ATLANTA (AP) — Once again, Ray Lewis and the Super Bowl intersect in Atlanta.
Lewis isn’t ducking from the bad memories of his career low point in 2000, when he and a pair friends were charged for the stabbing deaths of two men outside a nightclub hours after the last Super Bowl played here.
Now a Super Bowl champion, an NFL Hall of Famer and a broadcaster, Lewis has spent the last 19 years rebuilding his reputation after that night. The most serious charges against Lewis were dropped, and he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor obstruction of justice.
This Super Bowl, Lewis is back in Atlanta to promote hope and healing, using his celebrity spotlight to bring exposure to his Ray of Hope Foundation, which gets celebrities and athletes to send inspirational personal video messages for those in need.
The goal of the big-ticket event, dubbed Gold Jacket Party for a Purpose, is to raise money for the foundation. The event is expected to attract dozens of sports and entertainment celebrities.
“Purpose is forever,” Lewis told The Associated Press. “The game comes and goes but purpose is forever.”
It seems a long way from 2000, when the prevailing image of Lewis was him in an Atlanta jail with handcuffs and shackles.
Lewis, Joseph Sweeting and Reginald Oakley were charged in double murders that happened after a party in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood following the St. Louis Rams’ win over the Tennessee Titans. The victims were stabbed to death and one victim’s blood was found in Lewis’ limo.
Murder and aggravated assault charges against Lewis were dropped with his misdemeanor plea. He also agreed to testify against the other defendants, who were acquitted.
Lewis received a year of probation by the court and was fined $250,000 by the NFL. He settled two lawsuits for undisclosed amounts with family members of the victims, Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar. Baker and Lollar are buried in Akron, Ohio — only a short drive from the Hall of Fame in Canton, where Lewis was honored last year.
The killings, Lewis’ arrest and the ice storm that disrupted Super Bowl preparations nearly overshadowed the big game. The NFL didn’t agree to have another Super Bowl in Atlanta until the Falcons built a new $1.5 billion stadium.
Lewis, 43, has moved on and believes others have as well. He frequently returns to the city. He says he organized another Atlanta Super Bowl party two years ago when the Falcons lost to the Patriots’ in Houston.
“My sisters live in Atlanta,” Lewis said. “I’ve been in Atlanta for years, all over Atlanta.”
Atlanta-based financial adviser Rob Vaka, who leads the Ray of Hope Foundation with Lewis and ESPN’s Sport Science host John Brenkus, said his wife had apprehensions about him working with Lewis until she researched the details of the case.
“My wife is a native” of Atlanta, Vaka said. “She had her apprehensions. She did her own research. She’s the supreme skeptic. She did more research than me and she came back to me and said ‘What I heard is not accurate.’”
Vaka added, “At some point you have to make a decision I’m going to move on and I’m going to forgive, whether I have all of the facts or some of the facts. … I believe he’s a terrific human being.”
Others also share that opinion.
Among the former NFL greats expected to attend are Jim Brown, Deion Sanders, Ed Reed and Eddie George and many current players, including Grady Jackson and Austin Hooper of the Atlanta Falcons.
Sanders said Lewis “is a wonderful, inspirational, caring, thoughtful individual which I Iove like a brother.”
“I’m not going to go into the incident that happened, but Ray, but that’s not Ray,” Sanders told AP on Thursday. “That wasn’t Ray, and I know that for a fact, so I’m thankful. He worked his way out of it.”
Lewis said purpose was the theme of his stirring speech at his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony last August.
The theme carries over to next week’s party, with tickets priced from $750 to $2,500, before the Feb. 3 Super Bowl between the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots.
The foundation’s roster of athletes, coaches and other celebrities provide short, uplifting personalized videos for those in dire need, including sick children.
Among those who make the videos are former NFL players Takeo Spikes, Merril Hoge, Trent Dilfer and George, golfer Dustin Johnson, Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff and Olympians Michael Phelps, Summer Sanders and Apolo Ohno.
“We built a really good roster and we’re looking at this event as a springboard to do some much bigger things,” Vaka said.
Vaka said the foundation, only two years old, needs a new website, new technology and support but already has impacted dozens of lives. Lewis draws the most requests.
“It’s a really simple thing, but it’s more important than you could ever imagine,” Lewis said. “Messages of hope connect people from all over the world that are experiencing some sort of pain. You take an influential role model to inspire them for a lasting impact.”
Lewis said he realizes he has power away from the playing field.
“That’s the glory of it, man,” he said. “That’s the excitement of where I’m starting to move in the second half of my life, figuring out my greatest ability is access because of my reputation, because of my name, because of my brand. I want to use it to bring people together, so I use it.”
Lewis said he is consumed by his passion to instill hope in others. He relishes the joy he receives from making a positive impact.
“You can make a lot of money,” he said. “You can be successful. You can be a lot of things. But when someone references you and they say to you, ‘You changed my life’ that’s a different conversation. Every time. Every time.
“Oh my gosh, it’s just exciting, man.”