If he could have, Ray Lewis would have chosen to be a wrestler rather than a football player, which makes a lot of sense. A sport that strips away everything except for a rubber slab and some skin-tight singlets? That exalts machismo in every moment? That doesn’t provide any escape? It was practically made for this man.
“There is nothing like that one-on-one battle,” he says.
But Lewis, who wrestled throughout high school, recognized that the sport would not provide him with the same opportunities football could, so the state champ turned his full attention to football in college at Miami, transferring the skills he learned in the ring onto the gridiron. Knowing “the low man always wins” helped him reach the highest of highs in the NFL, notching 13 Pro Bowl nods, two defensive player of the year awards and one Super Bowl MVP trophy.
Last Thursday, in the heart of Times Square, Lewis had a chance to return to the mat as the honorary coach for United in the Square, an Olympic tune-up for wrestlers from the U.S., Iran, South Korea and Canada. The night came at a pivotal time for Lewis, who is now grappling with his future after splitting with ESPN.
“I think what happened between us will stay between us,” was all Lewis had to say on that topic. As for what he will do now with his free time? “Freaking everything!”
Including a return to broadcasting?
“Who knows? I always say, ‘When man closes one door, God opens another.’”
In the meantime, Thursday’s event returned Lewis to his comfort zone. He got the gig after impressing billionaire former wrestler Mike Novogratz with a corporate speech in Florida—“It was one of the greatest one-hour speeches I ever saw,” Novogratz said—and Lewis leapt at the opportunity to address America’s Olympic wrestlers. Before the competition, he preached to them “there’s two things you can do in life: You can either be a trailblazer or you can be a pathfinder. Today is about being a trailblazer. Today is about coming out here and setting your own path that another young man can be inspired by.” Greco-Roman heavyweight Robby Smith said he’d never seen his peers so focused. He even spotted a few wet eyes. Count Rio-bound Adeline Gray among those moved.
“He’s one of those people you Google on Sunday night for motivation for Monday morning and I got to sit there in the middle of Times Square and have him talk about my dream and what I want to do and accomplish in this world,” she said in a single breath. “That just spoke to me.”
Earlier in the afternoon, younger wrestlers with Beat the Streets, a nonprofit focused on providing a safe atmosphere for high schoolers and middle schoolers through wrestling, put on an exhibition, and the Baltimore delegation stuck around to catch a glimpse of their city’s champion. Thirteen-year-old Clement Woods won the 2016 Maryland state championship, but like Lewis, also has a penchant for football and a desire to go to college in Florida. William Lomax, 14, was not yet born when Lewis was named the MVP of Super Bowl XXXV in 2000, but he still said that seeing the linebacker recognize wrestling only makes the sport more compelling.
Just before the main event, Lewis took hold of the microphone and spoke to the throngs of spectators that lined the block. To much applause, he professed his love for wrestling.
Then, clad in a USA jacket, he sat down to enjoy the matches. The swarm returned to him at the end of the night as he stood on the mat in the midst of the post-event frenzy. Fans stuck smartphones in the air while professionals foisted flashbulbs and boom mics toward their mark. Near Lewis, in the middle of it all, was 2012 gold medalist Jordan Burroughs, considered by many to be the best pound-for-pound freestyle wrestler in the world. This was his night, but even he was still talking about Lewis. “I see the intensity he brings to the field,” Burroughs said. “I hope I was able to impress him.”
After Burroughs beat his opponent, 11–2, he hunted for Lewis. Still sweating, the 163-pounder searched among the chaos, stepping through throngs of fans and cameras, under the lights of multi-storied glowing billboards, hoping to hear a few more heartfelt words.