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For Ravens' Lewis, no answers, just pain

The kick returner is trying to cope after his son is stillborn.

By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 25, 2001


TAMPA -- We are taught to believe that everything happens for a reason. It is a way to cope with tragedy and, for many, the thought provides comfort.

Here is a father, quietly looking you in the eye, who desperately would like to believe that. To believe that his pain has a purpose.

Except what could be the reason for this? He asks not in anger, nor with bitterness. Jermaine Lewis just wants to know.

He is a 26-year-old man and has trouble reconciling the events of the past month in his own mind. So how, he asks, does he explain to his 3-year-old son J.J. that baby brother is no longer tucked safely in his mommy's tummy?

"I don't know what to say to him. I just haven't been able to say anything and he hasn't asked," said Lewis, the Ravens punt returner and receiver. "He knew about it. He would ask, 'Is that my brother?' And we would talk about his name.

"I don't know. Maybe we'll just let it ride and he'll forget. Maybe I can explain it when he is older."

If he chooses, he could explain that J.J.'s little brother was to be named Geronimo. Why Geronimo? Just liked the sound of it, Lewis says. And like J.J., who is really Jermaine Jr., the baby had a pet name in the family. His second son, Lewis had decided, would be nicknamed G-Mo.

He could explain that Geronimo was to be a New Year's baby. A blessing for a growing family. J.J. is Lewis' son from a prior relationship, so Geronimo was the first child Lewis was to share with his new bride, Imara.

He could explain how Geronimo was an active baby. Always kicking, always moving in his mother's womb.

And that, in retrospect, was the first indication something was wrong.

Imara told her husband that she had not felt the baby move for several days. Nothing to fret about, their friends told them. At eight months, that child was just getting too big to do too much moving.

Even so, Imara was worried. She asked Jermaine to accompany her on a doctor's visit. So it was there, husband and wife side by side, that the doctor told them he could not find the baby's heartbeat.

They induced labor later that day and the family stood vigil through the night. All around in the maternity ward was the sound of crying babies and joyous parents. People walking down the hall with balloons and teddy bears in their arms. Geronimo was delivered, stillborn, the next morning.

"It was the most traumatizing thing," Lewis said. "That entire day. I can't explain how awful it was to wait through that."

There was no indication anything was wrong, Lewis said. The doctors said the umbilical cord somehow had gotten tangled.

So Jermaine and Imara returned to a home that had been bustling with anticipation of a baby's arrival. Ravens coach Brian Billick told Lewis to forget about the next game at Arizona. Stay home, he said, and take care of your family. Imara's relatives lived in the area and did what they could, but Lewis said the couple mostly spent time with each other.

"I really didn't talk to anybody, I had people there, but what could they say? It was just me and her. Being together, talking, growing closer," Lewis said. "I couldn't show weakness because I was trying to lift her up. We ended up getting a tighter bond through all of this."

Twelve days after the birth, the Ravens played their final game of the regular season. In the weeks prior, Lewis had taken to writing G-Mo and J.J. on his wristbands. For this game, he wrote Geronimo's full name. My fallen soldier, he called him.

Imara had not wanted to go, uneasy at the thought of the sympathy that would surely pour in her direction. She eventually relented and was there, at PSINet Stadium, when Lewis returned a punt 54 yards for a score, his first return for a touchdown in more than two years.

Upon reaching the end zone, Lewis turned toward where he expected to see Imara in the bleachers. It was not until later that he discovered she was not in her seat but, instead, visiting in a luxury box.

Before the half ended, Lewis returned a punt 89 yards for another touchdown. Lewis, who had pulled a similar feat Dec. 7, 1997, became the first man in NFL history to return two punts for touchdowns in the same game twice.

This time, when he hit the end zone, Jermaine turned and saw Imara in the stands. He raised his arm and pointed to his wristband.

"I stood in the end zone and said, 'That's for you Geronimo.' I knew God was up there looking down on us," Lewis said. "It was something special that day. I couldn't say if God helped me (score), but there was something in the air that day."

Seven weeks have passed since Geronimo's birth, and Lewis said Imara is doing better. The hurt remains, will always remain, but they are trying to move forward. He worries a little about the off-season when they will have more time on their hands, more time to think about their loss.

At this moment, he is thinking of being in the delivery room with Imara. Of holding his son in his arms for the first and last time.

Hundreds are chattering around him at Raymond James Stadium. Some are laughing, some scolding, but most just droning. Lewis might as well be alone because he notices not a one. His head is bowed, his eyes are wet. When he looks up, he speaks softly. Sometimes, he said, when he thinks of that day, he cannot help but get emotional. And then he apologizes.

This is one of the absurdities of a Super Bowl. That in the middle of media day, an event that thrives on obnoxious moments, a gentle man can apologize to a total stranger for having his privacy invaded.

For crying at the memory of a son he never knew.

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