BEREA, Ohio (AP) - Jamal Lewis once lost his freedom, stripped of life's simplest pleasures by a stupid, youthful mistake. The misstep landed Cleveland's running back in prison and nearly cost him his NFL career.
He has walked in Michael Vick's shoes.
Lewis knows better than most what lies ahead for Vick, the disgraced Atlanta Falcons quarterback sentenced this week to 23 months in federal prison for running a dogfighting operation.
``What he's facing is a tough time,'' Lewis said before the Browns practiced on Wednesday, ``and it's the fear of the unknown. You don't know what to expect. You hear all the horror stories about jail.''
Lewis, too, heard them before he began serving four months at a prison in Florida two years ago on cocaine conspiracy charges. He was sentenced after pleading guilty to using a cell phone to try to set up a drug deal in 2000, not long after he was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens.
For Lewis, the toughest part of his confinement - he also spent two months in a halfway house in Atlanta - was not serving the punishment. As Vick will learn, the challenge is staying mentally strong.
``The hardest part is finding a routine and finding a way to deal with the day-to-day stresses of not being able to have the things you had when you were out on the street,'' said Lewis, who signed with Cleveland as a free agent in March.
``It's not being able to get up and scramble some eggs. It's not being able to go to the store and buy a Gatorade. That's the hard part, not being able to do those little things.''
Lewis learned to adapt over time. Forced to get up before dawn, he worked in the prison's tool shop. To fill up his day, he read, lifted weights and talked with fellow inmates, many of whom were serving much longer terms than his.
``There's dudes in there doing 15, 20 years,'' he said.
Speaking in depth about his time in prison for the first time since joining the Browns, Lewis said he was confident he would be able to adjust to being incarcerated. Once he accepted the penalty, he vowed to make the best of his time away.
``I just saw myself as I can go into any situation, that's me,'' he said. ``I can go anywhere and fit in with anybody. That's the mentality that I took in, that hey, I've got to put my mind-set here and that's what I did. I just took it in stride and just put myself in that environment and fit in as best I could.''
Above all, Lewis used his prison time to improve himself as a man. Vick would be wise to do the same.
``You have to better yourself as a person, period, because you have the time to do it,'' he said.
The experience of losing his freedom had a profound effect on Lewis, who came away changed by prison. He learned not to dwell on small inconveniences and was rewarded with a new perspective on life.
``I was always a humble person,'' he said. ``But prison makes you more humble after you've been through that because you come out and the things that go on off the field, things that go on with your family and things that go on in your day-to-day life are not that hard anymore.
``They're not that big of a deal anymore. Sometimes people don't understand that. Now things will happen and I'm like, 'Oh, well, there are a lot worse things that can happen.'''
At some point, Lewis plans to reach out to Vick, whom he has met but doesn't know well.
``Once the storm quiets down, then I'll be able to give some advice to him,'' he said.
Like Vick, Lewis once stared at an uncertain future as daunting as any defensive front he ever encountered. He managed to resurrect his career and rehab a tattered image. And now at 28, the 2003 Offensive Player of the Year is viewed as a team leader with the Browns.
He learned from his errors and Lewis straightened out his life. He's convinced Vick can follow him.
``He will,'' Lewis said. ``Trust me, he's already suffered enough punishment. This time right now is something that he has to do. It's time that he has to sit back and reflect on the things that he had, the things that could be taken away from him.
``He still has a chance to get out and do some good things with himself. He has a lot of time. When he gets out, he's still going to be young. Right now, it's what does he do from this point on?''

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