J. Lewis' indictment serves as caution for young athletes

Making the right choices with acquaintances seen as key to avoiding trouble

February 27, 2004|By Lem Satterfield | Lem Satterfield,SUN STAFF

At a party two weeks ago, Woodlawn High senior Keith Mallory was reminded of how an athlete's choice of acquaintances can get him into trouble.

"Tensions were building, and you could tell that a fight was about to happen, and one of my friends was involved," said Mallory, a college-bound standout defensive back. "I had the option of staying and helping my friend or leaving. I stayed and was able to get him out of trouble."

But thinking back, Mallory said, "I realize that was a risky thing to do."

Added Mallory: "My parents, teachers and coaches are always reinforcing in your mind that for athletes, there's a fine line between the good situations you're in and the bad ones you're in. The bottom line is it's a matter of choice."

Federal authorities believe Jamal Lewis made the wrong decision almost four years ago, when the Ravens' running back allegedly tried to help a childhood friend buy at least 5 kilograms of cocaine.

Now Lewis, 24, who had the second-highest rushing total in NFL history last season, could face 10 years in prison after being indicted Wednesday on federal drug charges that stem from an FBI sting operation during the summer of 2000.

The alleged incident occurred after Lewis was drafted out of the University of Tennessee and before he signed a six-year, $35.3 million contract with the Ravens.

"Maybe he did it, maybe he didn't - who am I to say?" said Woodlawn's Jason Goode, an All-Metro tight end last season. "Either way, all athletes are human, so this doesn't change what I think of him as a football player."

However, Lewis' problems, including two prior violations of the NFL's substance abuse policy, should send a warning to high school athletes regarding the pitfalls of failing to separate from what Edmondson's Pete Pompey calls "so-called friends [who] often act in complete selfishness by influencing you to do the wrong things.

"Peer pressure is a monster - one of the worst challenges a high school athlete will face - because an athlete doesn't want his friends to feel that he thinks he's above them or on another level," said Pompey, 63, who in more than 30 years as a football and basketball coach has "seen some youngsters charged with serious things" as a result of poor decision-making.

"Jamal couldn't have been more than 21 years old, but he's old enough to be responsible for his actions," Pompey said. "You have to be able to stand tall and trust your values. But that's easy to say until you're talking about street life - that's a completely different ballgame. It's very tough to develop a friendship without truly knowing the backgrounds of associates."

The lesson from Lewis should be to "stay around like-minded people who have similar beliefs and similar goals," Goode said.

"When you're a popular athlete, people who aren't necessarily your friends want to cling to you and go along for the ride. But you can be hanging with a person who shows you one personality and then another. I tend to stay away from people like that because I'm at the point right now where I can't compromise myself or anything."

Sabrina Thomas said she has taught her son, Phil, a Pikesville High defensive end, to uphold certain values. "Stay away from drugs and promiscuous behavior," she warns. "He's an honor roll student and he busted 1,000 on his SATs."

Thomas said she "sort of mentioned the Jamal Lewis thing" to her son Wednesday, "but he didn't respond to it." She said she trusts Phil, but frets about what influences could greet him when he's no longer under her roof.

"He's looking to go off to college, looking to go professional. And with the environments he could find himself in, you don't know how much is going to stick," Thomas said.

Said Pompey: "The younger you are, the more difficult it becomes. And all too often, kids can't look rationally at the situation and they wind up making the wrong decision."

Former All-Metro defensive back Christian Varner of Randallstown knows what that's like, having nearly been "taken by the streets" four years ago, according to his mother, Dona Rawlings.

Varner's behavior included bringing a knife to school, which earned him an expulsion from Randallstown as a freshman. It took seven months at the Catonsville Center for Alternative Studies for him to learn, among other things, how a young man can save face when confronted by peer pressure.

Varner graduated early from Randallstown after accepting a full football scholarship to the University of Maryland. A communications major, he enrolled on Jan. 27, is taking 12 credits and will be a part of the Terps' spring training program.

"The first thing I said when I heard about [Lewis] was, `Why?' " Varner said. "But I don't look down on any man because, like a lot of us, he probably grew up seeing the stardom of other athletes on television, in the newspapers - you want to rush toward that lifestyle. You want to emulate it because you associate it with being the best.

"But you have to learn to be committed to separating yourself from certain people, make it so that they have no choice but to accept your lifestyle, even if I have to keep it to `hi' and `bye.' "

Varner said it's not too late for Lewis to redeem himself, possibly becoming an even greater role model for youth.

"Everybody messes up, everybody makes mistakes, but a lot of how he is viewed from now on will depend on how he handles this," Varner said. "I'd like to see him come out in public, maybe have a press conference and just break it all down for us and let everybody know the whole situation. I know he has true fans in Baltimore who will stick by him if he's honest - even if he did it."

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