Terroll Lewis: The West Ham trialist who went from prisoner to fitness guru
While plenty of footballers get released from Premier League clubs and then take very different paths, few will have a story quite like Terroll Lewis.
He became a member of the Organised Crime (OC) gang when he was just 12 years old. Football offered him a way out.
“I grew up with football from a young age, playing on the block with the olders,” says Lewis, whose book ‘One Chance’ was released earlier this month. “I ended up getting scouted for the local borough and then got scouted for West Ham.
“I went there with my best friend at the time, Zavon Hines. I was travelling up and down to go and train a few times a week. We got to leave school early to go and do what we loved; play football and express ourselves and get into the team.
“Going to West Ham took me away from the block. It took me away from the estate for those two or three hours, but then I had to go back, which was hard as I wanted to be a footballer. I was getting involved in stuff and being around [gangs].”
While Hines remained at the club and went on to play for their first team, Lewis didn’t get a contract and was released for being “too skinny”.
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The left-back then became an apprentice at Stevenage Borough after impressing their coaching staff but struggled to make ends meet on £50 a week. Eventually, Lewis was lured back to his old life of crime.
“As I was at football I was getting phone calls, ‘You’re missing out, we’ve got parties, we’ve got new cars, new watches,’” Lewis says. “The young kids were now getting more active and involved in gangs, and I missed it.
“It was dragging me in two different directions and ripping me apart. I wanted to play football and do what I love, be a part of a football team on the pitch, but I also wanted to be a part of that team on the estate with the guns, knives, drugs and money. It looked glamorous at that time.
“I ended up lying to my coach, telling him that my mum was sick and that I had to move back to London.
“I remember my coach sitting down in the room, looking at me and saying, ‘I know you’re lying to me but it’s your choice, you’ve got to make your own choices in life but I’ll tell you one thing, you’ll never forget this moment.’”
Lewis ignored the warnings and returned to the “warzone”, becoming more and more involved in the gangs on his estate.
Despite trying to cling on to a possible career in football, his childhood dream was being destroyed by the gang life.
“I tried to dabble in football here and there,” Lewis says. “I went down to Tooting and Mitcham, a semi-pro team, just to keep my mind active, but I was still heavily involved in gangs.
“I used to go to Mitcham with a knife in my bag just in case I saw anybody I’d had trouble with from the estate on the way to training or on the bus.
“I was in the changing room, waiting for everyone to leave as I’ve got a kitchen knife with my boots and I didn’t want it to fall out. These are the kind of things that used to happen. This was real life.”
— TERROLL LEWIS (@TerrollLewis) January 21, 2021
While he was now making big money dealing drugs, his life was no longer the glamorous dream that he had initially been promised.
The reality proved to be a lot darker. Lewis found himself in a downward spiral, struggling with anxiety and fearing for his life.
“There was a lot of violence, a lot of fights,” he says. “I’ve been stabbed, I’ve been shot. I had a shotgun shot at my head and just missing me with one of the pellets, skimming the top of my lip.
“I’ve lost over 10 people on the streets due to gang violence, friends and family. One of my friends got shot in his head and another got stabbed in his heart. That’s where that life leads, there was so much trauma.”
After losing friends and seeing his life crumble around him, Lewis knew he had to get out and began working in a local church.
As he tried to reform and leave the gang life behind him, he was wrongly arrested for murder in 2009 and spent 11 months in Belmarsh prison.
Stuck behind bars, his cell became his gym and his exercises were a coping mechanism.
“It was one of the most transformative times of my life,” he says. “I used fitness as my way out, as my go-to or my safety away from the noise.
“I’d do dips on the toilet seat, press-ups with the sink. I used to do press-ups on the bed, burpees and handstands. That was my meditation; fitness has always been a meditation for me. It’s more than just a physical side of it, it’s a mindset.”
Lewis was eventually acquitted of all charges and made sure that he was going to make the most of his second chance.
“As soon as I got out of prison I went to one of the commercial gyms and they asked me for my details to set up my direct debit. I didn’t know what they were talking about, I didn’t really have a bank account. I used to keep money under my bed once upon a time.
“I then went to the local park on the outskirts of the estate with my blackberry, playing music, doing my pull-ups. I did a YouTube video that got a few thousand views and people started messaging saying they wanted to come and train with me.”
Lewis decided to launch the urban fitness movement Block Workout. It soon grew from six people to over 100 people in a session in the park.
After originally being watched by the police, Lewis eventually got financial backing from the local council and then opened his Brixton Street Gym.
The gym provides a safe place for young people in the community, offering classes that range from boxing to callisthenics, circuit training to Pilates.
“We became a family, we became a positive gang and it was more than training, it was us coming together,” he says.
“I felt like I’d caused a lot of destruction in terms of negative influence and hate on the streets before and this is my give back.
“For the last 10 years I’ve been planting seeds and not expecting anything. This was part of my healing and seeing young people’s characters change through fitness continues to help me heal.”
One day we will have a #StreetGym In North, East & West London. 💭
— TERROLL LEWIS (@TerrollLewis) January 6, 2021
While he may now be helping other young people, Lewis admits that he often thinks about what could’ve been in football.
“Definitely there’s a regret that continues. At one point I told myself I hate football just to try and block it out and move forward with the gang life. Even when I left the gangs I stopped watching football because I didn’t want to be reminded.
“I never saw the long vision and I wish I could take stuff back but I can’t. I wish I’d continued with football and left that other life behind – but if I did maybe I’d just be a footballer without a story.”
You can read more about Lewis’ incredible story in his new book ‘One Chance‘.