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Browns' Lewis digging in for big season

BEREA, Ohio -- Jamal Lewis spent a good chunk of the offseason with his toes buried in the sand. These were no days at the beach, though.

As part of a conditioning program seemingly designed by the Marquis de Sade, Cleveland's star running back trained in a 60-yard-long sand pit he had built outside a high school near his Atlanta home.

Lewis sprinted, worked on his cutting and tortured his body in the 1 1/2-foot deep sand during the hottest part of the day to build up leg strength and get ready for training camp.

Kids are not welcome in this sand box.

"It is serious, man," said Browns linebacker Andra Davis, who worked out with Lewis. "And what makes it bad is that it's so hot down there that you're feet are burning. It makes you keep your feet moving."

Lewis moved his feet for 1,304 yards last season -- his first with Cleveland -- while rampaging over any doubts that his career was moving into its fourth quarter. The 28-year-old, now on the doorstep of eclipsing 10,000 yards as a pro, proved he's got a lot left and has no plans of slowing down.

"Hopefully, I can keep it churning," he said.

Browns fans weren't entirely sure what their club was getting when Cleveland signed Lewis to a one-year contract before last season. While he had run for more than 1,100 yards the previous year in Baltimore, Lewis was slowed by injuries and didn't appear to be the same bruising back who pounded out a league record 2,066 yards in 2003.

General manager Phil Savage, though, was convinced Lewis would produce. He and Lewis had been together with the Ravens, and Savage was sure the former AP Offensive Player of the Year, would come through.

Did he ever. Beginning with a 216-yard game in Week 2 against Cincinnati, Lewis silenced his skeptics with the most productive season for any running back in Cleveland history not named Jim Brown.

While enriching his personal legacy, Lewis wanted to live up to the one created by Brown, the Hall of Fame legend and standard bearer for anyone who snaps the chin strap on an orange helmet and gets handed the ball.

"That's who I try to come out here and please," Lewis said of Brown, a frequent camp visitor. "I know he's out here watching."

With a vital offensive position finally stabilized, the Browns rewarded Lewis with a three-year, $17 million contract in February. That signing was followed by several other splashy moves by Savage, who has transformed the Browns into legitimate playoff contenders.

Several times last season, Savage referred to Lewis as "a hungry Jamal," alluding to him being motivated by his one-year contract. Well, if there were any concerns about Lewis getting fat because of the payday, he put them to rest by reporting to training camp in possibly the best shape of his life.

Thanks to a strict diet and relentless workout schedule, Lewis weighs 237 pounds, the lightest he has been since his junior year at Tennessee.

"I needed to get down so I could hit the corner and get back to what I used to do," he said. "The main reason is to help my quickness and help my speed on the stretch plays."

Lewis' commitment may be a surprise to some fans, but it's nothing new to his coaches or his teammates, who regard him as a leader.

"He's a pro," said second-year quarterback Brady Quinn, one of the few players on Cleveland's roster who could challenge Lewis' passion to train. "When you first come in as a rookie, everyone talks about what it is to be a pro, and he is that by definition."

Lewis enters the season as one of only 26 players with more than 9,000 yards, and he will most certainly join the elusive 10,000-yard club before season's end. As for how many more years he wants to play, Lewis, the fifth overall pick in the 2000 draft, doesn't want to be tackled on that issue.

"I'm not going to put a number on that," he said. "I want to leave the game. I don't want the game to leave me. That's my goal. It's not the games. It's not the training camps. It's the training in the offseason. When I feel like I can't train in the offseason like I used to, that's when I can't do it."

Brown quit the game at his peak, leaving to pursue an acting career. Lewis, who owns a successful trucking company, has no plans to stop playing as long as he can perform at a high level and wants to create a legacy.

"I'm playing for big numbers and playing for a championship," Lewis said. "It's not all about the money anymore. It's about accomplishing my goals and my long-term goals that I set when I first came into the league."

Is part of his motivation making the Hall of Fame?

"Oh yeah," Lewis said. "Big time."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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