BY GEOFF HOBSON
When Ray Lewis walked on stage, you could hear a heart drop. Never mind a
"All eyes were on him and all ears were peeled," said Bengals rookie
running back Curtis Keaton. "You could tell how much it affected his life."
Lewis, the Ravens' Pro Bowl middle linebacker, had an impact on everyone in the room at the recent NFL rookies' symposium in San Diego. From guys like Keaton to Eric Ball, an old running back drafted 11 years ago and now the Bengals' director of player programs.
It was an emotionally exhausting day that included a panel discussion spurring some rookies to stand and give testimonials about their gang friends still giving them pressure to continue the wayward way amid acusations of "sell out."
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"His name wasn't on the itinerary. They just announced him and there he was on stage," Ball said of Lewis. "The thing that impressed me was he initiated the contact. He wanted to talk to the guys. He didn't get paid. He flew up his own. Folks were hanging on his every word. They were attentive. There was the intrigue. What really happened? What was it like? What did you feel? And he got into all that."
Lewis, fresh off the second most famous murder trial in NFL history, has been cleared of double murder. But he'll always be guilty of being an example of what can happen to a person who explores the underbelly of pro sports.
"Birds of a feather, that's exactly what he was saying," Keaton said. "You have to be careful of the people you're around for the simple fact they have a negative impact on you. If you're not cautious, you can find yourself in a situation, "How did I get here?' " He took full responsibility, which is good because I guess that's the first thing to recovery."
In his first trip on the job, Ball led the Bengals' contingent of seven draft choices to San Diego. He couldn't ask for a better example to show his guys what not to do. Ball felt Lewis hit plenty of the kids in the gut when he told of watching the Pro Bowl from his jail cell.
"To me, the most important thing he talked about was what these guys are thinking," Ball said. "They're thinking, "I'm in the NFL. I've got it made and if I get in trouble, I'll get out of it.' And Ray told them that it's exactly the opposite.
"That doesn't mean anything nowadays," Ball said. "Not only is your name in the paper, but the person prosecuting you, the person who arrested you, all the people you're dealing with are in the paper. If they don't do their job, their name is smeared."
Keaton has a good-kid reputation. He says he learned right and wrong from his parents, but he'll take Lewis as an example, "of how the negative things around the game can influence you. He talked about how people (latch on to NFL players) and that he couldn't say, 'No.' I've never had a problem saying, 'No.' "
Lewis told the players they better do background checks on their friends they get when they enter the NFL. Ball said Lewis told them he knew the people involved in the incident for about two years, but didn't know they had problems.
"They didn't have much to say about it," Ball said of his rookies. "But they were thinking about it. He gave us a lot to think about."
Ball thought back to Lewis telling how he had to face his 6-year-old son after his arrest. How Lewis had taken great pride in never lying to his kids because his father had lied so often to him. So when his son asked, "Daddy, why they got those chains on you?" Lewis didn't want to lie. He didn't want to tell the truth, either.
"It's not only just about you," Ball said. "It's how it affects the people around you as well."