BUCKHEAD, Ga. — The emptiness is inevitable, inescapable and, sometimes, fatal. Once pro football is through with you, count on it spitting you back out into society a concussed and confused man, searching for purpose.
Jamal Lewis remembers the feeling well.
Leaning against the back wall at the top of the bleachers, he takes in his 14-year-old son’s AAU basketball practice, while his eight-year-old son (Jazz) and nine-year-old daughter (Ivana) wander off. Both sneak…and sneak…and sneak…down to the court, googly-eyeing Dad with an up-to-no-good smirk. Initially, Lewis shouts for them to stay put, but even he cannot help but laugh as the two inch along the baseline like night crawlers.
Then, with all kids out of earshot, Lewis’ words knife through the sound of squeaking sneakers synchronizing with bouncing basketballs. When the NFL ejected him—when one final undiagnosed concussion sent Lewis spiraling into the abyss—he considered killing himself.
“You think about death,” the former Ravens star says. “I’ve thought about suicide. I’ve thought about ending it all.”
He felt his self-worth disappear because, he says, the “cheerleaders” in his life—the 70,000 screaming fans each Sunday—disappeared. His trucking company collapsed. He filed for bankruptcy. His assets were seized. He felt a distance between himself and his family. He felt lost in the emptiness and couldn’t tell a soul about these demons. Didn’t know how to, really. Where he’s from, Atlanta’s hardscrabble Adamsville neighborhood, expressing feelings was a sign of weakness.
“You just kept it to yourself,” he says, “and you dealt with it. You let it out on the field.”
Without that outlet—without a linebacker to smash into—suicidal thoughts creeped into his mind and spread like a virus.
One by one, he saw three of his former offensive linemen die from health-related issues. Orlando Bobo to heart and liver failure. Orlando Brown to diabetic ketoacidosis. Damion Cook to a massive heart attack. Suicide seemed like a better way to go.
“You just have those thoughts about should you end it?” Lewis says. “I can only imagine with sleep apnea and heart attacks and heart disease. Who wants to go out like that? Especially when you have people upset with you—your wife upset with you, pissed off, you have to file bankruptcy, made bad decisions…”
His voice trails off. He gazes down at the court. At one end, the 14-year-old (Javen) launches jumpers. At the other, Jazz is now throwing his Royals hat at the rim.
No, it never got to the point of plotting his own death. Suicidal “thoughts” remained only that. Thoughts. But do not think for a second he’s in the end zone celebrating.
As the three kids begin to pinball back up the bleachers, I suggest to Lewis that he got to the other side. He cuts in.
“It’s not over,” he says. “I have to keep moving.
The week begins with Lewis walking into a bar off Peachtree Road exasperated and congested and, for the love of God, someone please pour the man a beer. The Tavern at Phipps’ bartender cannot slide a Sweetwater 420 Extra Pale Ale to Lewis fast enough.
Before uttering a word about anything else, Lewis points to his nose and explains that polyps have been clogging the lining of his nasal passages for six months.
“People don’t know how much they breathe out of their nose!”
So any time he’s speaking and eating, Lewis literally cannot breathe. Sleeping is nearly impossible, and Lewis already snored “like a freight train.”
The man who once resembled Mike Tyson from scowl to six-pack now can’t work out and is more Butterbean. He figures all of the pollen in the Georgia air created these polyps, but his deviated septum sure can’t help. When a doctor asked if Lewis took a hit to the face at some point, he chuckled. Uh. Yeah. You could say that. At some point over his nine NFL seasons, his nose “shifted.”
Lewis traces a finger from the very top of his nose to the bottom. Where a CT scan here should show all white, his is all black.
The steroid he’s taking to shrink the polyps, Prednisone, still hasn’t kicked in. His sense of smell is completely gone. And breathing…yeah, Lewis “can’t breathe worth a s–t.”
The good news? Next month, Lewis will undergo surgery to remove the polyps. He hopes they stay away. The bad news? Even if they do, this is only one small battle of a much bigger war.
At 38 years old, eight years removed from his last NFL game, Lewis is already living with the post-traumatic effects of concussions. He knows he did irreparable damage to his brain and that there’s a chance he’s currently living with CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).
Many days, Lewis turns the key of his car, starts driving to school, to work, anywhere, and completely forgets where he’s going. “It’s a normal thing,” he says. “Like, Where am I at?” When this happens, he tries to stay calm, keep driving in the same direction, and usually a light bulb turns on eventually.
If an errand isn’t in his iPhone calendar, he’ll probably forget it.
His temper can spike unexpectedly, too. Stressors must be avoided.
And those sunglasses on top of his head never leave. He’s sensitive to light.
Headaches are common. Throbbing.
He still suffers “moments” of depression about twice a week, describing them as plunges into a blank “sadness.”
In person, Lewis appears A-OK. His mind is sharp, and physically, he moves without any aches or pains. But that’s the scary part: The problem is what you don’t see. His brain. His future. What he’ll resemble five, 10, 15 years from now.
That’s scary, and that’s life after bashing into defenses 2,542 times for 10,607 yards and 58 touchdowns. Lewis was a human sledgehammer, one of seven backs ever to eclipse 2,000 yards in a season. He won a Super Bowl. An NCAA championship at Tennessee. His 295-yard day against the Browns ranks No. 2 of all time.
From the age of eight to the age of 30, Lewis channeled negative energy into a cold-blooded blend of power, speed and abandon.
Pretending to talk with a wad of dip in his mouth, Lewis imitates longtime Raven Bennie Thompson’s words of warning about his reckless style of play. “He’d always say, ‘Boy, you better get your ass out of bounds and stop taking all those damn hits!’ I’m like, ‘What would I do that for? Every yard counts!’ If I get hit at one yard, I can get five more.”
And this style, in the 2000s, was unparalleled.
“That’s what scares me the most,” Lewis says, “and keeps me on edge a little more.”
In all, Lewis estimates he suffered a minimum 10 concussions and went unconscious “two or three” times. He has no clue exactly how much damage he did to his brain. So, hell yeah, he’s terrified. But that blinding glint in his eye that begged linebackers to come and get some never faded.
He never stopped enjoying the chase.
And no, it’s not the Super Bowl win he cherished the most. Not any touchdown, not the 2K fame. Most of all, Lewis simply loved having the ball in his hands 30 times a game. Loved staring down a defense and letting instinct take over. He viewed himself as a boxer in pads, jabbing and jabbing and jabbing you for three quarters before delivering a haymaker in the fourth.
That feeling of running…and running…and never stopping. That feeling of control.
“That’s what you live for,” Lewis says. “After I just wore you down. Now we can roll.”
So, no, he will not shimmy out of bounds. He’s plowing into the unknown the only way he knows how: “head on.” Lewis runs three businesses, brings AFC North passion to youth baseball games and never stops thinking. Never stops moving.
“Because you never know,” Lewis says. “You never know [what] day you’re going to wake up with an issue.”
He needs to be in control as long as he can.
Those thoughts cannot resurface.
The war stories intensify one beer, one wincing memory at a time. Lifting a pant leg, Lewis reveals a ghastly scar on his ankle. That came courtesy of DeMarcus Ware in 2004. And that torn tendon hurt more than any of the injuries that required his five surgeries.
Baltimore was pushing for the playoffs, so Lewis didn’t think twice about shooting his ankle up with Novocain before each game. With each cut, he’d hear that tendon Pop!, Pop! and Pop! again, but he kept moving, kept running—”Powerfully running,” he corrects—because that’s all he knew.
But when that Novocain wore off eight hours later? “Torture,” Lewis assures.
“You just had to get some liquor, man, and be drunk,” he says. “Because it hurt like hell. And then we’d start all over again and get ready for the next game.”
The year before, that 2K tour de force, Lewis suffered an AC sprain in his shoulder, and his collarbone kept rising up.
So he numbed that up with Novocain, too.
Physically, Lewis was always the one inflicting pain. Injuring you. He’s actually in much better physical shape than his peers. Mentally, he has no clue how much damage those 2,542 NFL carries—or all the ones that came before—did to his brain. So when he tells this wave of stories, the black-out concussions, he does so with more terror than pride.
The time Steve McNair’s voice woke him up against Denver and he returned a few plays later because “that’s the culture,” because “you’re a warrior.”
Getting his clock cleaned against Minnesota in the 2009 season opener. At the bar, he re-enacts this mano-a-mano collision along the sideline, pumping his arms before lowering his head into an imaginary safety and “Boom!” Lewis blacked out with his hands clenched into fists straight into the air. Vikings head coach Brad Childress’ voice—”Jamal! Jamal!”—woke him up, he stayed down for several moments, returned to his sideline, Browns coach Eric Mangini smiled, tapped him on the helmet and, voila, Lewis returned to action one play later.
Or at least a sleepwalking version of himself did.
“I was in survivor mode the whole time,” he says. “Listen to the play. Hold onto the ball. Find the first place to fall. Make it out of this game. That’s it. You’re all off. You’re off. Your eyes, your vision is off, everything’s just…off.”
After that hit, the headaches worsened. His vision blurred after practices. He played the next game, then missed two, then played the next seven straight. When his appetite was mysteriously hijacked the morning of a game against Cincinnati, Lewis asked a trainer if he could undergo a concussion test and was told he’d need to wait until Monday.
That game against the Bengals—Nov. 29, 2009—proved to be his last.
Lewis was spit back into the general populace after that, and that’s where his fight with concussions truly began.
Initially, Lewis admits he was far too irritable around his kids. The most harmless kids-being-kids accident could set him off. Oh, he gave media a whirl. That’s the go-to remedy for thousands of ex-players. But after spending four days with NFL Network, four days of grinding through production meetings only to gain zero satisfaction, Lewis realized it wasn’t for him. The profession required too much BS’ing in front of a camera. Heck, Lewis rarely ever watched the sport he loved to play growing up. The only football he’d catch outside of the Super Bowl was a VHS highlight tape of Eric Dickerson, Walter Payton, Gale Sayers, Barry Sanders and O.J. Simpson.
Rather, he always viewed himself as a “serial entrepreneur.” Business fulfilled him. So when the trucking company he started closed a $20 million-per-year deal with Publix Supermarket, it felt like winning another Super Bowl.
But then his company folded, and those concussion stressors were triggered. He spent far more money than the business could handle, he says, right as the economy was tanking, and was forced to file for bankruptcy in 2012. Lewis can still remember the repo man taking everything away. His marriage on the rocks. Everything crumbling down. Depression at its worst.
He even needed to sell a commemorative ’12 Super Bowl ring given to him by the Ravens. That $50,820 helped him get back on his feet—and he didn’t mind the splashy headlines that followed, either, because they warded off the “leeches” in his life.
And it was right then when Lewis took the advice of the wife of his good friend, ex-back Joe Burns, and attended their church in Atlanta’s Buckhead district. His mind began to clear.
Suicidal thoughts began to fade.
“No stress,” he says. “No thinking negative. Thinking positive. Keep it moving. I just let go.”
He prayed that someone would come into his life, and that’s precisely when Metro Exhibits—which designs, builds and services trade-show booths—contacted him on LinkedIn. He took over the Atlanta branch and “everything started to turn.” Today, he’s the president of Southeast Exhibits and Metro Retail Solutions, spearheading signage at both Mercedes-Benz Stadium and SunTrust Park.
He can’t contain his excitement over another of his projects, a new website called Ignite My Sports that will allow high school athletes to post video of their training for scouts to see. In the days leading up to its launch, he’d wake up each morning, wipe his eyes, roll over to his nightstand and tap open his phone to see if it was live.
Depression keeps many buried underneath their covers, zapping the energy to get out of bed. That’s not Lewis. Not now.
“I have things to look forward to. You know what I mean?”
That’s one key to combating concussions and depression—create new sources of joy. Lewis lives for Jazz’s baseball games. And above all: Never. Stop. Thinking. At the bar, Lewis negotiates deals on his cell phone and takes a full hour meticulously replying to a vendor on an email. Whenever he checks the calendar on his phone and sees an empty day, he fills it. Quickly. A call, a meeting, anything. The way Lewis sees it, if he maintains a torrid 24/7 pace, he can delay the grimmest of concussion symptoms. Sadness won’t have a chance to creep in.
He may not technically “win” this fight, but, damnit, Lewis is still that boxer throwing jabs. He’ll go 12 rounds.
Repeating that he’s scared—”I haven’t hit 40 yet”—Lewis promises to stay active to the point of literal immobilization.
“Whatever happens, happens. I won’t be sitting on my ass. If that does happen, then it’s time for me to sit on my ass,” says Lewis, bringing up his former teammate, O.J. Brigance, who’s had ALS for 11 years. “Seeing his fight, and everything he’s going through, his wife is right there with him. Seeing a guy like that…you talk to him and he talks through the device he has. He feels everything, but he just can’t push it out.”
Lewis pictures himself in that wheelchair, that state.
“If anything were to ever happen, that’s who you want to be like.”
Instantly, Lewis is filled with optimism. Like he could take on anything. So many times, he felt himself losing control in life and snatched it back.
Escaping the hood. His Adamsville neighborhood was littered with violence. A high-profile drug kingpin once pulled Lewis aside as a kid and said he never wanted to hear about him selling drugs. If he needed money, all he needed to do was ask. Lewis listened.
Spending four months in jail. Into adulthood, at 24, Lewis appeared to finally cave and was charged with conspiracy with intent to sell cocaine. Here, he insists those charges were 100 percent “bogus.” Completely false. He says he only pleaded guilty because he didn’t want to risk spending six years in jail. “Fighting it would’ve been a 50-50 chance,” he says. “What would you do?” Lewis hated that feeling of losing control in jail—the feeling that “somebody else is directing your life”—but felt prepared for anything when he got out.
Being a Dad. Lewis admits he wasn’t there for his kids during his decade in the NFL. Now he savors every second.
Still, it’s impossible to shake the nightmares of guys like Junior Seau and Dave Duerson. They, too, had families. They, too, suffered from brain trauma. They, too, had suicidal thoughts…and they acted on them.
Lewis doesn’t flinch at mention of those two names. He believes such deaths are rooted in losing a game you love, because he knows that depression. Football is a way to unleash demons from your past, he explains. An outlet. Once it’s gone, you must face those demons again.
With a brain that’s rattled inside a skull for years.
Without those cheerleaders.
And that’s a deadly combination.
“If I would’ve known this could affect you long term,” Lewis says, “I would at least have a choice.”
Lewis’ mood shifts. He’s pissed now. His voice lowers to a rumble.
“I’d have a choice.”
His doctor recommended antidepressants, but Lewis refused. He’s certain football has already altered his brain—especially after discovering that Aaron Hernandez, dead at 27, had CTE—and does not want to risk further rewiring. He’s content, for now, with coping. With throwing jabs alone. With all of the side effects like spontaneously crying during movies.
“Like, damn, why am I crying? Like s–t. Just little stuff that normally wouldn’t affect you, it affects you.”
There’s zero doubt in his mind: Concussions are to blame.
Lewis offers two more startling takes before leaving. Heck yeah, his boys will play football. Eight-year-old Jazz already has, and Dad half-jokes that he needs to get tagged.
“Somebody needs to hit him,” he says. “Get him right!”
And, given that “choice” again that he mentioned, what would he decide? He’d eyeball that Vikings safety taking a 45-degree angle, lower his shoulder and deliver a blow. No stepping out of bounds. No mercy.
That may be impossible to fathom.
Tomorrow, it makes sense why.
Past the Falcons stadium, onto the highway, toward his old neighborhood, the white Jeep accelerates out of vision. Lane to lane, Lewis knifes through heavy traffic and I lose him.
Maybe he forgot where we’re going? Maybe he’s waiting for his brain to recalibrate?
Hard to say. All Lewis said was to follow him.
Moments earlier, sipping buttermilk coffee inside his downtown Atlanta office, Lewis pointed to the north, said those kids had options, and then pointed to the south. Those kids did not. Those kids “don’t give a s–t” about concussions. Holding out a fist, Lewis then dramatically, sternly listed the reasons one finger at a time.
“Hell, where I grew up, you take a lot of risk. You risk your kid going out hanging with the wrong crowd, selling drugs. You risk your kid hanging out with the wrong crowd, getting killed. You risk your kid hanging out with the wrong crowd, joining a gang. So, which one are you going to take? I’ll take football any day out of all of that.
“It’ll take us less than 15 minutes to get there. Follow me.”
And off we went. Never mind that it’s another chaotic day in Lewis’ world. Mr. Mom…meets Silicon Valley…on a NASCAR track. He needs to show you his ‘hood. This trip will help all understand why he has zero regrets. Why he’s equipped to fight this. Sure enough, right when an “Adamsville” sign appears off the I-20, so does Lewis’ Jeep, and he veers off the exit. Past homes on the brink of collapse. Past abandoned buildings tucked inside the woods.
Right to the old neighborhood park. This is where everything will crystallize, Lewis promises, now walking across the street.
The first thing he notices are the lawnmowers. Those weren’t needed when he played here, because there was no grass. Only dirt, rubble, shards of glass. So much glass. Lewis never wanted to get tackled because it meant gashing up his skin—the main reason he’s always been so fast for his size.
Lewis turns around. See that hill? It wasn’t covered by trees then. He’d run that hill religiously. And at eight, nine, 10 years old, all kids here took out their aggression on each other. Kids limped home bleeding every day.
“You’re a warrior,” Lewis says. “This is what it comes back to right here. This is where I was trained right here. To be violent. My dad used to tell me, ‘You better hit them before they hit you.’ That’s where that attack mode came from. You better be on the attack. Be the hitter. That’s what it was more about. You have to be physical.
“You have to seek and destroy. Because if you don’t? This is your community…”
Translation: Your rep was always on the line. If you didn’t make it very clear, very fast you were a badass, you were in trouble.
Every hitting drill was ruthless.
“We had so many kids getting knocked out with concussions,” Lewis says. “You can’t lay down. That wasn’t even a thought. It was, ‘Get your ass back in there.’ Because you had to be tough. It was hard-nosed, straight-up, nose running, crying, if you’re weak you won’t survive out here.”
Reliving the gore, Lewis cannot stop smiling.
This field was an escape from the hell surrounding kids. From the crackheads and prostitutes and drug dealers who lined a street right over our shoulder. (Still do, too.) Going to the store, Lewis says, was “an adventure.” And at night, he’d often wake up to the sound of gunfire, of murder. You have two options in life here: sell drugs or join the military. That’s it, he assures. Nobody here could visualize hope outside of the drug lord cruising through town in a Mercedes.
Lewis lived in a two-parent household, but his mom (a warden at a prison) and dad (a railroad worker) fought constantly, and there weren’t many “I love you”s thrown around. Says Lewis, “Later on in your life, you see you did need that.” The fighting combined with the imminent danger around him took a toll.
So he turned to football. So he built a monster. So he created a third option.
The moment Lewis looks down at his feet and sees a reddish shard of glass, he feels those butterflies return again and relives those “Bull in the Ring” drills. That separation of man from boy when fights broke out and you had to fend for yourself. Friends became enemies. Enemies became friends. Many of his childhood friends are now dead or in jail. Lewis is still standing.
“This is what made 295 yards in one game,” he says. “This is what made 2,000 yards in a season. Right here.
“This is where it made the man. You’re on your own, really.”
Most metropolitan cities in America have hidden abysses like this, Lewis points out, where football can serve as a beacon of light out of such hell. Or can steer you into a different kind of hell. The sport that can save you can also kill you later in life.
Lewis absolutely knows the symptoms will only get worse. Walking back to his Jeep, he turns pale and quiet and concerned.
“It’s not you you’re worried about,” he says. “It’s your kids you’re worried about. It’s your family you’re worried about. You not being able to talk. You not being able to move around. … You don’t know when it’s going to hit you. You can manage but there’s only so long you can manage. At the same time, what are you going to do?”
He takes a deep breath. A rusting car zips by and honks its horn, and Lewis waves back.
He can sense the sadness creeping in again and stops it.
“I can’t live in the fear of ‘Oh, one day…one day….’ You can’t do that, because that day might never come. You might be one of the lucky ones. There might be something that comes out to help cognitive issues. You can’t live in fear.
“You have to keep it moving.”
So Lewis climbs back in his Jeep and, again, says to follow him. He has to pick up Jazz from school at 3. We stop briefly at his childhood home, redirect north to Buckhead, lose each other in traffic, find each other and pull into another bar at 2:45 p.m.
Lewis steps out and slaps his hands together.
“Fifteen minutes!” he laughs. “Just enough time for a beer!”
It’s game day, so Lewis is not complaining about those polyps. He’s not scheduling any extra meetings. No, he’s downright giddy. First, he bumps into an old friend in the parking lot who’s a Steelers fan. (“My timing is just off today!”) He pokes fun at the bartender who’s ticked the Falcons just handed Matt Ryan the richest deal in NFL history. (“You’ve got to hold on to a good quarterback!”)
He studies the taps and recommends a new IPA, from Scofflaw Brewing Co., determined to show off the best Atlanta has to offer.
As the piano intro to “Don’t Stop Believin'” blares, Lewis beams. It’s game day, and he loves this unpredictability. When his wife told him this morning he’d need to bring Jazz to his Royals game today, a rush of adrenaline passed through him.
“That’s what you live for!” he shouted. “I shut it down for game day. Shut it down early.”
He treasures each at-bat, each jump shot and is always an open book to his kids after years of neglect. They all know about the jail time, the bankruptcy and the concussion issues. Part of the reason Lewis is working nonstop is because he isn’t counting on the NFL helping him. At all. Three times he has requested disability from the league. Three times he’s been denied. Part of Lewis thinks the NFL is exacting revenge because he was part of the concussion lawsuit.
But Lewis says the NFL, which did not respond to a request for comment, also considers “disabled” the inability to literally function day to day, overlooking cognitive damage. That’s Roger Goodell’s problem with players past.
His problem with players future is having no clue the majority of his workforce hails from neighborhoods like Adamsville. Lewis sees such ignorance bleed through the commissioner’s actions. As fewer kids from America’s suburbs play football—because they have options, because they don’t need to risk head trauma—these are the kids who’ll drive the NFL. Shape the NFL.
“And does he know that environment?” Lewis says. “Probably not.”
Then it’s off to pick up Jazz. Then it’s off to dinner at The Big Ketch Saltwater Grill, where Lewis always tries cooking up billion-dollar ideas with his kindred spirit, Taylor aka “Cornbread.” Their most recent idea? ATV-style tires for wheelchairs, so the disabled can enjoy the beach. “Every single week,” Cornbread says, “he comes up with a different idea.”
That brainstorming is on hold, though. Right now, Lewis is obsessing over his new website.
He remembers how he was discovered. Ravens scout Phil Savage saw him grinding through a solo workout in a 60-yard sandpit one off day his freshman year in Knoxville, told Ozzie Newsome he needed to see him ASAP, and the rest is history.
Now, via Ignite, all high school kids will have a hub to post footage beyond the game for college scouts to see.
He can make a difference in their lives.
While downing a jerk chicken sandwich, Lewis takes another call. Jazz is glued to a video of someone else playing Fortnite—a craze Dad cannot comprehend—and it’s off to the baseball game. Cornbread warns us that a storm is coming, but Lewis keeps the top down on the Jeep anyway…and pays the price. Father and son get absolutely drenched with rain en route. Eventually, the clouds clear, the game begins, and Lewis finds his sweet spot.
He posts up as close as he can to Jazz, at a fence, near third base, in earshot.
And all game, he’s rough on his boy. Dad’s shout is more of a demand.
“Bat up! Choke up! Choke! Up!”
“Make a play! Make a play!”
One ball whistles past Jazz at a speed difficult for someone twice his age to glove, and Lewis snipes instantly, “Get in front of it!” Never mind that Lewis admits he never played baseball himself because he was terrified of getting hit by the ball.
For two hours, Lewis’ eyes are stuck in that scowl. He goes full Bobby Knight, yelling and sighing and pacing and constantly peppering his son with orders from about 20 yards away.
Jazz mostly laughs and smiles and bounces around all game as his dreads flop in the wind. When one teammate flips an underhand ball to him at second, Jazz drops it, and his dad loses it. He two-hand smacks the plastic yellow cover over the fence and screams, “Pay attention!” with the same cold scowl that used to intimidate linebackers in the AFC. As Lewis steps away from the fence, boiling with rage, a few parents glance his direction.
“Where’s the play at? That’s you!!
“Bend your knees. Get ready!”
On the surface, this is a dad who needs a reality check. Part of you feels like putting a hand on his shoulder to remind him that, hello, these are eight-year-olds. But that reaction would completely misconstrue this entire situation.
This is a dad finding purpose in life. A dad fighting the inevitable.
It’s healthy that he cares this much, because these games fill a void.
When Jazz reappears, Lewis puts an arm around him.
“As bad as you all were playing,” he jokes, “I’m glad the scoreboards weren’t up!”
His son smiles and darts ahead with his sister, Ivana, to Javen’s AAU basketball practice at the adjacent rec center. Inside, Lewis brings up his old teammate Shannon Sharpe’s Hall of Fame speech. In that speech, Sharpe apologized to his kids for not being in their lives enough. The words struck a chord, because neither was Lewis, especially for Javen and his oldest daughter, who’s now 23.
Now he’s making up for lost time. While he can.
Unfortunately, Lewis knows that as hard as he fights, the concussion symptoms will trend one direction and one direction only. The headaches. His memory. Fatigue. And, most of all, the depression.
It all worsens, he says.
The next morning, like clockwork, Lewis is stationed in the corner of Buttermilk Kitchen. Right when the restaurant of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives fame opens, at 8 a.m., he’s here. His eyes are fixated on the screen of his iPad. Email to email, text to text, call to call, he keeps his mind moving. As if he’s racing against time.
Lewis is determined to hit the bull’s-eye on a business idea that’ll truly change the world.
“One day,” he says, “I’ll hit a home run. It’ll happen.”
The challenge, of course, is staying mentally sharp enough, long enough to reach that eureka moment. Because Lewis has read the horror stories. He knows, one day, he may not be able to speak, to move. He concedes that maybe nothing he can do will prevent that. So he constantly lives “one step ahead.”
He’ll make sure his family is financially secure, either way. Occasionally, his mind goes blank in a meeting, and he worries: Could that moment be closing in? How fast will my brain fade? Which is precisely why he’s studying all three of his companies like a madman, 24/7. Which is why he’s always seeking ways to strengthen his brain.
Lewis points to his grandmother. She stayed sharp as a tack right up to her death at 89, because she played word games nonstop on her computer.
But grandma, of course, didn’t play football.
Slower days are the worst days. That’s when Lewis’ mind wanders.
“You’re, like, stuck in one place,” he says. “You need, you want to find something to do. Something to just keep it going.”
What’s in those darkest corners of his mind today? Lewis stays vague.
“You start thinking,” Lewis says, “of other stuff.”
A warning pops up on Lewis’ iPad screen. His battery has drained to 10 percent, but he doesn’t see it. Instead he’s now explaining how going to jail for a crime he didn’t commit prepared him. How football prepared him. How everything equipped him to “prepare for anything and expect everything.” A few moments later, I tell Lewis that his battery is about to die, and he checks for himself. “You’re right!” he blurts, frantically typing away with beads of sweat dripping down his temple.
The screen goes black, and Lewis pops up to his feet.
“Hold on,” he says. “I’m going to get my charger because I’m not going anywhere.”
With that, he heads out to his Jeep to fetch the charger, returns, plugs in his iPad and keeps working. Maybe Jamal Lewis has no clue what his life will become, but he’ll keep punching.
He locks eye contact. He wants one more message out there.
“I’m taking this head on,” he says.
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