Jamal Lewis thrilled to regain his freedom

OWINGS MILLS – Wearing a white dress shirt and an equally gleaming smile, Jamal Lewis proclaimed himself a stronger person Friday one day after spending the last four months incarcerated in a Florida prison for a drug crime.

Clearly enjoying his freedom after being released from a federal prison camp in Pensacola, Fla., the Baltimore Ravens' star running back alternately described himself as blessed, relieved, wiser and rejuvenated.

Lewis acknowledged during a press conference at a downtown Atlanta hotel that his reputation has been tarnished, though.

Lewis, 25, pleaded guilty in October to using a cellular phone to try to set up a drug transaction in 2000 shortly before signing a six-year, $35.3 million contract. He will serve the next two months in an Atlanta halfway house after reporting Friday.

"It has not been easy," said Lewis while flanked by Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, head coach Brian Billick and team president Dick Cass. "Some people think that because it's four months, it's not a long time, but going day to day that is a long time. It gives you a lot of time to actually think and reflect on things that are really important in your life.

"Be careful who you hang around and who you keep in your circle because it can all come back to haunt you and just being guilty by association can really be detrimental to your life and your future. I've learned a lot and I can't wait to get back to the football field and just really put this whole thing behind me and move on."

For Lewis, the last 48 hours marked another major transition in his life as he exited a minimum-security prison on an outlying base of the Pensacola Naval Air Station and returned to his hometown to fulfill his final legal obligation.

Confined in a prison cubicle with 11 other inmates since February, Lewis had to rise each morning at 4:30 and work in a tool shop.

Lewis had to obey the orders of prison guards, be counted in his cell three times daily and was isolated from family and friends other than weekend visits. He spent the majority of his time exercising and reading books.

"You don't have your freedom," Lewis said. "You're not able to eat what you want to eat. You're not able to do the things you want to do. You can't move where you want to move.

"It's not about a Jamal Lewis. It's not about the football player. You know, you're just another number in the prison cell."

Lewis emphasized that he was treated with respect by his fellow inmates and had no incidents.

"I didn't have any big problems, and nothing drastic happened or anything," Lewis said. "I'm sure if it did you all would have heard about it, but everything went smoothly."

Lewis must also perform 500 hours of community service. He'll also have to find and hold a job as part of his halfway-house obligation.

Lewis has submitted a request to the Federal Bureau of Prisons that he be allowed to attend the Ravens' June 13 to June 16 minicamp.

Jerome Froelich, Lewis' lawyer, indicated that halfway house officials want to see how Lewis interacts with inmates and officials and gauge his attitude before making a final decision on his status. The Ravens have submitted supportive letters to try to aid Lewis' cause.

"We'll respect the system and the demands of the system," Billick said. "It's my hope going forward that we can communicate with the authorities that there are things he has to do now to not put himself at jeopardy physically.

"There's some very pivotal things with regards to rehab now that needs to become more aggressive. He can get in cardiovascular shape. You need to get into football shape, and that has to be done in a certain environment."

Lewis, who has a tendency to balloon in the offseason, reportedly weighs about 240 pounds and looked much leaner than usual.

Lewis said he has been running for the last few months after having his right ankle surgically repaired in January. Prison officials allowed him to follow his rehabilitation protocol, and he even did running back drills.

Lewis, who gained the second-highest rushing total in a single season in 2003 with 2,066 yards, estimated that he would be at or near 100 percent of his capabilities by training camp, which begins Aug. 1 at McDaniel College.

The Ravens remain hopeful that Lewis might be allowed to report to camp on time, and that his first public comments since being released from prison might bring closure to this episode. Lewis is currently slated to finish his halfway house commitment on Aug. 2.

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

When Lewis was sentenced, the presiding judge admonished prosecutors for pursuing the indictment against the former Pro Bowl selection, citing a lack of strong evidence.

Friday, Lewis downplayed any talk of regrets or bitterness.

"No, I don't think that I'm a victim," Lewis said. "I just think that I did my time for what I did. I don't have any bitter feelings toward the government and I don't have any bitter feelings toward the prosecutors."

Lewis faced a potential sentence of a decade in prison if he was convicted at trial, opting to accept a plea bargain under his lawyers' advice.

When asked if he regretted pleading guilty in light of the judge's comments, Lewis replied: "No. She also said that I was accountable for my actions and that was a good thing."

Noting the magnifying glass of the public eye, Lewis said he accepts intense scrutiny as part of being a celebrity athlete.

Yet, repairing his reputation – as Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis has years after Atlanta prosecutors dropped double murder charges against him and he pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice – is a weighty task.

"I think the only thing that you have is your name," Lewis said. "It might have been tarnished a little bit, but I haven't really been beat up in the media. I can't really worry about my reputation. I am who I am and that's it."

Newsome said that Lewis' experience could represent a powerful message about the consequences of bad associations.

"It's been well-stated that Jamal made a mistake, and he's paying for that mistake now," Newsome said. "But having had the opportunity to spend some time with Jamal over the course of last month, I know that the experience that he's been through over the last four months is going to be something that's going to pay big dividends for himself, but also for other young people across the United States and to young players in the National Football League and in the locker room of the Baltimore Ravens."

Along with prison visits from owner Steve Bisciotti, Newsome, running backs coach Matt Simon and teammates Deion Sanders, Alan Ricard, Harold Morrow and Adalius Thomas, Lewis was visited each weekend by his mother, Mary Lewis.

Lewis' mother is retired after spending 28 years as an official with the Georgia Department of Corrections. After the press conference concluded, Mary Lewis cried during interviews with reporters.

"I told him he'd be treated fairly, but don't you expect any favors," Mary Lewis said. "Like the inmates will tell you, you did the crime, now you do the time.

"You're seeing tears of joy, for my heart is overflowing. Life's a journey and [prison] is a part of his journey."

In prison, Lewis wore inmate number 555612-019 stitched on his prison khakis. He's a summer away from again donning the No. 31 jersey he has sported since 2000, the year the FBI began an investigation that ultimately sent him to prison.

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

Aaron Wilson is the chief writer for RavensInsider.Com He is also the Ravens' reporter for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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