Jamal's unsavory activities did not seem to interfere with his athletic potential. His speed and size invited comparisons with Herschel Walker, a hallowed name in Georgia football. Big-time football programs, including Nebraska and Florida State came courting, some salivating over a blocking fullback who could open holes for a quick running back. But Lewis didn't see himself in a supporting role. He picked the University of Tennessee and the chance he could be the featured back.
At Tennessee, coach Phillip Fulmer didn't start Lewis, fearing that the freshman wasn't ready. "My only concern was, he was a little slow picking up some of the pass protections we had for our quarterback, Peyton Manning."
A week before the season opener, Lewis came to Fulmer's office and made a confession. The previous spring, he'd been arrested for shoplifting, and the case was pending.
A friend had been a clerk in the store. He complained to her about the prices and asked for a break. She sold him some items at reduced cost and slipped him a $110 polo shirt.
"He was embarrassed for his family and for himself," Fulmer said. The coach didn't consider withdrawing Lewis' scholarship and decided against suspending him. Ultimately Lewis pleaded guilty and accepted a three-year probation, which Georgia allowed him to satisfy in Knoxville so he didn't have to drop out.
By the time Lewis was sentenced in November, Fulmer had made him the starter. Lewis rewarded his coach by adding a potent running game to go with Manning's passing. In October, Lewis rushed for 232 yards in a win over Georgia. Three days later, the Atlanta paper reported the shoplifting charge, which Lewis interpreted as retribution for having embarrassed his home-state team.
At the time, he told a reporter the shoplifting was "not a big, big, big, big deal." He also said it was out of character and would never happen again.
On the football field, Lewis remained seemingly invincible. He was named Southeastern Conference's Freshman of the Year and became a fan favorite. Many wore shirts that read, "Give Jamal the Ball."
Although reserved, Lewis did not lack for confidence, even swagger. Before his sophomore year, he boasted that he might run for 2,000 yards.
In the first four games of the 1998 season, he threatened to make good on his prediction. But in a game against Auburn, he tore the lateral collateral ligament in his right knee as he was tackled. His season was over, ending, Fulmer believes, what would have been an all-American-caliber year.
He did not bear the forced layoff well, particularly when he had to watch his team win the national championship without him. The injury made Lewis realize how tenuous any athlete's hold on the future is. "After I got hurt," he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "it made me respect the game. It had all been taken away from me just like that. It really opened my eyes."
He didn't sound like an athlete who would lay traps for himself.
Returning to the field his junior year, he clearly wasn't the same player. He lacked his earlier bursts of speed, and many fans wondered if he should continue as the featured back.
Lewis lost more sympathy by questioning his coaches' play-calling. He complained about not getting the ball enough after one loss. "We didn't use our bread-and-butter plays, our running plays," he said.
The reaction was lethal. "The minute things don't go [Lewis'] way, he'll stab you in the back if you're his head coach," wrote News-Sentinel sports columnist Gary Lundy. From then on, in bars and living rooms around Tennessee, Lewis was a favorite target, the embodiment of the selfish athlete.
After the season, he decided to forgo his senior year and enter the NFL draft. He didn't enroll for second semester, instead splitting his time between Atlanta and Knoxville in workouts to prepare for the April draft.
Because of the knee injury and his mediocre season, many were shocked, some even appalled, when the Ravens selected him fifth in the draft, ahead of all other running backs, including a Heisman Trophy winner.
By the time he signed with the Ravens, he was the subject of the federal investigation into drug trafficking emanating from Bowen Homes. A federal affidavit describes secret audiotape recordings between Lewis and an FBI source in which Lewis allegedly was trying to set up a drug purchase for a friend, Angelo "Pero" Jackson, who was also indicted last week.
That conversation, authorities say, led to secretly taped meetings several hours later among the three at an Atlanta restaurant.
The affidavit describes subsequent meetings between the FBI source and Jackson, mentioning no further involvement of Lewis. On July 19, Jackson was arrested, but drug charges against him were subsequently dropped.