Reporters tried mightily to get Kerry Collins and Ray Lewis to take a walk down memory lane to January 2001 and revisit Super Bowl XXXV.
But Collins, then the Giants’ quarterback, and Lewis, the Ravens’ ferocious middle linebacker, were reluctant to take that walk.
“They were phenomenal,” Collins said this week, as he prepared to face Lewis’ Ravens again, this time as Tennessee’s quarterback, in the second round of the AFC playoffs last Saturday. “That defense I think will be the best I’ve ever played.”
Although playing in a Super Bowl is the highlight of every player’s career, Collins’ appearance came during a grueling personal struggle. He was dealing with life as a recovering alcoholic, having bounced from the Carolina Panthers to the New Orleans Saints before finding a temporary home with the Giants.
Lewis’ struggle had more to do with youth, stardom and celebrity. In January 2000, he and two friends were charged with murder and aggravated assault in the aftermath of a post-Super Bowl party that left two men dead. Charges against Lewis were dropped, although the spectacle of a handcuffed Lewis in orange prison overalls left a lasting impression.
The Ravens dominated the Giants, 34-7. Collins had a miserable game and Lewis was voted the most valuable player. The victory established Lewis as the defensive star of the new century and the loss cast Collins, however unfairly, as a fragile quarterback who would wilt under constant pounding.
But Lewis would pay a price for several seasons to come. He was not invited to Disney World — a tradition for the Super Bowl’s MVP. His image was not on the Wheaties box that celebrated the Ravens’ Super Bowl championship.
Lewis and Collins are a study in how to rebuild an image and a career in an all-news-all-the-time culture that never forgets but will forgive, given the proper circumstances.
Lewis and Collins have rebuilt their careers and their reputations in the intervening eight years.
Asked this week about that game, Lewis didn’t want to go back to 2001.
Asked to compare the Ravens’ current defense with the 2000 defense, he said: “The only thing I can react about is what we’re trying to go do this week. Like I said, for me to go back there, that’s too far. That’s too far.”
What he said about the Ravens then and now could also apply to Lewis himself. He was 25 and sitting on top of the world when the Ravens won the Super Bowl. Lewis will turn 34 in May, and he has matured in many ways. Although Lewis may have lost a step since 2000, he is probably the smartest player on the Ravens’ defense.
“We’ve got a totally different mind-set,” Lewis said. “We’re a totally different team than we were in 2000. Our job is to stay focused on the now.”
Lewis and Collins have remade themselves. Collins has resurrected a career that seemed all but over after he was cut from the Giants and then from the awful Oakland Raiders. This season, Collins took over for the injured Vince Young and played his best football since his Giants days.
Lewis, while remaining a consistent force on the field, has reconstructed his off-field image. He has walked a straight and narrow path and used his Ray Lewis 52 Foundation as a vehicle to do everything from sponsoring annual Thanksgiving food drives, to providing economic assistance to disadvantaged children, to adopting families in the Baltimore area during the holidays.