-- Jamal Lewis made a quiet return to his life as a football player Tuesday morning, running sprints and going through footwork drills off to the side as the rest of his Baltimore Ravens teammates practiced. It has been a long time since the running back, who spent the past six months serving a federal drug conspiracy sentence, has been able to step onto the field with just football on his mind.
"You all think it's just been hanging over my head for the last season," said Lewis, who was released from an Atlanta halfway house last week and reported to the team Monday after meeting with his probation officer in Baltimore. "It's been hanging over my head for the last five seasons. It's just a relief and a great weight off my back so I can move forward. If I could accomplish what I did over the last five years under the circumstances, hopefully there are better years to come."
Lewis is expected to practice in pads Wednesday, though his repetitions may be limited, since the team will be preparing for its first preseason game. Lewis won't play when the Ravens face Atlanta at the Georgia Dome on Saturday, but he likely will be ready when Baltimore hosts Philadelphia on Aug. 20, according to Coach Brian Billick.
Lewis, who will turn 26 on Aug. 29, underwent ankle surgery before reporting to prison in early February and missed all offseason team activities, but he looked trim and fit as he went through conditioning drills at the team's indoor training facility. He said his ankle is in good shape and that he weighed in around 240 pounds, his usual playing weight.
In the six months he spent away from the team -- four months in a federal prison camp in Pensacola, Fla., and two in an Atlanta halfway house -- Lewis stayed in close contact with the Ravens. Matt Simon was a frequent visitor, and the running backs coach updated him on the new offensive personnel and new plays. Lewis has had his playbook, so he's been able to study the changes new offensive coordinator Jim Fassel has implemented.
"They added a few twists," Lewis said. "But once you get in the groove -- I am not really a classroom-type of guy -- once I get back on the field and they point me in the right direction, that's when I'll learn it. It's not rocket science."
Lewis and a childhood friend were indicted on federal drug conspiracy charges in February 2004, stemming from an incident that had taken four years earlier, after the Ravens made him the fifth overall pick in the 2000 draft but before they signed him to a contract. He avoided a Nov. 1 trial date by pleading guilty in October to using a cell phone to facilitate a drug transaction. Lewis could have faced at least 10 years in prison if convicted on the conspiracy charge.
When he was released from prison in early June, Lewis refused to portray himself as a victim or disparage the Atlanta prosecutors who charged him even though the federal judge who sentenced him said the government did not have a strong case. On Tuesday, he expressed a little frustration regarding his circumstances the past 19 months.
"It was just a case where I was a high-profile guy, and somebody just wanted to put this on me a little bit," Lewis said. "It was going into the fifth year of everything, with the statute of limitations up, and it was the brink of a great season."
Now, for the first time in his professional career, Lewis can go into a season with a clear mind. He has finished his time in prison camp, where he woke up every morning at 4:30 and worked in the prison tool shop. He has completed the two months at the halfway house, where he spent his days at the gym, working out with his trainer or working one-on-one with children.
He has been disciplined by the NFL (he was suspended for two games and docked an additional two game checks in 2004), so all that remains is 500 hours of community service, which he will perform in Atlanta after the season ends.
"Just look in his eyes," Billick said of Lewis. "I've never seen him more vibrant, [with] more sparkle in his eyes, more energy. You can only imagine how it must feel to truly have that behind him."
Lewis managed to perform well with the specter of possible drug conspiracy charges looming. He rushed for 1,394 yards as a rookie and helped lead the Ravens to a victory in Super Bowl XXXV. In 2003, he produced one of the best statistical seasons in history: 2,066 rushing yards (the second-highest total in league history) and a franchise-record 14 rushing touchdowns.
His production dropped last year to 1,066 yards on 235 carries (both career lows), and he missed a total of four games (two because of suspension and two because of injury).
Lewis said he received letters from fans when he was serving time in Pensacola and that -- along with regular visits from his mother, Mary Lewis, and occasional visits from Ravens officials and players -- helped him cope. He watched practice on Monday afternoon and signed autographs afterward. On Tuesday, he patiently answered questions in a 10-minute news conference that was broadcast live on Baltimore area television.
"I feel really lucky," Lewis said. "I think I got treated really well [in Pensacola and Atlanta]. I don't think they showed me any preferential treatment, but at the same time, I think I was put in that position for a reason. I learned a lot and got a lot from it. I think I realized who my real friends are. I am starting over brand new."
Ravens Notes: The Ravens got a scare when versatile linebacker Adalius Thomas dropped to the ground with a knee injury during the live session in Tuesday morning's practice, but it does not appear serious (hyperextended knee). The Ravens lost Thomas's backup, second-round draft pick Dan Cody, to a more severe knee injury on the first day of training camp.