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 about him."
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 playing Jamal.' "
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."