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Jamal Lewis among star athletes to land in bankruptcy

Ray LewisBankruptcyFinanceFinancially Distressed CompaniesReal Estate

It might have been trash-talking, but Jamal Lewis made good on his promise. The young Baltimore Raven broke the single-day rushing record by running for 295 yards in the 2003 home opener at the stadium newly rechristened for the company that had bought the naming rights, M&T Bank.

Today, though, the now retired Lewis and M&T are linked in court rather than on the field. Lewis filed for bankruptcy in Georgia in April, listing $14.5 million in assets and $10.6 million in debts — among them, a more than $350,000 judgment on a defaulted loan from the bank whose name hangs over the Ravens' stadium.

A hearing will be held Tuesday in federal bankruptcy court in Georgia on Lewis' filing.

M&T is just one of the companies saying Lewis did not repay loans that went toward failed real estate ventures and his now-shuttered trucking company, as well as a lifestyle of multiple houses and expensive cars. While Lewis and his attorney declined to comment, a trail of court documents tells an all-too-common story — a pro athlete who, despite making millions during his playing career, ends up in bankruptcy court.

"These are talented people, but with very little expertise in financial matters," said Annamaria Lusardi, a George Washington University School of Business professor who has offered workshops on financial education for pro athletes.

"You take a 20-year-old, and give them millions of dollars. Often there is very little guidance given to them," she said. "And this is a very risky career. Their careers can end when they are very young because of injuries."

Lewis, 32, retired in 2009 after nine seasons with the Ravens and Cleveland Browns. He lost part or all of some seasons in college and in the pros after tearing knee ligaments, and is among the football players who have sued the NFL over concussion injuries.

His financial problems put him on a veritable all-star team of professional athletes who have landed in bankruptcy court over the years, from football players Johnny Unitas, Warren Sapp and Michael Vick (who is still playing) to NBA players Allen Iverson, Latrell Sprewell and Shawn Kemp.

A 2009 article by Sports Illustrated estimated that within two years of retirement, nearly 80 percent of NFL players are in financial trouble due to bad investments, costly divorce and child custody payments, or simple overspending.

It's a subject of growing concern, and groups like United Athletes Foundation are trying to alert younger players of the pitfalls in mismanaging the multimillion-dollar bonuses and contracts thrown at them.

"We've been trying to target college athletes because once they start playing [professionally] and the money starts coming in, it's harder to get them to listen," said Reggie Howard, founder of the nonprofit organization that seeks to leverage athletes' celebrity into community and education projects.

Howard, a former Carolina Panther, said he knows too many fellow athletes who have lost fortunes, which in domino fashion then hurt the charitable efforts they had launched. His foundation, in which Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis is particularly active, has offered financial seminars to players and their families, and has partnered with CESI, a debt-management group, to further such efforts.

The financial woes of Jamal Lewis — no relation to Ray beyond having been teammates — can be traced through court documents in several jurisdictions. The trail runs from Atlanta, where he was born and still lives; to Baltimore, where he began his NFL career as the Ravens' fifth overall pick in the 2000 draft; and finally Ohio, where he ended his career with the Cleveland Browns.

In July 2006, Lewis contracted with Lowery & Associates to build a $2.4 million home in Atlanta. Lewis sued Lowery after a construction expert he hired to inspect the site found it less than half-built and plagued with rust and mold. In July 2009, a Superior Fulton County Court judge awarded him more than $2 million in actual, consequential and punitive damages, court documents show.

But, a couple of months later, building company president Bradley Lowery filed for bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, Lewis continued to play, even as he worked to set himself up for the future. He had signed a six-year, $35.3 million contract and as a rookie helped lead the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory in 2001. Now that ring is among the assets listed in his bankruptcy filing.

While still with the Ravens, he jumped into the cross-country trucking business. Lewis operated All American Xpress Inc. out of terminals in Georgia and Florida, with a fleet of around 200 trucks at one time traversing the United States delivering perishable goods.

"This is what I really want to do," Lewis told The Baltimore Sun in 2006 about his trucking business. "To me, football is just a means to an end. I don't want to rely on [Ravens' general manager] Ozzie Newsome and [Ravens' owner] Steve Bisciotti giving me another contract. I have to take what they've given me and make it work for Jamal Lewis."

In August 2006, Lewis financed 20 refrigerated trucks and two Mercedes-Benz cars for All American Xpress company through M&T Credit Services, and personally guaranteed the loan. Although Baltimore County Circuit Court records indicate regular payments were made for several years, by June 2010, M&T said the lease was in default. The bank won a judgment last year against Lewis for more than $350,000 in unpaid lease installments and late fees and $35,000 in attorney fees.

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.

Reagan was not available for comment, but the head of his management company said the resort was still suffering from the effects of the economic downturn. "It's not in the black," David Perella said.

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."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

Sample debts and assetsDebts

•Bank of America mortgages: $1.2 million

•Stillwater Capital: $21 million

•Fort Rapids water park mortgages: $6.3 million

Assets

•Atlanta residence: $1.1 million

•Other homes: $1.3 million

•401(k): $500,00

•One fur and Super Bowl ring: $17,500

Source: U.S. Bankruptcy Court filing

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