“They said, ‘Give Jamal the Ball.’ The first time he touches it, 82-yards to the house.”
Give Jamal the Ball. That was the motto spreading around Baltimore during the 2003 season. The above quote was the play-by-play announcer’s after Jamal Lewis got the first chunk of his place in Canton.
He would go on to rush for 295 yards that September day against the Cleveland Browns, in a game that still echoes throughout Ravens history. Only fitting that it began on the first carry of the game, as that was very much Jamal Lewis’ style.
Ozzie Newsome selected Lewis fifth overall from the University of Tennessee in the 2000 NFL Draft. Pundits and fans alike felt as though the team would have been better suited drafting Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne or Alabama’s Shaun Alexander. Heck, many clamored for Michigan State wide receiver Plaxico Burress (or “Plexiglass,” if you ask Shannon Sharpe).
Well, they often say hindsight is 20/20, and Lewis outgained Dayne, Alexander and Burress.
After supplanting then starter and future All-Pro running back, Priest Holmes, Lewis rewarded Ozzie’s nod of confidence to the tune of 1,364 yards and 6 touchdowns on 309 carries. The rare blend of size and speed, he routinely got stronger as games wore on and defenses wore down. Ravens fans became accustomed to the bruising back lowering his head and finishing his runs with authority. Similarly, the 2000 Ravens got stronger at season’s finish, with their defense and run game paving the way to hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
(Ironically, it was in that 2000 season that Cincinnati’s Corey Dillon set the single game rushing record that Jamal Lewis later broke, running for 278 yards against the Denver Broncos.)
After tearing his ACL in the 2001 training camp, Lewis returned in 2002 and rushed for 1,327 yards and 6 touchdowns on 308 carries – nearly identical numbers to his rookie campaign. Doctors are often cited as saying that it is the year after a return from an ACL tear that a player truly returns to top form, and boy did that hold true for Lewis.
Give Jamal the Ball.
The Ravens did just that. 387 times, in fact. After his record-setting performance against Cleveland, Lewis totaled 364 yards rushing through the first two games. His torrid pace continued with sights set on Eric Dickerson’s single season rushing record. Rushing for over 100 yards in 12 of 16 contests, and eclipsing 200 yards twice, Jamal Lewis put together one of the most impressive seasons by a running back to date – unsurprisingly finishing the season strong, just like his runs. Even though he fell 39 yards short of Dickerson’s mark, Lewis’ 2,066 yards were, at the time, the second most in NFL history, and he became a member of one of the most exclusive fraternities in professional sports – all while wearing Baltimore’s purple and black.
Lewis would never recapture that greatness – it’s no surprise, as no running back has ever rushed for 2,000 yards twice. Some would argue that those 387 carries may have been too many, and that his following season was doomed from the start. It certainly didn’t help that he spent five months of the offseason incarcerated for helping to facilitate the illegal trade of narcotics.
He still managed to total over 3,000 rushing yards in the next three seasons with the Ravens, but he looked like a lesser player than the one who decisively burst through the line for 82 yards on that first play. More prone to dancing behind the line of scrimmage, Lewis never rushed for over 1,300 yards again in a Ravens uniform, eventually departing for free agency at the end of the 2006 season. However, he still holds the franchise rushing record with 7,801 yards.
It turned out that Lewis wasn’t out of gas just yet, as after signing with the Cleveland Browns – the very team he routinely dismantled – he had something of a career revival. In 2007, Lewis rushed for 1,304 yards and 9 touchdowns on 298 carries – averaging over 4 yards-per-carry for the first time since 2004 – in what would be his most productive season since his historic 2003 year.
However, in careers filled with collisions and bangs, the end is often less explosive. Never one to shy away from contact, Lewis routinely lowered his head and plowed forward, legs churning, no matter who or how many stood in his way. After nine seasons of taking and delivering hits at the NFL level, concussions forced Jamal Lewis out of football. In the years since, he has voiced regret at his physical approach to the game, saying that the players whom he would mock for ducking out of bounds were “the smart ones.”
Since retiring in 2009, there have been peaks and valleys. In 2011, he filed for bankruptcy, claiming 14.5 million dollars in assets and 10.1 million in liabilities. One of the assets listed was his potential part in the attempted lawsuit against the National Football League for their failure to properly address long-term head injuries sustained while playing football. Lewis has gone on record as saying he shows signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the degenerative brain disorder that results from repeat concussions.
There have undoubtedly been more valleys in Lewis’ retirement than he would prefer, but he’s found positivity amidst his tumult. He was inducted to the Ravens Ring of Honor in 2012, thanking Steve Bisciotti, Ozzie Newsome and the late Art Modell. “I owe these three guys so much, for believing in me and giving me a chance to play in this league, and for sticking by me in some of my darkest days.”
Through all of his experiences, he has learned valuable lessons that he now imparts upon young athletes who would be otherwise unequipped with this information.
“I just try to stay busy and keep going,” Lewis told CBS Sports Radio’s Chris Moore and Brian Jones during an interview in January. “I’m able to give back to these kids what I didn’t know.”
So, one last time, for Ravens’ sake.
Give Jamal the Ball.