ATLANTA - The dream of many of those who live in Bowen Homes is someday to get out of the notorious housing project. Jamal Lewis, on the other hand, never seemed able to stay away.
Although Lewis grew up in a stable middle-class neighborhood about five miles from Bowen Homes, a series of squat, two-story, yellow structures built in 1961, his father, John, said yesterday that as a teen-ager, his son beat a constant path to the project. And there, his father said, Jamal formed relationships that might threaten the football superstar just when possibilities for him seemed limitless.
It was a years-long federal investigation into flagrant drug trafficking at Bowen Homes, in Northwest Atlanta, that led to Lewis' indictment on drug charges.
Baltimore fans might be mystified that their star running back with the subdued manner would be ensnared in such brazen lawlessness; yet his father says his son had long been infatuated with the people at the heart of Bowen's drug trade.
"He went there with friends of his from high school, kids who lived there," said John Lewis, 58, a retired railroad conductor who still lives in the leafy Adamsville neighborhood where he raised his family. "He started hanging out with them. ... They seemed like nice enough kids, but you don't know what kids do when you are not around."
The father said that he didn't know that the young men his son hung around with were also using and dealing marijuana. "They were potheads," said John Lewis, adding, "When I found out about the reefer, I was disappointed."
Jamal Lewis, 24, was a stand-out running back and linebacker at Frederick Douglass High School. It was there, John Lewis said, that Jamal forged friendships with teen-agers his father didn't approve of.
The elder Lewis says the head coach, Mike Sims, was so impressed with Jamal's character that he believed he would have a positive influence on kids who seemed to be veering toward trouble.
"It backfired," said John Lewis, who last saw his son about 10 days ago.
'Part of growing up'
Lewis said the boys, many of whom lived in the Bowen Homes, introduced his son to late-night revelry, including smoking marijuana and staying out past midnight on school nights.
A childhood friend of Jamal's, Corey Laster, who described himself as a rap musician, confirmed that Jamal started hanging around at the Bowen Homes toward the end of high school.
"We don't judge people," Laster added. "We all have associated ourselves with some bad people because that is part of growing up."
John Lewis said another factor in his son's delinquency was the souring of the marriage between John and his wife, Mary.
They separated during Jamal's senior year in high school and eventually divorced; that separation, John Lewis said, has created tension between him and his son.
"He might have been rebelling," the elder Lewis said of his son's teen-age years.
John Lewis said he was disturbed by Bowen's attraction for his son.
Apparently he spent so much time at Bowen that residents of the housing project are under the impression that Jamal once lived there with his mother.
On the streets of Bowen yesterday, several residents made exactly that claim.
Lisa Smith, who lives in Bowen with her two sons, recalls often seeing Jamal Lewis with friends at a barber shop called "Boys in the Hood."
Smith, a 39-year-old chef, said that the future NFL star would spend hours playing video games at the shop, which has since burned down.
"They were all guys he went to school with," she said of the boys Jamal hung out with. "They would sit up there and watch cable TV."
For residents of Bowen, crime and violence abound on the streets of the project, including carjackings, drug dealing, shootings and murders.
Smith's 19-year-old son, Paul Johnson, told of an occasion when a youngster taunted a police officer into leaving his car, and then an accomplice jumped in and rode off.
"Oh, I'd love to move," said Kathy Miller, 40, who was walking to Bowen's mailboxes near the entrance to the project.
Aside from the constant crime, she complained of "lots of rats, big rats. They're as big as cats, some of them."
Like others with children, Miller said she doesn't like for her 16-year-old daughter, Renita, to walk outside their apartment.
"She barely goes out; once it gets dark, then I prefer her to be at home," Miller said.
Despite the overall harsh assessment of residents, many agree that the situation improved after a police crackdown and numerous arrests in August 2003.
As Jamal was growing up, though, the dangers of Bowen were at a far remove, according to his father.
Jamal enjoyed sports and riding go-carts in their hilly neighborhood.
John said that he and his wife, a warden at the Georgia Department of Corrections, earned incomes that brought comfort - and even some luxury - to their family, which also included Jamal's older brother, John Jr.
Together, the father said, the Lewises' income was roughly $150,000.
They lived in a ranch house that had a steep driveway with towering trees and yuccas in the front yard.
The brick mailbox features a cast-iron locomotive engine and coal car, a nod to John's occupation.
After the divorce, the father moved out. John Jr., who, his father said, owns a fitness center, lives there with his family. Jamal's mother lives in Tennessee.
Jamal's mother could not be reached for comment. At Jamal's childhood home in Adamsville, a man who described himself as a friend said the family did not wish to speak to the media.
In the Lewis household, football was a shared passion. The father played high school football, and Jamal's brother, six years older, was a speedy running back as well. Jamal admired Walter Payton - he studied videos of the Bears great - but his father says Jamal idolized his brother above all others.
'I spoiled him'
Jamal practiced and played hard, but John frets that he and his wife indulged their younger son. He said that he bought Jamal two or three used cars while his son was in high school. "I might have given him too much," John said. "I spoiled him."
Though Jamal apparently did not want for comforts, in the spring of his senior year in high school he was arrested for shoplifting a polo shirt - valued at $109 - from a Macy's store in a shopping mall, according to court records.
He was convicted the following fall when he was a freshman at the University of Tennessee.
John Lewis chalked the episode up to thrill-seeking.
"It had to be," he said. "I see no reason to do that."
At the time, Jamal insisted that the theft was out of character and a mistake he would never repeat, but there were to be other lapses. Lewis has twice failed drug tests in the NFL, and in 2001 he received a four-game suspension.
Signs of maturing
In the ensuing years, Jamal appeared to reform.
He seemed more comfortable in his role as a leader on the Baltimore Ravens, and teammates detected even greater resolve in their star running back during this past, record-breaking season.
His father noticed, too.
After years of hand-wringing and second-guessing, John Lewis said, he was relieved after spending time with Jamal in November. His son seemed to have "finally turned a corner."
Perhaps he had ditched Bowen and its drug-land intrigues for good.
"He sounded much more mature," John Lewis said. "You can tell when your son is talking like a man. I was really proud."
So, it was a terrible blow for John on Wednesday to realize that his son might not have outrun Bowen, after all.
"His choice of friends, yes, that disturbs me, but what can you say?" said the father.
"These are the choices he makes."
Sun staff writers Ryan Davis, Reginald Fields, Stephanie Hanes and Laurie Willis contributed to this article.