Trio of ex-'Canes to meet in big game

Thursday, January 25, 2001 at 1:00am

TAMPA BAY - Often decisions are made in an instant. But it�s the impact that lingers.

Linebackers Ray Lewis, Jesse Armstead and Michael Barrow all faced a series of similar choices throughout their lives. Tuesday, however, during Photo and Interview Day at Super Bowl XXXV, Armstead and Barrow reveled in the decisions that have brought them to their first Super Bowl in their eighth NFL seasons; however, Lewis was forced to relive a night he would much rather forget.

The Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker was the focus of the international media corps, which numbered into the thousands, and faced an unwanted barrage of questions for his alleged involvement in a double murder that occurred in Atlanta during last year�s Super Bowl festivities. Ultimately, Lewis pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and was fined $250,000 by the league.

The most common perception and Lewis� contention is that his only crime was choosing his friends poorly. Even if that�s all, that decision continues to haunt him.

�If I�m an average Joe, none of you are here,� Lewis said. �That�s really how simple it is. I�m the figure that everyone says, �[Professional athletes] are out of control.� But are we really? No, we�re just like anybody else. I�m a man. I bleed, I cry, I moan. I do all of that. You just move on in life.�

Some decisions move with you, though, while others move you along.

Lewis, Armstead and Barrow all three picked the University of Miami as the place to play college football, and each parlayed that decision into selections in the NFL draft. Barrow and Lewis were first-round choices. But at critical junctures in their lives Armstead and Barrow made moves that put them on better paths.

Armstead, for example, confronted his choice of associates at an early age. Growing up in a lesser section of Dallas, he was considered the country�s best football prospect for his age when he was a ninth-grader. Then he spent some time in a juvenile facility, which threatened his already promising football future.

That�s when he made up his mind.

�You can fall into any situation,� he said. �I went to juvenile when I was 16 years old for one incident. That taught me I didn�t want to do it again. ... I told my mother I never would make a wrong choice again.�

It was during Armstead�s senior season at Carter High School that several of his friends hatched a plan. At the time, Carter had the top football program in Texas and one of the best in the country, and Armstead was not the only one drawing the attention of college recruiters.

�My friends told me they wanted to do armed robbery,� he said. �I told them it wasn�t a good choice. That was a turning point for me. I could have gotten in the car with them. I had always done everything with them.�

His friends were caught and sent to prison. Armstead was named the Super Prep Player of the Year and a member of the USA Today top-25 team.

A year later he encountered Barrow for the first time at Miami. According to Barrow, they were friendly in college but not necessarily friends, even though they had started together for three years and played on two national championship teams together.

When the two were reunited this season after Barrow signed with the Giants as a free agent, Barrow had become a completely different person.

During a three-year stint with the Carolina Panthers, which followed four years with the Houston Oilers, Barrow had decided he needed a change. Following a torturous process of self-examination, he was remade through his belief in Christ.

�I sat in my house by myself ... and cried for about a month,� he said. �It was at the time that people are usually going to the Super Bowl. I would just wake up, get on my knees and pray.�

Now he and Armstead are virtually inseparable. That friendship, combined with his sense of contentment, Barrow said, only enhanced his sense of satisfaction over the team�s success.

On the other hand, Lewis, the NFL�s Defensive Player of the Year, had no choice but to defend his feelings and achievements as part of one of the league�s best defenses ever.

�When I step on the field, you know what I�m about,� he said. �You guys need to discuss bad things to make it into good press. ... I�m a man who is going to say what is in my heart. There�s not one quote [from the media] that can make me change my mind about the way I feel about anything.�

Of course, nothing can alter decisions or their impact once they�re made either.

David Boclair covers pro sports for the Murfreesboro Daily News Journal.

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