<
>

'I want to put this whole thing behind me'

ATLANTA -- Jamal Lewis walked into the room wearing an
open-collared shirt, blue jeans and gleaming white sneakers. He
brought along a new appreciation for his freedom.

No more wearing those drab prison duds. No more getting up at
4:30 in the morning. No more eating the same ol' thing day after
day. No more feeling like someone is watching his every move.

"It wasn't easy," Lewis said Friday, a day after the Baltimore
Ravens running back completed a four-month sentence at a federal
prison camp in Florida.

"People say four months isn't that long. But when you're
serving it day by day, you have a chance to reflect on the things
that are important in your life."

Lewis is ready to get on with his life, having served the bulk
of his sentence for a youthful mistake that cost him dearly. He
pleaded guilty in October to using a cell phone to try to set up a
drug deal in 2000, shortly after the Ravens picked him fifth
overall in the NFL draft.

Lewis still has to complete two months in an Atlanta halfway
house, which may prevent him from attending a Ravens mini-camp that
begins June 13. But the worst is behind him.

"It's good to be here," Lewis said at the opening of a news
conference staged on the bottom floor of a high-rise hotel in his
hometown. "I want to get back on the football field and do what I
do best. I want to put this whole thing behind me."

He talked openly for a half-hour, discussing the drudgery of
prison life, the state of his gimpy right ankle, and the loyalty of
family, friends and teammates who visited him at the prison camp in
Pensacola, Fla.

During his time behind bars, Lewis had to get up at 4:30 a.m.
and work in the prison tool shop. He often cooked up his own meals
in a microwave near his bunk. For the most part, he was treated
like just another inmate.

"I'm not used to getting up that early in the morning to go to
work," Lewis said, revealing the slightest of grins. "As soon as
you wake up, they're watching your every move. There's no freedom.
You don't get to eat what you want to eat. You don't get to move
where you want to move.

"It wasn't about Jamal Lewis. You're just another number in
prison."

He spent a lot time reading, lifting weights, rehabbing his
ankle and talking with his fellow inmates, many of them serving
time measured in years rather than months.

Their message was clear: "Just do your time."

Lewis hopes to use his own experience to teach youngsters a
valuable lesson.

"Pick your friends wisely," he said. "Watch every move you
make. I never knew that things could be that serious just from
knowing somebody or talking to somebody."

The ankle injury caused Lewis to miss two games last season and
led to surgery in January. The Ravens were concerned that their
star player wouldn't get proper treatment in prison, but team
officials were pleasantly surprised at his condition when he got
out.

Now, they're eager to get him ready for the season.

"His rehab needs to be much more aggressive, and hopefully
he'll be allowed to go at it that way," coach Brian Billick said.
"But we'll respect whatever the courts ask Jamal to do."

Lewis said the ankle feels much better and he expects to be
fully recovered — or close to it — when training camp begins. He
showed no signs of the injury when entering the room for his news
conference.

"The football season will seem like nothing now," Lewis said.
"That's going to be a breeze after what I've been through."

He knows that some people will view him differently than they
did before he went to prison.

"That comes with the territory," Lewis said. "I know I'll be
looked at with a magnifying glass."

The running back hopes that any skeptics will be swayed by the
way he took responsibility for his actions, even though the federal
judge who sent him to prison conceded that prosecutors lacked a
strong case.

"I did the time for what I did. I stood up for what I did. I
did what the government asked me to do," Lewis said.

The Ravens never considered cutting him loose, even when he
headed off to prison.

"Five years ago, I told you we had drafted a great running back
out of Tennessee named Jamal Lewis, who was going to be an impact
player on the field and the type of person we could be proud of,"
general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "Five years later, I've not
changed what I thought about Jamal on that day."

Billick said it was the last time he would discuss Jamal Lewis,
the convicted felon. From now on, it's all about Jamal Lewis, the
running back who once rushed for 2,000 yards in a season.

"We want to put this behind us," Billick said. "He's paid his
price."

Lewis' mother, Mary, visited her son every weekend. As a
longtime employee of the Georgia Department of Corrections, it was
especially tough to see her son caught up in the legal system. But
she never lost faith that he would emerge from prison a better man.

"I love my sons unconditionally," Mary Lewis said. "This is a
victory for me today. This is a victory for Jamal."