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What It Means to Lead

Men of Sunday: How Faith Guides the Players, Coaches, and Wives of the NFL by Curtis Eichelberger. Thomas Nelson ©2012. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson, Inc.,

Al Bello

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis is one of the most feared linebackers to have ever played the game. Over a sixteen-year NFL career, all in Baltimore, he has been voted to thirteen Pro Bowls, has twice been named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, and was Super Bowl XXXV’s Most Valuable Player.

While he’s received plenty of accolades for his on-field performance, he’s made some mistakes in his life too. He had children out of wedlock, and he didn’t always choose the best friends. In February 2000, Lewis was charged with murder after two men were stabbed to death in a street fight outside an Atlanta nightclub following that year’s Super Bowl. He was exonerated of the murder charges, but not until after he’d been dragged before the public in shackles and faced the possibility of life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. It forced him to take a hard look at the people he was hanging out with.

Through the ups and downs and growing pains and all the celebrity pitfalls, Lewis maintained a resolute faith in God—one that had been instilled in him by his mother, Buffy Jenkins, as a child. It would be his support system during the worst of times and serve as a reminder of his calling to serve God in those moments when the world chose to put him on a pedestal.

More than anything, Ray Lewis will likely be remembered as one of the NFL’s greatest leaders of men, both on and off the football field.

“My grandma and great-grandma would come and say, ‘God’s got His hands on you,’” Ray remembers.

When you are a child, such words from an admired adult make you beam with pride. It’s the sort of memory you carry with you later in life. And it’s something Lewis would remember years later as teammates began to come to him for a word or a line of scripture when they had lost their way.

He understood because like a lot of us, he, too, had lost his way from time to time. The celebrity of being a star football player from high school through the pros can be intoxicating, he says. And even though he’d had a proper religious upbringing, the women, the parties, the false friends proved too tempting in his youth.

Lewis was drafted by the Ravens out of the University of Miami with the twenty-sixth overall pick in the 1996 NFL draft. He was a dynamic player from the start and quickly developed a reputation for being a high-energy, high-impact player, capable of standing up to a 300-pound tackle and or sending a fullback flying backward.

Lewis sprinted everywhere, and by his sheer desire to get to the ball, he put himself in position to make plays whether he was making the tackle, recovering a fumble, or intercepting a tipped pass. If he didn’t make the first hit, he’d drive the pile back a step or two or three when he arrived half a second later.

In no time, the accolades began rolling in: AFC Defensive Player of the Week, All-Rookie Team, Linebacker of the Year, Pro Bowl.

Lewis was learning the pro game, and his athletic talents and work ethic allowed him to do it faster than most. It was the first stage of developing into the leader he would eventually become, he says. Lewis says there are four steps to becoming a leader, whether you work in an NFL locker room or at the local bowling alley. First, master your craft. Second, help others. Third, share the Word. Fourth, live what you are preaching so that you will be heard and others will know it to be true and genuine.

“A job title doesn’t define a leader. What you do [for a living] doesn’t define a leader,” Lewis says. “It doesn’t matter how many Pro Bowls I’ve gone to. It doesn’t matter whether I go into the Hall of Fame. None of that defines a leader.

“To be a leader, you’ve got to be willing to serve others. Learn your job and become excellent at it. Then seek to help others. As they improve and benefit from your assistance, they will see the wisdom in it and will look to you for guidance and leadership again. It’s not enough to be great at your job. If you don’t serve others and genuinely seek to make everyone around you better, your talent won’t matter. Practice your craft, then help those around you,” he encourages.

Lewis has an enormous following in Baltimore. Fans clamor to get his autograph, and media refer to him as the face of the franchise. He is one of the most recognized and sought-out players throughout the NFL and is always the television networks’ key pregame interview, where he is usually referred to as a “future Hall of Famer.”

But Lewis says that great leadership goes beyond just performing well individually and helping those around him. To be a true leader, he says, a player must also embrace his faith and be willing to confess it to others.