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.