December 3, 2023

Thank You, Ray Lewis

Thank You, Ray Lewis
I will begin by saying, I know pretty much zero amount about football. All apologies if you thought I was going to go deep about plays and stats and touchdowns and other sporty words I don't know. It's not my world, or even my area of interest. That said, even before yesterday, I knew about Ray Lewis. I knew that he was a really big deal. Surely that has a lot to do with football, but not entirely. Like many sports figures, he is bigger than life. He is a Personality - a household name, especially if you live in Baltimore. 
Yesterday, I heard Ray talk about what drives him, and why he gets up in the morning. Today I woke up in my own morning, feeling connected to the message he so passionately delivered. 
Every one of us is born into life, naked and needing. Every person becomes who they are through a mixture of innate natural ability, and outward circumstance. What I find amazing, is that greatness can spring forth from those with "lesser opportunity", while some folks, who are given all the money, connections and capability seem to achieve great heights in mundaneness. Of course, there are many, many variations on this theme. Paradoxical, indeed. It would seem we have some choices to make - no matter what we were given, or what family we were born into. 
A major theme in Mr. Lewis's heartfelt talk was that of Greatness. It's one thing, he says, to be great - and quite another to be in GREATNESS. It's one thing to be successful, but you operate in another, higher realm when you focus on VALUE. These are simple sentences, and few words. It's easy to miss their impact, if you're not letting them sink in. 
Before Ray gave his talk, we watched a short video with dramatic music, and scenes of this incredible athlete in his most impressive moments on the field - with his teammates and opponents. We saw his determined face looking upward, under bright lights with black paint under his eyes. We saw him working hard in the weight room - training his body to be the best warrior he could be, to be prepared to do his battle (his words). There was the Ray Lewis I "knew" - one of the greatest linebackers of NFL history (and yes, I had to look that up - but that's not what's important). How can one not be impressed with this GREAT athlete? Clearly a man at the top of his game, he achieved the highest level of SUCCESS. It's so easy to be blown away by acts and accomplishments of human strength, determination and victory. This level of greatness and success would surely be considered more than most people on earth accomplish, or even dream of. For this individual, however, there is so much more to the story.
When the video concluded, Ray Lewis - the very same legend and larger-than-life figure we saw flash before our widened eyes on the big screen, stood just four or five feet from me, ready to talk to the few of us gathered, in real life. What performance was he about to give? Would he regale us with stories of his wondrous leadership? Would he tell us all to work harder, do better - we could all be better - just do it, and here's how. That is not what happened, exactly. 
Now, clearly this is a man that is accustomed to being in the spotlight. There was no hint of discomfort with being a keynote speaker - this is to be expected. What grabbed me though, what set off my spidey sense that vulnerability was afoot, was a warmth - a tenderness in his eyes. I thought I sensed a humility, a sadness even - and a readiness to share something that meant something very important to him. Oh boy, when I see that look, I know I'm going to want to lean in and give this soul some space to talk. I live for these unguarded moments with other humans. When I sense someone is going to say something that reveals a part of their heart, I'm ALL in. I had this expectant and excited feeling as Ray began to speak. 
Ray Lewis clearly loves football. He's thankful for his illustrious career. He reached the pinnacle of that career. But clearly, he has a deep Knowing that he is meant for more. He says - you can work, and grind, and train, and want - but if you aren't striving to achieve at the highest level with an awareness of purpose, and aren't serving others and making things better with your legacy of work, effort and achievement, you have missed the point. You are not sitting in Greatness. For example, when asked by Muhammed Ali how far he would go to achieve this Greatness, he said was ready to die for it. Die - for - it. Pause. That's intense. And the look in his eye made me believe he meant it. 
Was he ready to die for football? I don't think so, exactly. It is evident in hearing him speak, though, that there is a fiery spark in him - and other greats like him - that drives him to be the absolute best at whatever he chooses to do. Football was the vehicle he could use to focus his intention and manifest this need to touch magnificence, but clearly there's something much bigger that calls him. On the other side of football - he is driven, still. Driven to contribute, driven to help others less fortunate - and driven to help those plenty fortunate enough to still do better. That's the part I love. We're all here on the playing field, and to some extent - we all have the opportunity, if we're lucky, to wake up every morning and choose to step away from the ladder of success and enter into the realm of Value. We can all strive to be great, but we can also all choose to level up to a higher plane of Greatness. What a wonderful lesson, example and reminder.
As he was about to wrap up his speech, I was already feeling inspired, and moved by the man who stood before me. But there it was again - that look. Even more unmasked and more revealing that it had been as he took the floor moments earlier. It was a look that people radiate when they are experiencing something deeply human - and close to the source. There it was. In that moment, Ray Lewis ceased being a famous Ravens football player, and stood before us as a father - a grieving father who gently shared his story of losing his first born son. He told us he had died in June of a drug overdose. He didn't linger on it, he didn't need to. There is a universal and intuitive understanding of loss, I think. Few words are needed to convey that creeping awful raw feeling of death and absence that aches the same for all people. We shared that space with him for a brief and poignant moment.
As he looked at his watch, and became once again Ray Lewis presenter, he quickly moved back to focus on the positive. Ray's message of Success, Greatness and Value would have moved and inspired me in and of itself. This commitment to (obsession with) tirelessly striving for something bigger than one's self in order to help others is wonderful and exceptional. Hearing his speech delivered through the veil of sadness made it all the more poignant. Despite his bigger-than-life football hero persona, even superstars like Ray Lewis can't escape life's darkest moments, just like you or me. The difference, maybe, is that he still showed up to be the light for those of us who would listen, and for this, I am thankful. 
So there we were. There I was with my co-workers, at a luncheon on a Wednesday, hearing the insights of a professional NFL footballer, being reminded that life comes in - and life goes out. We're just people living on planet earth, with choices to make. There we were, being reminded to do better. Not just to make more money, or have nicer homes, but to make life better for those around us in whatever way we can. Provide value. Be remembered for making someone's life better. Get up and be excited to make today a great day - even while we muster the strength to hold the memory of those in our hearts who no longer have those precious days to share with us. 
Thank you, Ray Lewis. 

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