Early-season struggles pale compared with jail

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Jamal Lewis has been to the bottom. Not for a visit. Lived there. And you had better believe it's a lot lower than 2.9 yards per carry.

Oh yeah, there are far worse positions in which to find one's self than 27th in rushing, as Lewis does at this moment, or in last place in the AFC North, a division that not long ago you dominated, as Lewis' Baltimore Ravens (2-4) do today. 'Cause see, at the bottom, in Lewis' case a minimum-security federal prison camp in Pensacola, Fla., you are made to bend over so the guards can inspect your bottom for smuggled materials. And being constantly bottled up by opposing defenses (on pace for a career-low 869 yards)? Let's just say that's a struggle No. 31 gladly will endure, as opposed to being confined to a cell as prisoner 55612-019.

"It's nothing," Lewis said, or whispered rather, regarding his struggles. It was Friday, two days before the Chicago Bears would limit Lewis to 34 yards on 15 carries -- believe it or not, that's the running back's second-lowest output of the young season. As Lewis discussed his offseason experience amid the hustle and bustle of the Baltimore locker room, 2Pac jams blared from the locker next to him. Not far away, a teammate was bumping 50 Cent. Lewis can listen to rap lyrics a little differently now. He has lived a lot of them.

"I been to the bottom. No matter what nobody says, I've experienced something that a lot of people don't want to experience -- and shouldn't experience -- but being in this glamorous lifestyle with the fans and people feeding your ego, I've been low as can be," Lewis said. "Stripped of my clothes in front of a person … treating me just like what I was -- a 'convict,' an inmate. So I been there.

"For somebody to say, 'Jamal's not getting the yards, maybe he's not mentally right,' or, 'This and that must be affecting him, the contract,' man, I'm not even worried about that."

Lewis isn't satisfied with his or the Ravens' start to what was expected to be a season in which they would challenge Pittsburgh (their opponent Monday night) for the division title and he would return to his form of two years ago. Lewis, who missed four games last season because of a league-mandated suspension and injuries, was named 2003's AP Offensive Player of the Year for recording the fifth 2,000-yard season in league history. Yet he's content with where he is because of where he isn't.

"A lot of people think four months is not a long time," said Lewis, who served 16 weeks in prison plus two months in an Atlanta halfway house as penalty for pleading guilty to charges of using a cell phone to set up a cocaine deal in Atlanta back in 2000. He remains on probation until June. "But you try doing 120 days in one place, being in a dorm with a bunch of people of all different nationalities that you don't even know, and not being able to have some of the things that you're used to."

Out in the world, young people wear khakis, T-shirts, and Timbs because they're stylish. But for Lewis, those were his only fashion options while in prison. He didn't have a drawer full of underwear while on the inside, no personal preference of personal items.

"You don't have your Aquafresh," Lewis said. "You don't have your nice toothbrushes. You got all this stuff that Bob Barker makes. Even having eggs or having cheese, good vegetables and stuff that you're used to having, you can't have. The commissary has OK stuff. But if you want to eat healthy, you can't do it there. You're sneaking food out of the [cafeteria].

"I thought, 'How did I get myself in this situation?' You sit and you say that every night."

The days, which, for Lewis, began at 4:30 a.m. and included working in the prison tool shop, working out and rehabilitating his surgically repaired right ankle, plus maybe a little TV before "lights out" at 10, felt longer the longer he was locked up. Fans wrote him. Visits from, among others, coach Brian Billick, general manager Ozzie Newsome, owner Steve Bisciotti, and teammates Alan Ricard and Adalius Thomas came to mean more to him than he initially thought they would.

"A lot of people didn't come see me or didn't attempt to, but I don't fault them," Lewis said. "When I first left, I told them they really didn't have to see me. 'It's just four months.' But then after you get in there after about three weeks, man, you want people to come see you because you're seeing the same cats every day. You get lonely sometimes."

You also get caught up sometimes. At least, that's Lewis' explanation for being involved in a federal drug trafficking investigation. Lewis maintains his innocence, and the judge who sentenced him agrees, having said the prosecution did not have sufficient evidence against Lewis. Had the case gone to trial, Lewis would have faced a minimum 10 years if convicted on conspiracy.

"It just let me know, man, that you're not bigger than the system," said Lewis, who came into the league as the fifth overall selection of the 2000 NFL draft knowing he could encounter legal troubles someday. "You're not bigger than the government. They can come and get you; they can set you up; they can do anything they want to do. At the same time, it was my mistake. I've heard a lot of people say, 'Oh, he's saying it's something he didn't do, but he made a mistake and he did his time for it.' Yeah, I made a mistake. But what was the mistake? It wasn't setting up a drug deal. My mistake was associating myself with the wrong people. A lot of people confuse that. I worded myself right. I said I made a mistake and I paid the price for it.

"You have to bite the bullet for some things. It's not the first time someone has taken the fall. And I took the fall for doing something I wasn't supposed to do, which was associating myself with those people."

Having a receptive cellmate, 23-year-old Alexander Salazar, to show him the ropes helped him during his prison term, Lewis says. Other inmates, Lewis says, expected him to be arrogant and would ask Salazar what his famous "bunkie" was like. Many were envious because they felt as though Lewis got off easy, he said.

"A lot of dudes didn't like me," Lewis said. "A lot of dudes were doing 10 years for something I got four to six months for, so they were mad with me. I wasn't in danger, but they were jealous. And they still are. There's a lot of guys still sitting there happy to see me not getting yards, happy to see us losing games."

Before reporting to prison, Lewis underwent a procedure on his right ankle similar to the tendon surgery made famous by Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling during the 2004 MLB playoffs. Lewis said he still feels some soreness in the ankle, now sporting a long, curving, dark scar. Lewis was allowed to rehab three to four days a week while in the federal prison camp, he said, and was running again by the time he left Florida in early June. While serving time, he was able to keep up with the changes to the Ravens' offense that had been implemented by new coordinator Jim Fassel. But that was no substitute for the offseason team activities, minicamps and the early part of training camp he missed.

"I really had to squeeze everything [offseason conditioning] into two months [in Atlanta]," he said. "What takes me from February to July, I had to cram into June and July."

September and October have been difficult not just for Lewis but for the entire Ravens' offense, which is without starting quarterback Kyle Boller. The expectation was that Baltimore would be better than 25th, what with the return of a healthy Lewis and tight end Todd Heap and the addition of wideouts Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton. The assumption was that, if nothing else, the Ravens would be able to run the ball effectively again. Instead they rank 20th in rushing. Lewis, running out of more single-back sets in a new system behind a line with new coach Chris Foerster, has yet to gain 100 yards in a game and averaged 3.0 or fewer yards per carry in five of the first six contests. In Baltimore last week, the local media were even calling for backup Chester Taylor to get more carries.

Billick's revised plan as of last week was to do just the opposite. "Jamal's running the ball fine," Billick said. "He's just now getting into a rhythm. We need to get the ball in his hands more. Because we are much more multiple in our groupings this year, you look up [and] Jamal has only had so many carries. We're going to go back to just subbing Jamal by a series or a play. Backs like Jamal get stronger as the game goes on. If we have 35 carries on the game, he needs 25."

"It's coming," Lewis said before the Bears didn't let him get anywhere in a 10-6 Chicago victory. "I'm about 90 to 95 percent. I'm almost there. I'm trying to find a hole and trying to find a big play instead of just hitting it and making the hole. I've got a big bull's-eye on my back. Until we go out there and hit those pass plays downfield, they're going to pack the box with eight and nine men. That's what's up."

Lewis, 26, acknowledged that at one time he wondered what was up with the fact that he does not have a contract beyond this season.

"That weighed on me at the beginning," said Lewis, who, like the Colts' Edgerrin James this year, will get the franchise designation if a long-term deal isn't worked out before free agency. "I felt like the organization wasn't for me, they were against me, or whatever. Reality really hit me and let me know that this is a team, but this is the team right here [motioning toward his teammates]. Upstairs, that's not your team. It's still a business.

"I had a little bit more respect, a little bit more trust [before]. I think I gave them too much. It's almost like being in a relationship with a girl. Sometimes you give her too much and she shocks you. The only thing you can control is what you do best, and for me, that's running the football. Deion [Sanders] talked to me and told me, 'Don't worry about that. Let that go. Just run the football because you're not just playing for the Baltimore Ravens. You're auditioning for the other 31 teams.' So right now, I'm not concerned about it. I'm sure me and the Ravens will come to terms."

But what about his image? His legacy? No doubt, there are plenty of football fans who view Lewis as a thug, his situation as the personification of everything that is wrong with today's professional athletes and the society that coddles them. From our experience, Lewis is pleasant and thoughtful and clearly has been humbled by his incarceration experience.

"Talk to anybody that knows me and they'll tell you I'm a great person," he said. "My mama didn't raise me wrong. I was just in an environment and schools where these were my peers. So if I'm guilty for associating with them, I'm guilty. Maybe [my critics] live in a perfect world. They just need to pray and hope that their kids or their family members don't have to go through that. My mom was a warden at a prison [in Atlanta]. She saw inmates come in and out all the time. Who would have ever known that a warden's son would actually be going to prison one day?"

Just two seasons ago, Lewis was widely considered to be among the game's best running backs. But when you've endured some of life's worst circumstances, status, for some reason, doesn't seem to matter as much.

"While I was there, I was just thinking about being in the locker room, being out here, in the clubs, at the supermarket, just anywhere out in society. A lot of people don't realize how fortunate they are and how things are on the other side of the fence. I just appreciate just being here."

He took another look around the locker room.

"Waking up coming to work every day. I don't complain at all. I used to go, 'Damn, I gotta go to work.' Now I get in my car and I'm happy to come. It's like a roller coaster. I got brought down a little bit. But I'll peak.

"I'll prevail."

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.