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.