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Sunday, November 13, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Wearing A Painful, Bloody Memorial -- With Tattoo And Through His Silence, Miami Linebacker Lewis Remembers

Florida Today

CORAL GABLES, Fla. - You know all about Ray Lewis, about the big tackles he makes and the big talk that he talks. You know he said he might be the best linebacker to ever walk out of the University of Miami and you know he might be right.

But you are looking for something different. There is only so much to say about the hits and the hype.

So you ask about the tattoo, the big black panther on his chest snarling through a ring of fire.

"What's the tattoo mean?" you ask, expecting a funny little story about being a hunter like the panther and burning the opposition like fire.

Well, you asked.

So Ray Lewis tells you.

"It's for my friend, Raymond King," Lewis says. "He got me started in weight lifting and doing the things to make me a better player. We promised each other that if one of us ever left the other, we'd get a tattoo."

You're wondering what he means by "leave the other," since it came out kind of strange.

But before you can ask Lewis to clarify, he reads you like an inexperienced quarterback.

"He died last year," he said after drawing an extra breath. "He was shot by the police. This is for him."

He goes on to explain that his friend loved the black panther, would have liked to own one for a pet if that were possible. The fire, he says, has no significance. It just looks good.

You are hearing this, but not really. One question just keeps running through your mind. You are curious about why two young men would feel the need to discuss memorial monuments before their 21st birthdays. Then you look at the papers. Oh, that's why.

Lewis' life was the kind you read about in the newspapers. His father wasn't around. His mother had to move from Lakeland to Memphis, Tenn., when he was a junior in high school, leaving him with his grandmother for his senior season at Kathleen High School. The neighborhood wasn't that bad, said Lewis' high school coach, Ernest Joe. But two or three streets over, you could find all the crime you wanted to.

From this environment, he became the greatest athlete in Kathleen's history, surpassing only his father, who attended the school in the 1970s.

Yet, advancing seemed like such a long shot when Lewis made a 14 on his first American College Test. He could make all the tackles in the world, but every school backed away from him because he wasn't close enough to the score of 17, which the NCAA requires for athletic scholarships. Four times, he missed, then hit 17 on his fifth try.

"He's so positive about everything," Ernest Joe says. "I've never heard him say what he can't do. It didn't matter how big a task it was. He would prove to you that he could do it. The ACT, that's a prime example. He kept knocking at the door. He kept saying he was going to get it."

It's hard to be positive about the tattoo, though.

Lewis was in the middle of an incredible season last year, becoming the first true freshman to start under Dennis Erickson at Miami, when the phone call came. Raymond King had been shot in Tallahassee. The funeral was back home in Lakeland, the same day Miami was hosting Memphis.

He asked Erickson for permission to skip the game, and it was granted. So while Miami was beating Memphis 41-17, he was burying a friend.

A group of about 10 friends, including Raymond's younger brother, Kwame, spent the rest of the weekend reminiscing. Then, Lewis sat under the needle for hours while an artist etched a painful and bloody memorial.

He hasn't talked much about Raymond King's death since.

"I still don't know exactly what happened," he says. "I never wanted to find out. I just want to let him rest in peace."

He wants to remember the positive things about his friend, not that he died during an attempted bank robbery. You understand this.

And then you realize his tackles are powerful and so are his words, but his silence is even more so.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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