Lewis also invested in theme parks and resort projects.
He and Brownlee Reagan, who owns a number of hotels in the Smoky Mountains town of Gatlinburg, Tenn., bought the Fort Rapids waterpark and hotel complex in Columbus, Ohio, in 2010, for $6 million. It was a bargain, considering that the previous owner bought its hotel in 2004 for $6.6 million and spent $39 million adding the water park and villa suites, according to the Columbus Dispatch, before the property went into foreclosure in 2008.
The waterpark is listed as security for loans Lewis took out, including one made for $3 million from Transportation Alliance Bank and defaulted on, according to a breach of contract suit filed in federal court in Atlanta two months ago.
The suit, along with others with similar claims, is on hold pending the outcome of Lewis' bankruptcy filing.
The largest claim against Lewis stems from an investment in a planned $675 million amusement park, residential and retail complex in Lithonia, Ga. Called the Grand Empire Palace and Resort, plans called for a 6,500-seat performing arts center, two full-service hotels, a restaurant and club district, and retail and luxury condos, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
But the troubled project stalled several years ago for lack of financing, and Lewis' development firm owes about $25 million on a loan, court records show. Lewis personally guaranteed the loan and lost a judgment worth $25 million to Stillwater Asset Backed Fund in a Georgia court. It was unclear why the large, secured debt did not drive up the total listed in bankruptcy court filings.
Now, after some preliminary clearing work, the site has remained untouched for so long that nature is reclaiming it.
"We're still right next door to all that dirt," said Linda McCullough, secretary of the First Baptist Church of Lithonia. "Nothing, just dirt and trees and weeds growing up again. Everything is getting so overgrown now. The pine trees are coming back."
Lewis' financial fall has been steep. In 2010, he reported $1.6 million in income; last year, his income had declined to $300,000, according to the bankruptcy filing. Lewis also reported that he makes $35,000 a month as a consultant, but his expenses were almost as much.
But he also claims $14.5 million in assets, among them several houses, part-ownership of the waterpark and the stalled Grand Empire project — as well as one fur and a Super Bowl ring, valued together at $17,500. He also has $500,000 socked away in a 401(k) investment account, the filing shows.
There's a chance that Lewis' bankruptcy case in Georgia will be converted from a Chapter 11 reorganization — in which Lewis and his attorney control the process — to a Chapter 7 case, in which a trustee would sell off most assets to reimburse creditors.
That issue is scheduled for consideration at Tuesday's hearing. The trustee in the bankruptcy case says Lewis has not filed required financial disclosure statements, including income tax returns.
Lewis' real estate and personal property, including his Super Bowl ring, could potentially be sold. His 401(k) and NFL pension can't be touched by creditors. But any money he might win from a personal injury lawsuit that Lewis filed in December against the NFL for suffering repeated concussions could end up in the hands of his creditors in a Chapter 7 case, bankruptcy experts said.
"You get a lot of benefit from filing bankruptcy," said Rich Costella, principal of the creditors' rights and bankruptcy group at the Miles and Stockbridge law firm in Baltimore. "But you also have to endure some of the burden."
Lusardi, the George Washington University economist who advocates financial education, agrees. While some view bankruptcy as a way to start over, she likens it to the late stages of a disease that earlier intervention could have prevented.
Athletes are the ideal students for financial management courses, Lusardi said, noting that their salaries are much greater than the average worker will ever make, but also much more fleeting given their short careers.
"If you can show up every day for practice, that's all I need," she said. "These people know discipline, they know dedication, they know perseverance. They are the most ideal group for financial education. They know how to do what it takes to win."