NEW ORLEANS – A lot of this Super Bowl was going to be about Ray Lewis anyway, even before strange tales of deer-antler spray and magic hologram chips came to light. He made sure of it by starting his retirement tour early, and bringing along the dances and inspirational speeches that TV cameras eat up.
If his oratorical skills are great, so, too, is the player. His teammates love him as much for what he does in the locker room as on the field, and fans in Baltimore may one day even erect a statue to his greatness.
Seventeen years fronting one of the most dominating defenses in the NFL should be enough to get him in the Hall of Fame. A Super Bowl win on Sunday would give him a second ring to cherish the rest of his life.
Like the player, though, the act has grown old. When Lewis talks — and he talks incessantly — it's hard to take anything he says seriously.
That was the case Wednesday when he had the stage to himself and everyone in a packed interview room wanted to know: Just what is deer-antler spray and why would you want to take it?
Turns out he wouldn't. And, says Lewis, anyone who suggests otherwise must be doing so with evil intent.
"That's the trick of the devil," he said. "The trick of the devil is to kill, steal and destroy. That's what he comes to do. He comes to distract you from everything you're trying to do."
Enough. Please. The real trick for Ray Lewis is obfuscation and if he does it well, it's because he's had plenty of practice.
The day before, a reporter had the temerity to ask him about a night 13 years ago in Atlanta that left two men dead after a Super Bowl party and put Lewis in jail on charges of double murder. Old news, maybe, but the circumstances surrounding the deaths have never been fully explained, especially by Lewis.
Instead of invoking the devil, Lewis went the other way.
"Nobody here is really qualified to ask those questions," he said. "I just truly feel that this is God's time, and whatever his time is, let it be his will. Don't try to please everybody with your words, try to make everybody's story sound right."
Lewis pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and got probation, along with a $250,000 fine from the NFL for violating its conduct policy. The murders remain unsolved after the case against his co-defendants fell apart.
He's been nothing but a model citizen since and as the years go by and memories fade he's become in inspirational figure to those who enjoy his proselytizing and his play on the football field. His teammates respect him as their leader, and his coach seems to regard him as larger than life.
"We have already used him as our team chaplain, so Ray could double up anytime he wants," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He can coach. He can do whatever he wants. I think Ray's got big plans. Ray's that kind of guy and when he's done playing he's always a guy trying to affect people and change the way that people think and make an impact on the world."
He's certainly making an impact on this Super Bowl, though his last ride has turned out to be bumpier than he might have imagined. Lewis surely understood the murders would be mentioned, but after years of deflecting questions about his connection to them, he was probably also sure it would be no more than a minor annoyance.
It's not so easy with deer-antler spray and pills. Sports Illustrated said Lewis hoped to repair a torn right triceps by seeking help from an Alabama company that says its products contain a banned substance connected to human growth hormone. Lewis denied taking anything illegal, but danced around any connection to the company that also sold its product to golfer Vijay Singh and others.
"To entertain foolishness like that from cowards who come from the outside and try to destroy what we've built, like I just said, it's sad to even entertain it on this type of stage, because this type of stage is what dreams are made of," Lewis said. "This is what kids dream their whole lives, to be up here on these days, stepping in the NFL and saying that I am on the biggest stage ever."
If it all sounds a bit wacky, it's because it is. What, after all, could be goofier than deer-antler spray and magic chips except maybe the men who believe in them.
But after the Lance Armstrong confession it's hard to believe anything athletes say anymore, or that the NFL is somehow free of PEDs simply because there hasn't been a big scandal in recent years. We don't know what anyone takes, how many tests they've passed or failed, or what they do behind closed doors to build the kind of muscles you need to play in the NFL.
Life as a football player will end for Lewis on Sunday in the Super Bowl, and if he has mixed emotions about it, so must we.
It's hard to root against one of the greatest linebackers ever, a man who has played with the intensity of 10 men for 17 years now, and a man who is a towering figure in the locker room,
After today, it's even harder to root for him.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg