Tuesday, October 19th. If things had been different for Darren Lewis; he might be wrapping up a run in pro football to rival his historic collegiate career.
If things had been different for Darren Lewis; he might be wrapping up a run in pro football to rival his historic collegiate career. If things had been different, the respectful, generous kid from Carter High who became an Oak Cliff legend might have millions, and his long-suffering parents might be long gone from the modest home where they raised four children. If things had been different, a young man sporting an Emmitt Smith jersey outside a Dallas courtroom in August might have worn a Darren Lewis shirt instead. But Mr. Lewis, one of Texas' best ever at running with a football, had finally reached a dead end in that courtroom. No longer running and hustling. Shackled and humiliated. The word 'prisoner' emblazoned on his uniform. As his tearful family watched, the rugged 35-year-old who carried Texas A&M to glory as the Southwest Conference's all-time rusher was sentenced for a felony theft punctuating a lost decade of aimlessness, drugs and crime. 'I apologize. I'm sorry,' he sputtered as he faced his father and two sisters, his oldest son and his first real jail time. In 1990, when the young man known as 'Tank' finished with more than 5,000 yards gained at A&M, he stood behind only four players in history. Prosperity and fame in the National Football League appeared just a few powerful strides away. From that summit, though, Mr. Lewis made a breathtaking, almost nonstop slide through a pre-empted pro career and into obscurity, descending into a life on the streets that included stealing and fencing stolen goods. 'Tank was the greatest at everything,' said Greg Hill, a first-round NFL draft choice in 1994 who followed in his idol's footsteps at talent-rich Carter and A&M. 'He was magic.' The rags-to-near-riches tale is about the unraveling of a gifted athlete once the cheering stopped, despite an advantage that money can't buy - two stable, spiritual, supportive parents. His story would have gone undetected if he'd never been a superstar, a label that ultimately may have hurt more than helped. 'A lot of athletes make it to the NFL and they've always had people cater to them,' said Mr. Lewis' brother, Kelton. 'So when the reality of life comes down ... you don't know how to deal with it. You're not 'the man' anymore.' The end of the story, his supporters said, is up to the one-time hero, depending how hard he tries to defy the doubters in maybe his last chance to run to daylight. 'I was on the dark side of the world, man,' Mr. Lewis said, talking for the first time about the steep fall after his playing days. 'There was no positive at all, no light at the end of the tunnel,' he said, an oversized Superman 'S' shining beneath his open collar. 'It was all about the money, by all means necessary.' Mr. Lewis, whose name once ranked with those of Dorsett and Dickerson, offered other details about a disappearing act with few parallels in Texas sports. He didn't get the chance he deserved during three lackluster years with the Chicago Bears, he said, partly because of a failed drug test before the pro draft. But he wasn't pushed out of the NFL, he said; he quit, leaving a $200,000 contract on the table because he 'lost the love of the game.' Yet, he insisted he 'lived my dream' just by making it to the pros and never felt frustrated about missing the brass ring after so many years of hard work. Alternately affable and defensive, Mr. Lewis said that like many privileged athletes from minority neighborhoods, he was unskilled and unequipped to handle the demands of life after football. That and this report from The Dallas Morning News' Mark Wrolstad But he said that nearly three weeks in the Dallas County Jail were enough to make him abandon marijuana and crime and want to be a better son as well as a better father to the three children he has spent so little time with. 'My father always said you can make your bed hard or soft,' Mr. Lewis said. 'I embarrassed my family by the decisions I made.' In January, he was arrested with another man in a stolen car, though no charges were filed. But in May, he and a friend were caught stealing a cargo trailer. Relatives and friends said they keep thinking he'll change his behavior, but they seem baffled about how to help. His parents said they've unintentionally 'enabled' their son's irresponsibility and they're fed up with shielding him from the consequences. His parents finally let Mr. Lewis sit in jail this summer instead of bailing him out, and they need to stop doing things such as buying his cigarettes, said his father, Isaac, an associate pastor who has retired from a plastics plant. 'This is not Darren,' said his father, 66. 'Our family has been talking about tough love, but we don't know how to do that. We can't see him out on the street, out in the gutter.' Lillie Lewis, a retired sixth-grade teacher, said she had thought her son's drug use was far in the past. 'It's up to him,' she said. 'When you're a parent, sometimes you do too much.' Kimberly Gibson, a sister, hoped jail might be a turning point. 'Darren's never been in this much trouble,' she said. 'He's going to change. He has to.' Others wonder whether it's already too late for a relatively young man to shift course. 'I'd say his prospects are not real good. He's not a 20-year-old kid,' state District Judge Jane Roden said. In August, the judge gave him 60 days in jail for violating probation on a misdemeanor assault in 2000 for beating a man who roughed up the youngest Lewis son. 'It's probably time his family let him go,' the judge said. 'Until he falls all the way, nothing's going to change.' His fall accelerated when he was arrested this summer for several probation violations. 'I was very disappointed in him,' veteran probation officer Anthony Dotson said. He said Mr. Lewis expected his mother to drive him to probation appointments and pay his fees and had no job and no direction, despite his athletic fame and three years of college credits. That and this report from The Dallas Morning News' Mark Wrolstad Like many probationers, including former pro athletes, Mr. Lewis never accepted responsibility, Mr. Dotson said. 'You're not a victim. You're not unlucky. You did all the right things to be where you are,' he said. 'He's got some charisma, he's an All-American, he went to A&M - and he can't get a job in Dallas, Texas? He's Darren Lewis! 'For his family, this fairy tale became a nightmare.' He grew up in a sort of oasis in Dallas' Red Bird area: a 1960s cluster of small ramblers surrounded by large, lower-income apartments and open land. When 9-year-old Darren signed up for peewee football with the old Oak Cliff Cubs, he soon earned the nickname 'Tank' for being unstoppable. Early on, his mother fretted, 'Oh Lord, they're going to kill him.' Her husband's reply: 'First, they've got to catch him.' Kelton Lewis recalled his brother, who's three years older, getting on his knees to play football with him. But as the years passed, the two brothers chose separate paths. Drugs riddled the neighborhood, and by age 15, the younger brother was using and dealing. 'I didn't want to work hard like my daddy,' said Kelton Lewis, who gave up drugs after going to jail and being shot at 19. 'But Darren didn't run with those guys. All his bad habits I think he got in college.' By 10th grade, 'Tank' was a force at Carter's football factory, and at college recruiting time in 1987, he was considered perhaps the nation's top running back. Former Carter coach Freddie James remembers him as a cooperative, well-liked player who was never in trouble but later 'got with the wrong crowd and they led him the wrong way.' 'I can close my eyes and see him running,' his old coach said. 'Darren Lewis was going to be the highest-paid football player in America.' The recruit took his famous spin move to College Station and became a tackle-breaking sensation. As his senior season climaxed, he smashed the conference's career rushing record and finished fifth on the all-time college list. That and this report from The Dallas Morning News' Mark Wrolstad But after another star turn in a triumphant Holiday Bowl game came a monumental stumble. He plummeted all the way to a sixth-round draft choice in the 1991 NFL draft, stunning many fans. The reason: He had tested positive for cocaine at the league's pre-draft workout. He still says it was his first experience with the drug. Former A&M coach R.C. Slocum visited his 'selfless, even-keeled' standout at drug treatment. 'Obviously, he's had recurring problems. It just breaks your heart,' he said. Years of sweat and promise yielded a few bright spots the next three years with Chicago, including a fine playoff performance against Dallas, but he never seemed to get on track. 'Just because you've been one of the best in college doesn't mean you can take it to the next level,' said Johnny Roland, the Bears' former running-back coach. The team released Mr. Lewis in late 1993 shortly after he was in a domestic dispute, recalled his mother-in-law, Delbra Stevens. Charges weren't filed, but he moved back to Dallas, separating from his wife of three years, Tiffany Stevens Lewis, and their three young children. 'I was through with it. I was tired,' he said of the NFL, which he said stands for 'Not For Long.' Barry Foster, a star running back at nearby Duncanville High who went on to pro fame with Pittsburgh, said Mr. Lewis developed an aloof attitude at A&M. He said there was hometown talk in the early '90s that Mr. Lewis was smoking pot. 'That tells me he was not mentally strong,' said Mr. Foster, now coaching at a Dallas charter school. 'The guy had all the tools and talent to be a tremendous back in the NFL. 'Any person that uses drugs is going to have a downfall.' After the NFL, Mr. Lewis spent about three years 'living on the fat,' his savings. Then he took a job as a telemarketer and tried to reconcile with his wife. They split up again after a couple of years but never divorced. Records show that Mr. Lewis faced a shoplifting charge in 1996, but the past several years have been his worst - unemployed, breaking the law and rejecting his parents' ever-open door. 'I was on the streets, living nowhere,' he said, 'like a scavenger.' In August, he told state District Judge Vickers Cunningham the trailer theft was 'just fast money.' The judge lectured him, put him on probation and said that if Mr. Lewis doesn't learn soon, 'he will be an inmate.' Jerome Pipkins said his closest childhood friend can't let that happen. 'Tank had all this in front of him and you look up one day and it's all gone,' said Mr. Pipkins, now a teacher. 'I think on the inside it was eatin' him up.' Mr. Lewis insisted that he's gotten past his lost fame and fortune. 'If I sat back and reflected on that,' he said, 'I'd be dead today. 'Golly, I could've been a millionaire.' I'd find myself hanging from a tree or OD'ing on something.' He traced his downfall to his first taste of cocaine. 'If anyone says you can't get addicted the first time, they're lying,' he said. Today, he's a legend without a game plan. He attends some of his children's athletic events, talks about becoming a coach, but has no job and no drug counseling. Attorney Phillip Robertson, who idolized Mr. Lewis as an Aggie classmate, helped minimize his jail time and recently gave him another pep talk 'to do right.' 'There's no gray areas anymore,' Mr. Lewis agreed. 'It's all black and white.' As he walked away, his attorney declared the whole affair 'a sad story,' then emphasized the chance for redemption. 'He's got so many people blocking for him in life,' he said, 'he's got to win.' The Dallas Morning News