On the day Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis announced he would be retiring after this season, my thoughts drifted back to a bitterly cold winter day in a cemetery in Akron, Ohio.
That's where Richard Lollar was buried and where his bespectacled grandmother, Joyce Lollar, showed me his grave more than a decade ago.
As I wrote then, she crunched through the snow with leafless trees etched against a gray Midwestern skyline. A frozen drizzle fell from above. With her shoe, she scraped the snow and the ice and the dirt from her grandson's grave site and said a short prayer that ended with: "We miss you, Richard. We love you."
And then she broke down and cried. And then the sadness turned to madness as she spoke bitterly about how she felt Ray Lewis and his "gang of hoodlums" literally got away with murder.
"They stabbed my Richard five times in vital places — the heart, the liver," she said angrily. "They don't even kill animals like that. This was no bar fight; this was a slaughter. This was a thrill-killing."
Amid this week-long celebration and commemoration of Ray Lewis' brilliant, Hall of Fame career, let us not forget that he was once charged with killing Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker — two men whose murders were never solved. Two men whose families are, no doubt, still haunted by the fact that brutal, bloody killers are still out there somewhere running free.
Ray Lewis may or may not be the greatest linebacker of all-time, but he has certainly pulled off the greatest comeback story in the history of sports. He is considered a role model, a team leader, a man known for his hard work on the field and his charitable work off of it.
To fathom the scope of his redemptive powers, all you have to do is click on the two separate Wikipedia pages of Lewis and Michael Vick. In the opening paragraph of Vick's, it mentions his notorious episode of dog-killing. In Lewis' opening paragraph, it chronicles his Pro Bowls, his Super Bowl MVP, even the torn triceps that kept him sidelined for much of this season. But there is not a single mention of the fact that he once was charged with murdering two men.
"Everybody's gone on with their lives; everybody but us," Joyce Lollar told me in 2001, a year after her grandson was murdered and a few days before Lewis was named the MVP of Super Bowl XXXV. "Ray Lewis is living his dream, but what about my grandson's dreams? Our family's been destroyed, and now we have to watch Ray Lewis prancing around in the Super Bowl. It makes me sick to my stomach."
Joyce raised Richard Lollar, who was left dead in the street in the early morning hours on Jan. 31, 2000, — a few hours after the Rams defeated the Titans in one of the most thrilling Super Bowls in history. And then came one of the most chilling post-Super Bowl scenes in history. A brawl outside the Cobalt Lounge, an upscale Atlanta nightclub, turned into gory spectacle of steely knives, mangled flesh and a river of blood. The 24-year-old Lollar and his 21-year-old boyhood buddy from Akron, Jacinth Baker, were both stabbed multiple times in the heart, the knives savagely twisted into their vital organs. The killers knew exactly what they were doing.
Lewis, his two good friends — Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting — and nine others sped away from the crime scene in a 40-foot Lincoln limousine. Lewis, Oakley and Sweeting were charged with the killings and cleared in a controversial court decision that still leaves many questions unanswered.
Why, when Lewis made an appearance at a sporting goods store the day before the Super Bowl, did his friends buy knives at the store?
Why did witnesses say the limo pulled over and someone dumped bloody clothes into a trash bin?
Why was the white suit Ray Lewis wore that night never found?
Why did the limo driver change his story mid-trial after originally testifying that Lewis told everyone to "just keep your mouth shut and don't say nothing"? Originally, the driver told police he saw Lewis actively taking part in the bloody brawl and heard Oakley and Sweeting admit to stabbing someone. But he backed off those statements when he got on the witness stand.
Why did prosecutors reduce the murder charge against Lewis to misdemeanor obstruction of justice? It was a plea deal in which Lewis agreed to testify against his two friends, Oakley and Sweeting, who were later acquitted after Lewis' testimony failed to implicate them in the murders.
"Why were people changing their stories?" Joyce Lollar asked on the way to the cemetery that day. "The jury didn't know who or what to believe. By lying and deceiving from the beginning, Ray Lewis helped set everybody free."
On the day Ray Lewis announced he would be retiring after this season, my thoughts drifted back to a little house in Atlanta a decade ago where Richard Lollar's fiancie, Kellye Smith, lived. She was seven months pregnant at the time of the murders and gave birth two months later to a daughter named India.
On the day I visited, India was 10-months-old and playing with a new doll she got for Christmas. It was one of those talking dolls that recited a prayer every time you clasp its hands together.
"Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. Protect me through the dark of night and wake my soul with dawn's first light. God bless Mommy and God bless Daddy."
Amid the hype and hoopla today when the Baltimore Ravens play the Indianapolis Colts in what may be Ray Lewis' final NFL game, let us not forget Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker.
Two men dead and nobody in jail.
A trail of blood that led nowhere.
And a little girl who never knew her daddy.