NEW ORLEANS -- Our eternal search for heroic athletes has taken us through a wilderness of deceit and hypocrisy, including crimes against nature and man, so it feels natural to look around now, at this moment, and behold a most fitting king of the jungle.
Is there any doubt that Ray Lewis, no less leonine than Mufasa, is abundantly apropos for today's definition of stardom?
Or that the Baltimore middle linebacker's decision to retire, which set off the underdog Ravens' dash toward Super Bowl XLVII against the 49ers, is an example of exquisite timing?
Lewis is the marquee athlete's voice of our times, an iconic and charismatic leader in a wildly popular and innately violent game. His roar reverberates
"The things that he says, at the times that he says them, (are) amazing," says Ravens teammate Chris Johnson, a former Raider. "He's such a spiritual person that when you hear all his words, you think they're actually coming from God."
Ray's cultural significance, for better or worse, possibly both, surely will outlast the flames being fanned by raging Harbaugh-on-Harbaugh hysteria.
The hottest topic linked to Lewis this week is a Sports Illustrated story in which it is reported he allegedly used a deer antler spray -- a substance banned by the NFL -- to hasten his recovery from a torn triceps muscle.
Lewis responded with a denial Tuesday and went even further Wednesday,
"It's a joke, if you know me. I tell them all the time, and this is what I try to teach them, is don't let people from the outside ever come and disturb what's inside," Lewis said Wednesday. "That is the trick of the devil. The trick of the devil is to kill, steal and destroy. That is what he comes to do. He comes to distract you from everything you are trying to do."
Such reliance on religious imagery explains how far Lewis has come from January 2000 and that night when he and several friends went out to an Atlanta nightclub, and two men were stabbed to death.
Richard Lollar was 24, Jacinth Baker 21. Baker's DNA was found in Lewis' limo. Lewis and two friends were facing charges in the case when Lewis agreed to plead guilty to obstruction of justice in exchange for testifying against his companions -- both of whom were acquitted.
Lewis reportedly reached financial settlements with families of both victims and has spent most of the years since then playing terrific football, leading his team, quoting scripture and praising his God.
"We have already used him as our team chaplain," Ravens coach John Harbaugh says, "so Ray could double up anytime he wants."
And now, as he takes his "last ride," the eyes of the world are upon Lewis.
"I know a lot of people are making fun of Ray, about how he's talking and how he is on camera, really emotional. It's the truth," says longtime Ravens teammate Ed Reed. "He is a very spiritual person and it's just been real. Many of us don't see that or have that gift when it comes to spirituality. So to be a part of it and know that God is moving things, it's impressive."
Ray's contradictory life and his apparent tale of redemption may be why no active athlete on this continent touches as many nerves. Like the loquacious Muhammad Ali and the bodacious Bob Knight, Lewis is as galvanizing as he is polarizing. He is both admired and reviled, as was the boorish Barry Bonds and the menacing Mike Tyson.
Lewis is both saint and sinner, as are we all. He is us, like him or not.
That he is such a good guy and bad boy at once makes Lewis the right man to be under the brightest spotlight on the biggest stage in all of sport. He represents what is wrong with humanity. And, perhaps, what is right.
"He's like a brother," says Frank Gore, the 49ers running back who will try to outmaneuver Lewis on the field Sunday.
"I was star-struck when he came to Maryland to see us," says Baltimore wide receiver Torrey Smith, who played with Ray's brother in college. "Now I'm a teammate and I look at him like a brother you can talk to about anything."
Baltimore teammate Terrell Suggs refers to Lewis as "Mufasa," the courageous and paternally wise lion character from "The Lion King."
Says 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh: "Ray Lewis is one of the greatest players to ever play the game. He's a fine person, he's a great football player and a man I truly respect."
The transformation of Lewis' image, from that of hoodlum to that of sanctified and revered leader, has been as remarkable as anything we've seen since Ali's faith and serenity allowed him to evolve -- in the minds of skeptics -- from draft-dodging reprobate to global faith healer. Ali has been arguably the most hated of American athletes and, simultaneously, the most beloved.
This is the territory into which Lewis threatens to tread. It's deep. And it's rare.
A photo of Lewis, hands clasped in prayer, graces the cover of the current edition of SI. Above his head floats a single question: "Does God Care Who Wins The Super Bowl?" Lewis would imply he does. Ray's teammates will say they believe what Ray believes, feel what he feels.
The power of Ray can be debated, as can the gospel of Ray. But it's Ray and his Ravens that stand in the way of the 49ers and their sixth Super Bowl trophy.