LEWIS ISN’T ONLY ONE DESERVING OF CLOSURE

RAY LEWIS wears this T-shirt now and then. It has a man’s picture on the front. The man’s name is Marlin Barnes. Like Lewis, he was once a standout linebacker at the University of Miami. In fact, he was Lewis’ best friend.

Lewis began wearing Barnes’ face on a T-shirt for one simple reason: In 1996, a jealous boyfriend broke into Barnes’ campus apartment, woke him and used the blunt edge of a shotgun to beat him and Barnes’ girlfriend to death.

The murder was brutal. Lewis was crushed. He wanted justice — and he wanted the killer dealt with severely. He wears the T-shirt to remind himself, and others, of the loss of a human life.

Now Ray Lewis is at the Super Bowl. He is defensive MVP, the best overall player on either team. He emerges today for his first encounter with the nation’s biggest sports media army. They will descend on him like teenyboppers descending on Ricky Martin. And they will all want to know one thing: How does Lewis feel about playing in a Super Bowl one year after he himself was on trial for murder?

It is a strange intersection of the grizzly real world and the fantasyland of sports. But before you start feeling sorry for Lewis, before you sympathize with all the journalistic poking he’s about to take, remember that, in many ways, people are simply doing what Lewis himself does every time he pulls on that T-shirt.

Remembering the victims.

It’s Billick’s behavior that’s ‘inappropriate’
“As much as some of you want to, we’re not going to re-try this,” declared Ravens coach Brian Billick, pasting the media just an hour after his team landed in Tampa. “It’s inappropriate, and you’re not qualified.”

Brian, I beg to differ. Not with the qualification part. None of us is qualified to try a case. You know what? Neither are you.

As for it being “inappropriate”? Well, forgive me for being blunt, who does Billick think he is? The subject is hardly inappropriate to those who loved the victims the way Lewis loved Barnes.

Ask Cindy Lollar-Owens about how “appropriate” a question is. She remembers the victims. One was her nephew, Richard Lollar, whom she raised since he was a boy. He was not famous. He and his friend, Jacinth Baker, were not household names.

Here is what they were: dead. Two young men, in their 20s, who had moved from the Midwest to Atlanta to seek work. “Richard was really good at cutting hair,” says Lollar-Owens, “and Jacinth said, ‘We can move to Atlanta, you can be really successful there.’ “

Instead, in one fateful confrontation, they were brutally murdered, sliced open by a knife, bled dry on the Atlanta streets. It happened after last year’s Super Bowl, following a late night party at a bar. There were words. There was a scuffle. Someone smashed a champagne bottle over someone’s head. There was a knife, some gunshots — and there was Ray Lewis in the middle of it.

Some say he tried to break up the fight. Others say he was an active participant. In the end, as the two men lay dying, Lewis jumped into a limo and sped off, telling everyone inside to “keep your mouths shut.”

When police interrogated him, he lied about everything.

Eventually, Lewis was arrested and charged with murder. During the trial, enough witnesses said he didn’t do anything. Prosecutors had no case. A deal was struck: Lewis pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in exchange for testimony against a couple of his buddies. Even with that, those men still went free.

Now Lewis is in the Super Bowl. Lollar and Baker are in the ground. And nobody is behind bars. Inappropriate?

Football has strange idea of what’s fair
“I wish I could get to Tampa, and I would ask Ray Lewis the questions face-to-face,” says Lollar-Owens. “I tried to talk to the prosecutors. I don’t think anything’s happening. I’m getting scared that it’s being forgotten.”

There were nearly a dozen people involved in that melee. Two men were stabbed
— not off in the corner, but right in the middle of this mess — yet nobody seems to remember anything? Nobody can finger anybody? No suspects are in custody?

Call me crazy. But it seems that more questions, not fewer, are in order here.

Unless, of course, you’re Ray Lewis. Unless you’re Brian Billick. Unless you’re part of a football battleship that believes nothing is more important than the game, the big game, the game of games.

The man who killed Lewis’ friend was convicted. He is sentenced to die in the electric chair. Lewis gets resolution, justice, some sense of closure.

They are still waiting for those feelings in the Lollar and Baker families. And I’m sorry to tell all the millionaires involved at this Super Carnival, those people don’t count any less than you do.

Ray Lewis gets to wear a T-shirt, everyone else is supposed to shut up. That’s football’s idea of fairness?

Inappropriate, my foot.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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