Three times a week Jamal Lewis imagines being peacefully dead.
He lies on his back in a yoga position called the Corpse Pose
and lets his mind drift to distant places. He envisions his leg
muscles becoming flexible, in hopes that they won't ever betray
him. He closes his mind to the naive self-confidence that only
last autumn caused him to take his gifts for granted. Most
important, he travels as far as possible from the afternoon of
Oct. 3, 1998.
When that day began, Lewis was a sophomore tailback at
Tennessee, one of the most promising running backs in the
country. He'd rushed for a school freshman record 1,364 yards in
1997 and was averaging more than 120 yards a game through four
starts in '98. At 6'1" and 230 pounds, with 4.4 speed and a
bench press north of 400 pounds, the 19-year-old Lewis was
almost unfairly talented. "First time I handed the ball off to
him and watched him hit the hole, I thought, This isn't any
ordinary running back," says Peyton Manning, who was Tennessee's
senior quarterback during Lewis's freshman year.
On the third play of the fourth quarter that day at
Auburn--Lewis already had 118 yards on 16 carries--everything
changed. From the Tennessee 16-yard line, Vols quarterback Tee
Martin called Eight-pitch, a simple toss sweep to the right
side. Lewis snatched the ball out of the air and ran into
traffic. He was hit on the inside of his right knee, causing the
joint to buckle. He limped off the field and sat out the rest of
that series, but returned for Tennessee's next possession.
Again, Martin called Eight-pitch. This time Lewis took the toss
and turned the corner. Twenty-one yards upfield, two defenders
approached on a severe angle, so Lewis planted his right foot to
cut back. "And nothing happened," he says. "No cut. Nothing. I
just sat down right there. I knew something was way wrong."
That something was a torn lateral collateral ligament. Three
days later Lewis had surgery, and his season was over. His ego
would soon hurt worse than his knee. The Volunteers, who were
supposed to ride on his broad back, got better without him. Week
after week, Tennessee won while Lewis watched. Martin matured.
Reserve tailbacks Travis Henry and Travis Stephens combined to
rush for 1,447 yards. "I know this sounds crazy," says Vols
offensive coordinator Randy Sanders, "but I'm not sure we would
have won the national championship if Jamal hadn't gotten hurt,
because we would have depended on him so much that everybody
else would never have grown up."
On Nov. 14 doctors allowed Lewis to visit the locker room before
the Vols' harrowing 28-24 win over Arkansas. Walking among his
teammates as they prepared to play, Lewis was spooked by his
impotence. "I was happy for those guys," Lewis says, "but I
wanted to play so bad, it about brought tears to my eyes."
Lewis was at the Fiesta Bowl for the Vols'
national-title-clinching 23-16 win over Florida State. He
celebrated with his teammates back at the team hotel, but late
that night Lewis pulled wideout Cedrick Wilson aside and said,
"I'm glad you won, but I'm glad the season is over. Y'all are
just like me now--nobody's playing."
Lewis's career had run on slick rails until the injury. Raised
in southwest Atlanta by Mary, the superintendent of a women's
correctional facility, and John, who works in real estate, Jamal
played for the Douglass High varsity as a 200-pound sophomore,
even though John suggested to coach Michael Sims that Jamal
might need another year on the jayvee. "Mr. Lewis," Sims recalls
saying, "your son is going to start and run for about 1,000
yards. Just sit back and enjoy it." Jamal ran for 1,240 that
year and for nearly 5,000 in his three-year career.
Lewis's decision on which college to attend came down to
Tennessee and Nebraska, with the Vols getting him in large part
because Manning, in desperate need of a ground game, sold John
Lewis on the idea that if Jamal was as good as advertised, he
would start as a freshman. "You could see he knew he was good,"
says Manning, now starting his second season as the Indianapolis
Colts' quarterback. "He had this nobody-can-tackle-me attitude
Lewis didn't start the first three games of his freshman season,
including a 33-20 loss to Florida. Coach Phillip Fulmer knew
Lewis was his best running back but feared that his inexperience
in pass protection could be costly. "I was afraid he'd get
Peyton killed," says Fulmer. "Well, Peyton just about got killed
anyway because Florida didn't respect our ground game. I came
into the office on Sunday and told the staff, 'That's it, we're
Six days later Lewis trampled Mississippi for 155 yards. "I
don't know where he's been, but we couldn't tackle him," said
Ole Miss coach Tommy Tuberville. The following week Lewis rolled
up 232 yards against Georgia, a performance sullied four days
later when The Atlanta Constitution broke the story that Lewis
had been charged with a felony in connection with a shoplifting
incident seven months earlier. Lewis pleaded guilty and paid a
$1,000 fine three weeks later. "I made a mistake," says Lewis.
"I won't make it again."
He finished his freshman year with four straight 100-yard games
and then got a tough 90 on 14 carries in an Orange Bowl loss to
Nebraska. Last season he gained 497 yards, including 82 on 21
carries in the Vols' victory over Florida in Knoxville, before
the injury. Two weeks later, he limped off the field and into
Lewis threw himself into rehab. He ran cutting drills while Vols
strength coach Johnny Long provided resistance by pulling
against him with long rubber cords, and pounded out sprints and
change-of-direction exercises in a 60-yard sandpit. "He knew we
did it last year without him," says Long. "That was a huge
When Lewis returned to the Vols' backfield--on Sept. 4 against
Wyoming--11 months had passed since the injury. "The look on his
face before the game, you just wouldn't believe," says Wilson.
"I didn't even go near him." Lewis busted up the Cowboys for 159
yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries.
On Saturday the stakes will be considerably higher when the
second-ranked Volunteers play fourth-ranked Florida in
Gainesville. Lewis understands the significance of that game in
ways he never could have a year ago. "I appreciate everything a
whole lot more now," he says. "I appreciate just being out there."
Lewis is looking ahead to pro football. The NFL--which loved him
as a freshman--usually moves on when a prospect is injured, but
Lewis is still on the scouts' board, though not without
reservation. "He has a lot of ability, very instinctive, can
catch the ball," says Charley Armey, vice president of player
personnel for the St. Louis Rams. "The knee is always going to
be a concern."
Lewis's year out of football taught him that any edge, be it
mental or physical, is worth chasing. In August he began
practicing yoga under the tutelage of Belinda Gambuzza. Lewis
and Wilson signed up after seeing Gambuzza twist herself into
some unimaginable pose. "I figured that kind of flexibility has
got to help prevent injuries," says Lewis.
On Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday nights, Gambuzza leads Lewis
and Wilson through a yoga session. Yoga is something that Lewis
only sheepishly admits to practicing; it's something he never
would have considered a year ago. After all, he was invincible
then. Now he understands the void that comes from playing no
games and hearing no cheers.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK