Love him or loathe him, one cannot deny Lewis’ passion, his work ethic and his powerful motivation skills that inspired his teammates for 17 seasons in the NFL. There is nothing forced.
Lewis rose above a difficult childhood, raised by a hard-working single teen mother who was beaten by numerous boyfriends. He also was tortured by the absence of his “no-account father.” He does not carry the name of his father, Elbert Ray Jackson; rather, he was named for the man who helped his mother with her hospital bills when Lewis was born.
“I am the positive to his negative,” Lewis writes about his biological father in his deeply personal memoir, “I Feel Like Going On: Life, Game and Glory” (Simon & Schuster; hardback; $26.99; 268 pages).
Lewis pulls no punches in recalling his childhood, his career at the University of Miami, his years as one of the NFL’s most dominant defensive stars, and murder charges that sullied his name and nearly landed him in prison.
Lewis was assisted by veteran collaborator Daniel Paisner, whose string of book writing credits goes back nearly 30 years; “America Is My Neighborhood,” by Willard Scott, was published in 1987. Paisner has collaborated on baseball books (“Nobody’s Perfect”), tennis (“On The Line” by Serena Williams), poker (“Moneymaker”), the September 11 tragedy (“Last Man Down”) and media (“All Things at Once”).
Paisner excels at letting the book’s subject tell the story in his and her voice, and that is one of the strong points of “I Feel Like Going On.” The book is definitely Lewis, talking big, boastful at times, humble at other. Lewis is blunt, full of raw emotion. He does not mince words.
“The dude could run. The dude was ripped,” Lewis writes about one of his high school teammates. “He had a body like Tarzan, but he took a hit like Jane.”
The book’s title was inspired by a song from one of Lewis’ favorite movies, “The Five Heartbeats.”
“Though the storm may be raging, And the billows are tossing high, I feel like going on …”
There were plenty of tempests swirling around Lewis while he was growing up in a poor section of Lakeland, Florida. One of his mother’s male companions would drink hard, but only on the weekends.
During the week, “he’d raise his voice, but not his hands.” But when payday came on Friday and the man bought some liquor, Lewis said that “me and my mother, we were like punching bags to this man.”
“We were there to receive his anger,” Lewis writes.
To get stronger in hopes of someday being able to stand his ground, Lewis used a deck of cards to get in shape, drawing a card and doing push-ups to the corresponding number. He’d would go through the deck and then start again.
Lewis goes into deep detail about his high school sports at Kathleen High School in Lakeland, where he starred in football and wrestling. In wrestling, he had broken most of his father’s record by the time he was a junior. He’d come home and look at the book that held Kathleen’s wrestling records.
“I’d come home, take that book off the wall, make a little x through my father’s name in the record book, say a little prayer, hang it back up,” Lewis writes. “Erasing his wrestling records and making it like he’d never even been here — that’s what drove me.”
Lewis’ memory betrays him a bit here. He notes that as a senior he moved up from 189 pounds to wrestle in the 220 division.
“I’m done with that,” he told his coach. “We’re wrestling two-twenty.”
And that might have been the case during the regular season, but when Lewis won the Class 4A wrestling state title in March 1993 — achieving something his father had never done — he defeated Dallas Simpson of Longwood Lyman High, 11-8 at 189 pounds.
When he embraced his coach after the match, Lewis told him “His name is forever over.”
“It was about setting my father aside, burying his name — and free me to live my life my own way, here on in,” he writes. “On my own terms.”
Lewis appeared set to attend Florida State, but backed out when defensive coach Chuck Amato told him he’d be playing behind Derrick Brooks for at least two seasons. Heading to Miami, Lewis flourished under Dennis Erickson but butted heads with Butch Davis when he took over the program in 1995.
Lewis decided to leave school for the pros, and eagerly awaited the NFL draft. He was about to become a father, and had visions of piles of money from playing in the pros.
But “underneath all that good stuff, there was sadness,” he writes.
The murder of Marlin “Red” Barnes, his closest friend at Miami, on the eve of the draft was devastating.
“I still can’t think back on that day without tearing up,” Lewis writes.
Stepping up to the pro level, Lewis would take charge early and would become the Ravens’ career leader in tackles and fumble recoveries. He would be named to the Pro Bowl 13 times and was the AFC Defensive Player of the Year in 2000 and 2003.
What nearly derailed his career was an incident after Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta. Lewis and two friends were charged with the murders of two men.
“I guarantee you’ll fall for this one,” Lewis quotes a policeman as telling him. He starts to describe what happened that night, but then backs off, noting that he didn’t want “to honor these few rogue cops.”
He does, however, say that “in a civilized society, you don’t treat animals the way some of these officers treated me.”
The murder charges against Lewis were dropped, but he did plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice. He also reached settlements with the families of the slain men, who sued him in civil court.
The incident followed Lewis for the rest of his career. When he was named the MVP of Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa, the Disney camera crew did not film him saying the signature “I’m going to Disney World” phrase. That honor after Baltimore’s 34-7 victory went to quarterback Trent Dilfer instead.
In his final season, Lewis missed 10 games with a torn triceps but managed to come back in time for the postseason. That culminated with his second NFL title as the Ravens defeated San Francisco in Super Bowl XLVII. His injury and healing process are detailed in the book’s prologue and final chapter. Lewis does not mention the Sports Illustrated story that intimated that he asked about obtaining deer-antler velvet extract in an attempt to hasten his recovery, a report he denied at the time.
Despite the harsh words for his father, Lewis has formed a relationship with him. But he saves his kindest words for his mother, asserting that she taught him a great lesson.
“Be an example. Be a force for good. And know that everyone with a great name has been through something,” he writes. “A great deal of something.
“It’s not about doing what everybody else is doing. It’s just about being true to yourself.”
And Lewis has always remained true to himself. “I Feel Like Going On” is a journey with many twists and turns, plenty of adversity, but ultimately, a trip that ends on a positive note.