent from Lewis's youth. Yet Lewis's fixation has only intensified with time and what everyone around him insists is a true spiritual growth. Christianity explains itself through stories, and now that Lewis is witnessing, now that he's looking at himself as a feather buffeted by forces far greater than man, he has no choice but to comb through it all again and attempt to understand himself in a new context. All the bad events? His daddy? The trial? Mere tests and hurdles and setbacks he was meant to endure to get him to today. Never mind that Lewis may not know all the facts of his parents' relationship. "He was a child," McCall warns. "Whatever transpired between his parents, all he knows are the stories."
On the football field, Lewis was undersized and unstoppable. He had 17 tackles in his first start at Miami and declared his intention to be the greatest Hurricane ever. Off the field, he seemed incapable of creating anything less than a Category 5 impact. He met McCall when she was a freshman at Miami in the fall of 1994. While she was carrying their first son, Ray III, the two got into a shouting match that prompted Lewis's first run-in with the law; a resident assistant said she saw Lewis push McCall, strike her in the face and put his hands on her neck. McCall didn't press charges. If anything, she says now, she was the aggressive one in the incident. A year later Lewis stepped into an argument between McCall and Kimberlie Arnold, a former girlfriend of Lewis's. Arnold told campus police that Lewis shook her shoulder and scratched her, but again no charges were brought; in 2000 she told The ( Baltimore) Sun that "he's not a violent or abusive person, not to me he wasn't."
Yet violence has shadowed Lewis at nearly every step in his life. While he was away at college, a dozen close friends and relatives from Lakeland died, one trying to rob a bank. Each time Lewis went home it seemed he was attending a funeral. Then in April 1996, UM linebacker Marlin Barnes and a female friend were bludgeoned to death by the woman's ex-boyfriend in the apartment Lewis and Barnes shared; Barnes was buried the day Baltimore drafted Lewis. More than a decade later Lewis still cries at the mention of his friend's name. Barnes wasn't just the one workout partner who could keep up with Lewis; he also pushed him, told him he was unique, even predicted his trouble. "Man," Lewis remembers Barnes telling him, "everybody ain't going to like you." Barnes filled the void left by Lewis's father; he organized his clothes with care, so Lewis did, too. He shaved off his body hair, convinced that it would give him that extra 10th of a second, so Lewis did, too. When Barnes died, Lewis felt he'd been thrown back out on that stoop, waiting for a face that would never come. He punched a hole in a wall and thought, Now you're gone too?
After signing with the Ravens, Lewis tried to reconnect with his father, gave him $5,000. "He burned me," Lewis says. "Blew the money, left my life again." Every once in a while Jackson would surface, and everyone would remark on how alike the two men looked. Lewis thought he could understand himself if he could understand the dead ringer in the room. But over and over he would end up saying, "Dad? Can you just come around and don't ask for nothing? Teach me something."