Silence fell over the room full of 254 NFL rookies, many of whom will soon be flush with cash and fame, when Ray Lewis was introduced.
This wasn't just another routine session at the annual rookie symposium, where the young pros are counseled on topics such as handling their money, dealing with agents and even preparing for their lives after football.
No, Lewis' message might have been the most critical of any the rookies heard at the plush La Costa Resort and Spa, and it came from an impeccable source, one just off a trial on murder charges.
Lewis told the rookies that they lead very public lives, need to be careful of who their friends are and must be able to control difficult situations they might find themselves in.
"I had problems saying 'no' to friends," Lewis told the rookies, according to an NFL spokesman who was in the room.
"We have to pick and choose things we do," Lewis said. "We're being watched 24 hours a day. Be firm and stand on your own two feet. Understand that saying no to a lot of people is very important. Be firm when you say no."
Lewis initially was charged with murder in two fatal stabbings outside a post-Super Bowl party in Atlanta. The murder charges were dropped, but he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of lying to police. Two other defendants who were traveling with Lewis in his limousine were acquitted two weeks ago.
This was the fourth orientation session for rookies conducted by the NFL, which has faced several embarrassing off-field problems.
Lewis attended the symposium at the suggestion of commissioner Paul Tagliabue. His appearance wasn't on the agenda, and neither the NFL nor Lewis wanted reporters there.
"His speech was definitely moving to everyone here," running back Thomas Jones, a first-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals, said as the symposium ended on Wednesday. "You hear a lot of different things about guys being in different situations, but when you hear it from a guy in that situation, it definitely hits home.
"Of all the things here they did for us, that was the major thing. It was great for us."
Harold Henderson, chairman of the NFL Management Council, shared the stage with Lewis. He said the rookies "were sitting there breathless" through the 20-minute session.
Lewis answered questions for about 10 minutes before Henderson had to end the session. "They booed me for cutting off the questions," Henderson said.
Henderson said Lewis told the budding pros there were things he could have done to avoid the situation outside the Cobalt Lounge in Atlanta, but wasn't forceful enough. Now, he'll never be able to fully put it behind him.
"I can try to be the reatest linebacker ever, but this is always going to follow me," Lewis said.
Jones said the rookies have a better understanding of how being in the wrong place at the wrong time can scar their lives and careers.
"It can happen to anyone, and once it happens, people will perceive you differently, even though you're not that kind of person," Jones said.
"Personally, I don't think he did it anyway," Jones said. "I watched on Court TV. I met him at the Super Bowl a few nights before, and he seemed like a great person. The way our society is, that's a very difficult subject. Instead of being innocent until proven guilty, they say you're guilty right off the bat. He was proven innocent, so hopefully people will believe it. I do."
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