Ravens' Lewis enjoying his freedom

WESTMINSTER -- Jamal Lewis' freedom extends beyond cradling a football again and resuming his powerful stride for the Baltimore Ravens.

The former NFL Offensive Player of the Year hopes that his arrival at training camp -- a long-awaited day after being incarcerated in federal prison for four months and assigned to a halfway house for two months after a cocaine conspiracy guilty plea -- marks the beginning of a new chapter in his high-profile life.

For Lewis, it's about appreciating the simple pleasures of life outside of a Pensacola, Fla., jail cell and no longer being constantly monitored by Atlanta probation officials.

"Being around a lot of people in prison, you know to value every day that you have," said Lewis, who met with a Maryland probation official Monday and still must complete 500 hours of community service in Atlanta after the season. "I missed a lot of things while I was there, just driving a car, eating good food. When you're out here on the street, you don't think about those things.

"I'm back doing what I like to do, doing what I do best. I'm not a bad person. I'm not looking back on the past and the things I just went through. My next step is to really just prove people wrong, the people that doubt me."

After seven months of living with criminals, Lewis is back in a football environment. Running on the sidelines Tuesday next to his friend, fullback Alan Ricard, Lewis appeared quick, trim and ready to take on linebackers.

Lewis has no flab to hide, but it was hard for him to entirely contain his bitterness toward the legal system that cost him millions of dollars in legal fees and $761,000 in lost salary for an NFL drug suspension. Not to mention his freedom and a dark spot on his reputation.

The case stemmed from a 2000 investigation where Lewis allegedly tried to help a childhood friend buy drugs. The decision to indict him came shortly after his breakthrough 2,066-yard campaign – the second-highest total in league history -- two seasons ago. Lewis doesn't buy that the timing was a coincidence.

"I was a high-profile guy and somebody just wanted to pull on me a little bit," Lewis said. "The statute of limitations was coming up, it was the brink of a great season, things were looking up, so hey, you just put it together.

"A lot of people feel like it was a bum case anyway. In the public eye, that's what I care about, how I'm seen. I know what type of person I am."

Lewis didn't characterize himself as bitter, though, adding that other inmates were serving 10 to 25 years for similar drug offenses.

"I feel real lucky, I got treated real good," Lewis said. "I don't think they showed any preferential treatment, but at the same time I think I was put in that position for a reason. I realized who my real friends are. It's like starting brand new right now."

Although the 2003 Pro Bowl runner technically failed his physical and was placed on the physically unable to perform list, that designation isn't expected to last long and he could be cleared to practice as soon as today. Ravens coach Brian Billick ruled Lewis out for Saturday against the Atlanta Falcons.

Down to 242 pounds, Lewis indicated that his surgically repaired ankle feels strong again. Several team officials remarked that Lewis looks younger than 25 simply because his face is much more chiseled.

After pleading guilty to using a cellular phone to facilitate a cocaine transaction, Lewis spent his time meditating, exercising and eating healthy.

Following a career-low 1,006-yard campaign stymied by the specter of his impending prison stay and injuries, he also has a brighter outlook on life.

"I can only imagine what it's like without that shadow, that burden hanging over you," Billick said. "Just look at his eyes, I've never seen him more vibrant, more sparkle in his eyes, more energy. You can only imagine how it must feel for him to truly have that behind him."

At the halfway house, Lewis rose at 7 a.m. and spent 10 to 12 hours lifting weights and running at a gym in between phone calls to probation officials who kept tabs on his whereabouts and activities.

"The halfway house is built more toward weaning people back into society that have been gone 10, 15 years," said Lewis, buoyed by visits from his mother and team officials, including owner Steve Bisciotti. "In my case, it was just the last part of my incarceration."

Lewis' next major challenges are learning the playbook twists that first-year offensive coordinator Jim Fassel has implemented.

"I'm not a real classroom-type of guy," said Lewis, entering the final year of his contract and slated to make $3.58 million. "Once I get back on the field and into the groove, that's where I learn. It's not rocket science. I can get it done."

With the community service left to complete, Lewis' legal obligations aren't entirely over.

"This is kind of a slight intermission," Lewis said. "Just a breaking point."

Yet, Lewis' life belongs to him again. His choices -- for good or bad -- are up to him.

He can concentrate on sweeps, dives and touchdown struts instead of judges, juries and justice officials.

"It's been hanging over my head for the last five seasons," Lewis said. "It's just a relief and a great weight off my back. If I could accomplish what I did over the last five years under those circumstances, hopefully there are better years to come."

In addition to being a long time contributor to RavensInsider, Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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