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J. Lewis learned lesson; now he has something to teach


IT'S NOT exactly "Scared Straight!" But there definitely was something powerful in seeing an All-Pro running back, one of only five ever to rush for 2,000 yards in a season, telling jailhouse stories on national television.

The NFL shells out good money every year on rookie orientations intended to slap some sense into its potentially wayward players. It can save itself a fortune from now on by just popping in a tape of yesterday's news conference by Jamal Lewis in Atlanta, a day after being released from a federal prison camp and hours before entering a halfway house, all for using a cell phone to arrange a drug deal.

No, he wasn't doing an imitation of the legendary documentary that still causes goose bumps to viewers a quarter-century after they saw it. No murderers, rapists or similar hard-core felons, spewing gutter language about vile acts, made cameos in Lewis' tale. It wasn't that kind of prison, for which, you'd assume, he's extremely grateful. His stuff yesterday was pretty tame.

Still, four months at the Pensacola, Fla., camp was enough to leave its imprint on his psyche. A little first-hand knowledge and a dose of perspective can go a long way. The life he lives as the Ravens' biggest offensive star, he appears to realize, is worth preserving and protecting.

In jail, he said, even in a minimum-security facility, "you have no freedom." He kept coming back to the way he was watched constantly, no matter what he did - while he worked, while he ate, while he rehabilitated the ankle that had just been operated on - when visitors came, including his mother, teammates, coach and general manager.

He couldn't eat what he wanted or when he wanted, he said. His life was scheduled down to the second every day. He had to sleep bunked up in a room shared by a dozen inmates. He was up at 4:30 every morning, not to get a jump on the morning commute or to make the early shift, but because he had to be.

"That's really early," he said with a laugh, making it clear that he's no morning person.

It's worth repeating: This wasn't one of those places Johnny Cash wrote songs about, and it was for just four months. Still, prison is prison, and four months inside are four months that you can't do anything else, much less what the average NFL player does in his offseason.

Lewis spoke like someone who didn't want any other young athlete, or young person period, to go through that. His fellow players, he implied, can no longer afford to take their careers for granted and can't bask in their sense of entitlement so easily.

As for the rest of society, the other teens and twenty-somethings who don't recognize the trouble right around the corner - you'd better watch out for it, Lewis said.

"Pick your friends wisely," he said, adding that it's easy to say, "I'm not doing anything," yet, "I can still get caught up in stuff.

"You can go to jail for conspiracy. I don't think that's something that's taught in schools; it's not something taught at home. By having to go through that, that should send a message."

Which raises another question: How much more of a message ought to be sent?

The Ravens say, enough, and you can't blame them. What's wrong with him serving the rest of his sentence in a halfway house near where he makes his living? Or, if not that, can't he be allowed to attend minicamp in a couple of weeks, and maybe slip away a day or two early for the start of the full training camp?

Well, you can't blame the feds for saying no; they've already said it on the halfway-house issue. Ravens coach Brian Billick was right yesterday when he said this is an "unusual" situation for an unusual profession. But the last thing anyone needs to see right now is for Lewis to be treated like a special case. Perception means something in this case, as it does with most celebrities. The low volume maintained by the Ravens and Lewis' lawyer with their requests attests to it.

You'd be hard-pressed to find outside observers, rightly or wrongly, who don't think Lewis already has gotten off easy. Even Lewis, as much as the past four months have left their mark on him, is well aware of how much worse it could have been.

The Ravens will feel the sting of having him absent for all of their minicamps and the start of camp. They want this whole thing to be over; "put it behind us" was a common refrain yesterday in Atlanta. But a disruption in the team's preparation due to a key player's jail term might just be the proper message to be sent and to be received.

These are the consequences of your actions, that message says. Lewis himself can hardly argue with that, and the way he sounded yesterday, he wouldn't argue it.

His cautionary tale is compelling, yet not ruinous to his life and his career. And extremely easy to mimic if you're not careful.

"Football season will be nothing now," he said with another laugh. "It'll be a breeze."

Take his word for it, instead of finding out the way he did.

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