Jamal Lewis sat alone in a dark room, uncertain if he belonged in this world any longer.
He'd watched recession and shoddy management lay waste to his business interests. His head ached and his memory lapsed, receipts for all the hits he’d taken, willingly. And he could not turn to football — his lifelong outlet in which strength, speed and courage trumped all obstacles.
Worst of all, Lewis felt unable to share his bleak state of mind with another soul. He'd always been a rock, even for older members of his family. But the idea of leaning on someone else in his lowest moment? It didn't compute.
“Suicide is a tough thing to talk about, but yeah, I have had thoughts of that,” the former Ravens running back said. “The thought is: Maybe it’d be better off if I wasn’t here. Maybe my family, they would be better off if I wasn’t here. I wouldn’t have to deal with this.”
Rather than act on his darkest impulses, however, Lewis thought back to the mindset that had carried him through so many bruising games. He got up and looked for another way.
He spoke to his mother first. Then a few close friends and former teammates such as Alan Ricard and Sam Gash. Finally, a therapist.
“You can handle this whole depression thing by speaking up and speaking out, not keeping everything in,” he said during a phone conversation last week. “You’ve got people around you that love you and care for you. Talk to them. Let them know how you’re feeling.”
That’s the message Lewis, 39, hopes to share Wednesday when he’ll serve as the keynote speaker at a “community conversation” on depression, hosted by the University of Maryland Medical System at the UMB Campus Center from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“I felt like I wasn’t the only one, but I’ve always been one that didn’t mind voicing my opinion and saying how I felt,” Lewis said. “It’s therapeutic to talk about your problems, because you’re only human. There’s other people who are suffering or dealing with the same things.”
Lewis joins a growing list of athletes, from Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps to NBA star Kevin Love, who’ve spoken out about their struggles with mental health.
The message is consistent from sport to sport. Athletes — especially males — are taught to suppress painful emotions, to use them as fuel for greater competitive achievements.
Even after Lewis found the help he needed, he was reluctant to share his story with the wider world. He put off a series of calls from a Bleacher Report writer, who wanted to tell the tale.
“You have this macho-man thing, where you’re playing football and you’re the bread winner for your family,” he said. “Everybody looks up to you, from your cousins to your aunties to uncles and brothers. You’re supposed to be Superman. Everything is supposed to be all right. But growing up, it wasn’t. Even playing, later on, it wasn’t. … It’s constant stress, but as an athlete, you want to deal with everything yourself. There’s nobody there to take the weight of the world off your shoulders.”
Finally, he changed his mind. Why not lay it all out and perhaps help someone else?
Bleacher Report published the story in late May. Lewis was flooded by calls and texts from former teammates and competitors who said they’d gone through similar troubles. Given that response, he resolved to keep sharing his message, whenever someone would give him the right forum.
“I think it’s hugely helpful for someone like Jamal Lewis to speak out,” said Dr. Bill Regenold, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “It’s clear that men have a much harder time discussing these things and opening up. With our view of masculinity, we often view it as weakness.”
This tendency to suppress helps explain why the suicide rate is four times higher among men than women, Regenold said. So when a man as obviously strong and fearless as Lewis speaks out, he makes depression less taboo for others.
“Jamal Lewis' speaking in public about his struggles with mental health is as courageous, possibly even more courageous, than repeatedly hurtling himself against defensive lines,” Regenold said. “He sets a very important, potentially lifesaving, example for other men.”
As he learned more about depression, Lewis realized he’d probably coped with it since childhood. The violence and despair he saw growing up in the tough Adamsville section of Atlanta left unseen scars.
“A lot of it still is probably from growing up and the environment I grew up in,” he said.
But Lewis had football. And all the love he put into the game reflected back on him during his brilliant ascent to the NFL.
Top high school running back in the country, freshman All-American at Tennessee, fifth overall draft pick by the Ravens, 1,000-yard rusher for a Super Bowl winner — Lewis reeled off all these achievements before his 22nd birthday.
He faced off-the-field troubles, though, and spent several months in jail in 2005 after agreeing to a plea deal on a federal drug charge.
Lewis was only 30 when he played his last NFL game, for the Cleveland Browns in 2009. He didn’t realize it at the time, but football had been his great stress release for most of his life.
“Now that the game is gone, I can’t just go out and rush for 150 yards,” said Lewis, whose financial woes led him to file for bankruptcy in 2012. “Or go hit some people to let it all out. So I felt like yeah, I did suffer from [depression] earlier on, but I had a way to deal with it. After, you have to find a way to deal with it.”
He knew the culture of the locker room, where such things were simply not discussed.
“You’re teammates, you’re family, but at the same time, it’s like it’s always competition,” Lewis said. “You can’t let the next person know how you are, because you just never know. If something goes wrong, that same person could bring it up to somebody, and now it’s a big issue. You don’t want to be looked at like that. You don’t want to be looked at as weak.”
He vowed to fight that mentality.
“I think we are moving forward,” he said. “People are being more sensitive of these issues. These guys are just human. Stop making it seem like these athletes are superhuman. That same person still wants somebody to ask: ’How are you doing? Is everything OK?’ ”
Lewis said he’s doing well now. He’s never been a person to sit still, so he fills his days by building his logistics business and coaching his kids.
His back and his knees bark at him, and he worries about the long-term price he’ll pay for all those hits he took to the head.
“You never know where that’s going to go,” he said.
But he has stepped out of the dark, and he hopes others will follow.