NFL star Ray Lewis tells London youngsters there’s an alternative to gang culture
12 July 2012
When the London Warriors American football team were looking for a guest coach or player to help inspire the youngsters in their squad, one name kept coming up in their deliberations. But surely there was no chance of persuading one of the greats of the NFL to visit SE25?
And yet on Tuesday night Warriors head coach Tony Allen found himself introducing a very special guest to a school hall in Croydon full of aspiring young American footballers. He only had to mention “number fifty-two” to bring the house down.
Ray Lewis, the Baltimore Ravens linebacker, is a legendary tough guy in a tough sport, but he handles words as easily as he hands out pain to opposing quarterbacks.
And when the roar of delight and disbelief had subsided, he held the 100 or so members of the Warriors squad spellbound with his message of personal responsibility and hard work — then joined them for training on a scruffy council-owned artificial surface.
As well as winning games, the Warriors aim to offer an alternative to the capital’s gang culture. That had struck a chord with Lewis, who does similar work with youngsters in Baltimore, the setting for TV drama The Wire — in which he received a mention.
Even so, the players were not the only ones pinching themselves at the idea that the 2001 Super Bowl winner and two-time NFL defensive player of the year had crossed the Atlantic to spend three days coaching them in football and life. “We thought there was no way,” Allen said. “But we sent an email, told him about our programme and the next day he got back to us and said he wanted to come.”
Lewis said: “I had to come and be with the Warriors. These kids’ story appealed to me, led me here. I share their stories, or their pain or their mistakes.”
The pain includes being abandoned by his father at birth and seeing his mother beaten by his stepfather. Among the mistakes was being at the scene of a double stabbing in 2000, for which he initially faced murder charges before being convicted of obstruction of justice.
Lewis, 37, has spent his entire career at Baltimore, establishing a reputation as a leader and uncompromising tackler. “Most of these kids will never share their pain with anybody,” said Lewis (above). “But by opening up to them, sharing my vulnerability, I can say, okay, you made a mistake — bounce back and keep going. There are always are alternatives to the wrong path. I’m going to put that message out and not sugar-coat it. When you know something is right, don’t take a break from it. Your father wasn’t around? Neither was mine. You can still make it. You don’t have to find some alternative family in a gang.
“The Warriors are solving problems. Take football away and 50 per cent of these guys are doing something they ain’t supposed to be doing. This is one way to change that and that’s why this story captivated me so much. I’m here to help, any way I can.”