Former Texas A&M star Darren Lewis dies at age 55 from cancer

Darren Lewis, the Texas A&M star who broke Eric Dickerson's Southwest Conference rushing record before addiction derailed his football career and post-football life, died Thursday night from cancer. He was 55.

Lewis, who was a star at Dallas' powerhouse Carter High School, was among the country's top prospects in 1987, often mentioned alongside Emmitt Smith. He rushed for 5,012 yards from 1987 to 1990, breaking Dickerson's mark (previously held by Earl Campbell) of 4,450 yards, before bowl statistics were included. He finished his career fifth on the NCAA career rushing list, behind Tony Dorsett, Charles White, Herschel Walker and Archie Griffin.

A two-time All-American while in College Station, "Tank," as he was known because of his punishing running style, is still 1,309 yards ahead of second place on the career rushing list at Texas A&M.

But during the NFL draft process, Lewis said he was exposed to cocaine at parties, and by prospective agents, and was assured he would test clean. Instead, he was the only player who tested positive for cocaine at the combine, and his stock plummeted to the sixth round, where he was drafted by the Chicago Bears, who claimed they did not know of his failed test, and was sent to rehab.

He started just five games among his 33 appearances in the NFL for the Bears, rushing for 431 yards in his career. He never failed a drug test, but he was arrested on domestic battery charges and released in 1993.

Lewis' fall from grace shocked his former coaches, Jackie Sherrill and R.C. Slocum, who stayed in touch with Lewis.

"I just think he's one of those guys that would fall into with his friends, some bad influences," Slocum said. "He was strong and tough on the football field, but there wasn't a mean bone in his body in terms of just being hard to manage. He was always so, so respectful. I know Jackie would say the same thing."

After his NFL career, Lewis returned to Dallas to try to straighten out his life, but he continued to deal with addiction. He told Texas A&M's 12th Man Magazine he had lost all of his money and his house by 1995 then was arrested for the first time on shoplifting charges in 1998. He was arrested again in 2004, 2005 and 2006, landing in state prison on robbery charges, and was released in 2010.

In 2014, he was sentenced to 27 years in prison for a string of armed robberies at hotels and convenience stores, including shooting a 7-Eleven cashier in the leg, which Lewis claimed was an accident.

"I was selfish. I just wanted what Darren Lewis wanted, and I didn't think about the people I may be hurting," Lewis told the Bryan-College Station Eagle last week. "It was all about what I wanted at that time."

Lewis was imprisoned in Pollock, Louisiana, where he developed a mass on his shoulder that later ruptured and was determined to be metastatic squamous cell carcinoma, which begins as skin cancer and later spreads to organs.

He was moved to a prison in North Carolina for medical care before being released last year as part of a compassionate release program.

Lewis told the Eagle last week while he was in hospice care that he was grateful for the long sentence because it allowed him to turn his life around. Slocum, who shares a birthday with Lewis, said they would call each other every year on Nov. 7 and said he had seen a changed man in Lewis' final years.

"Here toward the end, he's probably in as good a shape to face what he's facing now," Slocum said. "He's been very strong person of faith. I went up and saw him few weeks ago, and he had his Bible right there on the table next to him. I'm glad he's not having to suffer anymore. He was fighting it. He approached that just like he did football. He played as hard as he could, played right to the end."

Lewis said he hoped his life would be a lesson to others.

"I encourage the young people to use me as an example," Lewis told the newspaper. "Making the wrong choice could cost you your career, your life, your family and your friends. It doesn't cost you anything to make the right decisions, but make one wrong decision and it could cost you your life."