ATLANTA - The change in Jamal Lewis last season was subtle but unmistakable. An extra measure of resolve. A willingness to lead. Most of all, a hunger for recognition, not as one of the workmanlike but faceless NFL running backs who dependably gain chunks of yardage, but as one of the league's elite performers whose name was on everyone's lips.
The result was a season for the ages - nearly a single-season rushing record and one glorious afternoon against Cleveland when Lewis ran for more yards than any other man in NFL history, accomplishing what he most desired to unleash on a football field. "I like to break people's will and drive them down," he would later say. "That's a beautiful thing, to watch them fold."
At 24, Lewis seemed within reach of what he so fervently wished. Often he had complained about being underestimated, but in 2003, Lewis emphatically silenced those voices. He was named the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year - a title that presumptively recognized what Lewis believed, that he is the most dangerous running back on the planet.
What Lewis also knew - even as he ascended to the summit of NFL achievement - was that he could lose it all because of suspicions of federal authorities that he had tried to engineer a cocaine deal nearly four years ago. According to those authorities, just as an NFL career and its accompanying riches beckoned, Lewis put everything at risk, trying to help a friend buy up to 50 kilograms of cocaine, with a street value of about $1 million.
His older brother, John Lewis Jr., said yesterday that Jamal has been aware of the federal inquiry almost his entire career as a Raven. "He's been worried about it," John, 31, a personal trainer, said outside his home, the ranch house in Atlanta where he and Jamal grew up.
The charges against Lewis imperil an athletic future of seemingly limitless promise. Suddenly, the young superstar finds himself the latest illustration of a professional athlete whose character doesn't measure up to his achievement.
The greatest tragedy ultimately may be that the indictment comes when some believe Lewis had achieved the maturity that would open the way to the greatness always anticipated for him. Other than injury, the only thing that seemed to stand in the way of stardom was his misbehavior. Finally, he seemed to have himself in hand.
"I think his bad behavior is behind him," Jamal Lewis' father, John Lewis, said several days ago in Atlanta. "I think he's a changed person and a different person and a better person."
If Lewis is convicted, he faces the end of his career and a possible prison term. Lewis may prove that some mistakes even he can't outrun.
The charges arise from a long-term federal investigation of a deeply entrenched drug trafficking operation centered in the northwest Atlanta housing project known as Bowen Homes. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, drug dealing was brazenly conducted in Bowen and the adjacent Bankhead Highway. Along with the trafficking came shootings and murders that terrorized residents.
In 1998, federal authorities began a sweeping investigation into drug dealing at Bowen, which led to at least 34 arrests and a minimum of 30 convictions. John Lewis Jr. said that he and Jamal knew a number of those arrested.
Jamal Lewis is charged with trying to help a friend arrange a cocaine deal in June 2000 - about a month before he signed a six-year, $35.3 million rookie contract with the Ravens. In announcing the indictment Wednesday, federal authorities said it arose directly from the investigation into the Bowen drug trade. Lewis pleaded innocent in federal court here Thursday.
Drug trafficking may have abounded in Bowen, but the Lewises lived in Adamsville, a quiet neighborhood of single family homes several miles away. Their father was a conductor for CSX Railroad and their mother, Mary, a supervisor in a Georgia prison.
Football was Jamal Lewis' passion and his ambition. He followed his older brother to stardom as a running back at Frederick Douglass High School. John Sr., a former high school quarterback himself, directed the boys' training, by having them run up their steep driveway, chop wood and box.
During high school, Jamal began to stray from Adamsville and his parents' tight strictures. Increasingly, John says, Jamal was drawn to Bowen, attracted by people there who had the money to hit the clubs. John referred to those acquaintances as Jamal's "night crowd"- some of them drug dealers.
In Jamal's senior year, his parents separated, and for a couple of months he moved in with his father. John Sr. recalls Jamal hanging out with kids from Bowen then, smoking marijuana with them and staying out late.
Jamal's unsavory activities did not seem to interfere with his athletic potential. His speed and size invited comparisons with Herschel Walker, a hallowed name in Georgia football. Big-time football programs, including Nebraska and Florida State came courting, some salivating over a blocking fullback who could open holes for a quick running back. But Lewis didn't see himself in a supporting role. He picked the University of Tennessee and the chance he could be the featured back.
At Tennessee, coach Phillip Fulmer didn't start Lewis, fearing that the freshman wasn't ready. "My only concern was, he was a little slow picking up some of the pass protections we had for our quarterback, Peyton Manning."
A week before the season opener, Lewis came to Fulmer's office and made a confession. The previous spring, he'd been arrested for shoplifting, and the case was pending.
A friend had been a clerk in the store. He complained to her about the prices and asked for a break. She sold him some items at reduced cost and slipped him a $110 polo shirt.
"He was embarrassed for his family and for himself," Fulmer said. The coach didn't consider withdrawing Lewis' scholarship and decided against suspending him. Ultimately Lewis pleaded guilty and accepted a three-year probation, which Georgia allowed him to satisfy in Knoxville so he didn't have to drop out.
By the time Lewis was sentenced in November, Fulmer had made him the starter. Lewis rewarded his coach by adding a potent running game to go with Manning's passing. In October, Lewis rushed for 232 yards in a win over Georgia. Three days later, the Atlanta paper reported the shoplifting charge, which Lewis interpreted as retribution for having embarrassed his home-state team.
At the time, he told a reporter the shoplifting was "not a big, big, big, big deal." He also said it was out of character and would never happen again.
On the football field, Lewis remained seemingly invincible. He was named Southeastern Conference's Freshman of the Year and became a fan favorite. Many wore shirts that read, "Give Jamal the Ball."
Although reserved, Lewis did not lack for confidence, even swagger. Before his sophomore year, he boasted that he might run for 2,000 yards.
In the first four games of the 1998 season, he threatened to make good on his prediction. But in a game against Auburn, he tore the lateral collateral ligament in his right knee as he was tackled. His season was over, ending, Fulmer believes, what would have been an all-American-caliber year.
He did not bear the forced layoff well, particularly when he had to watch his team win the national championship without him. The injury made Lewis realize how tenuous any athlete's hold on the future is. "After I got hurt," he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "it made me respect the game. It had all been taken away from me just like that. It really opened my eyes."
He didn't sound like an athlete who would lay traps for himself.
Returning to the field his junior year, he clearly wasn't the same player. He lacked his earlier bursts of speed, and many fans wondered if he should continue as the featured back.
Lewis lost more sympathy by questioning his coaches' play-calling. He complained about not getting the ball enough after one loss. "We didn't use our bread-and-butter plays, our running plays," he said.
The reaction was lethal. "The minute things don't go [Lewis'] way, he'll stab you in the back if you're his head coach," wrote News-Sentinel sports columnist Gary Lundy. From then on, in bars and living rooms around Tennessee, Lewis was a favorite target, the embodiment of the selfish athlete.
After the season, he decided to forgo his senior year and enter the NFL draft. He didn't enroll for second semester, instead splitting his time between Atlanta and Knoxville in workouts to prepare for the April draft.
Because of the knee injury and his mediocre season, many were shocked, some even appalled, when the Ravens selected him fifth in the draft, ahead of all other running backs, including a Heisman Trophy winner.
By the time he signed with the Ravens, he was the subject of the federal investigation into drug trafficking emanating from Bowen Homes. A federal affidavit describes secret audiotape recordings between Lewis and an FBI source in which Lewis allegedly was trying to set up a drug purchase for a friend, Angelo "Pero" Jackson, who was also indicted last week.
That conversation, authorities say, led to secretly taped meetings several hours later among the three at an Atlanta restaurant.
The affidavit describes subsequent meetings between the FBI source and Jackson, mentioning no further involvement of Lewis. On July 19, Jackson was arrested, but drug charges against him were subsequently dropped.
Two days after Jackson's arrest, Lewis reached agreement with the Ravens, and two days after that, he reported to training camp at Owings Mills. To the world at large, the possibilities seemed endless for the young running back. But, it was around then that his name surfaced in federal documents about the case against Jackson. From then on, John Lewis Jr. said, Jamal knew he was under investigation. But from his performance on the field, no one would have suspected.
By his third game as a Raven, Lewis replaced Priest Holmes as the starter. By week 12 he had established himself as a future star, rushing for 187 yards against Dallas.
As a pro, he remained guarded, especially with the press. Fans didn't mind. They loved his low-key demeanor. Like his boyhood idol Walter Payton, he didn't celebrate after scoring; he just tossed the ball to the official. No end zone dances for him.
That year the Ravens made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, and Lewis set a team record for 1,364 yards. Against the Giants in the Super Bowl, he ran for 102 yards and a touchdown, helping the Ravens to an easy 34-7 victory.
"People said we couldn't run on this defense," Lewis said after the game. "But I like to prove people wrong."
The following year, Lewis was poised for an even more impressive showing, but in a pre-season practice, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee - the other knee. Again, he would need surgery and was out for the year.
He nonetheless made news that season, and not in a way anyone welcomed. In November, The Sun reported that Lewis had violated the NFL's substance and alcohol abuse policy. It was his second violation - first violations are kept confidential by the league. A second one triggers a four-game suspension (even though he wouldn't play anyway because of the injury). He also had to submit to as many as 10 random drug tests a month for the next two years.
A third violation would result in a yearlong suspension.
Even more drastically than with the shoplifting, Lewis had again put his career and his aspirations on the line. His father, who doesn't drink, was as shocked as anyone. "I told him I was disappointed, and he assured me that he had it under control."
Lewis refused to speak publicly about his violation, but pronounced himself determined to return from knee surgery and the suspension stronger than ever.
"I feel like I'm the best back in the NFL today," Lewis said then. "When I come back next year, I'll be able to prove that."
He came close. In 2002 he ran for 1,327 yards, but that only fueled his desire for more. Ray Lewis had become one of his closest friends on the team, and the linebacker urged his friend to step up, as a leader on offense.
He showed up at the Ravens training camp last summer transformed physically. During the off-season, Lewis had undergone a punishing four-month program of kick-boxing, strict dieting and jump roping to effect a striking reformation in a body that was already a battering ram. He sliced 35 pounds and cut his body fat to 5 percent. The goal: more agility, speed and endurance.
From the first day of training camp, coaches and teammates saw an explosiveness they'd never seen before from the 5-foot-11-inch, 231-pound player. They noticed other slight, but equally telling changes as well. He read blocks better than ever. He took it upon himself to organize weekly dinners with the running backs to study tapes of the week's coming opponent.
Privately, Lewis talked about leading the league in rushing that season.
As everyone now knows, this time he carried through. Before the Sept. 14 game against Cleveland, he predicted that he would have "a career day," an understatement after he rushed for a record 295 yards. Asked after the game how long the record would last, his answer betrayed the depth of his ego: "Until I break it again."
Every team facing the Ravens made him the focus of its defense. "It's like I'm the sexiest woman in the world back there," he said. "Everybody wants to get me."
His father, visiting with his son in November, thought Jamal finally had grown up. "He sounded much more mature," John Lewis said. "You can tell when your son is talking like an adult. I was proud."
With them that day was an old family friend, Henry Armour, his father's contemporary. Armour, too, was impressed by Jamal, whom he had known since birth.
He said, "I came away from that conversation thinking that he knew everything he had worked for could be taken away in a moment."
Sun staff writers Kevin Van Valkenburg, Lynn Anderson and Jamison Hensley contributed to this article.