Grateful Lewis returns to Duke, thanks coaches
Coming off the peak of his football career so far, Thad Lewis returned to the place and the people he shared so many highlights with along the way.
Duke’s career leader in passing yards, Lewis earned his first NFL start this past Sunday for the Cleveland Browns.
He completed 22 of 32 passes for 204 yards with one touchdown and one interception, though Pittsburgh beat the Browns 24-10.
On Friday, Lewis was back at Duke talking about his experience even as his future in professional football is clouded in uncertainty.
“This is family,” Lewis said. “I’m going back through to Miami. I felt like I wanted to stop through and see everybody before I go back home.”
Home for Lewis is south Florida, where he starred at Hialeah Miami Lakes High School before heading to Duke in 2006. He played his first two seasons under head coach Ted Roof, and the Blue Devils won only one game.
David Cutcliffe took over as head coach in 2008, and with Lewis running his offense, Duke won a combined nine games over two years. Lewis threw for 10,065 yards and 67 touchdowns.
He wasn’t selected in 2010 NFL draft, but Lewis signed as an undrafted free agent with the St. Louis Rams. In 2011, he signed with the Cleveland Browns, who had hired former Rams offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur as their head coach.
After two seasons as a reserve not seeing any game action except in preseason exhibitions, Lewis learned on Christmas Eve that he would get his first start in the Browns season-finale at Pittsburgh.
Cleveland’s coaching staff told him to keep the news quiet as they planned to make an official announcement later in the week.
“They told me, ‘Don’t tell anyone,’” Lewis said. “I thought, ‘Are they kidding me? Not tell anybody?’ So I called my Mom, and the first thing she said is, ‘Oh, I’ve got to make sure I’m there.’”
Eventually, Duke sports information director Art Chase received an advance notice, as did Cutcliffe and Kurt Roper, Lewis’ position coach his final two years with the Blue Devils.
While Lewis mastered Cleveland’s game plan for Pittsburgh, Cutcliffe, Roper and this year’s Blue Devils were preparing for the Dec. 27 Belk Bowl, Duke’s first postseason bowl game in 18 years.
A big part of Lewis’ stopover in Durham this week on the way to Florida was to congratulate Duke’s coaching staff on that accomplishment.
“You always want to do that face-to-face,” Lewis said. “Anybody can do that over the phone, but just to show you are sincere about what they’ve accomplished and to the people who have supported you the most throughout your whole career.”
Lewis even had a Durham and ACC tie to his first NFL start. His first NFL touchdown pass went to wide receiver Greg Little, the Durham native who played college football at North Carolina.
Lewis said he and Little kid each other about Duke and UNC often.
“It was funny,” Lewis said. “He was afraid to bet me when (Duke and UNC) played this year.”
But last Sunday, they were teammates first. Little even let Lewis have the ball after the touchdown.
“I got the ball,” Lewis said. “I’m going to take it home and give it to my mother.”
As for where his next NFL touchdown pass may occur, Lewis doesn’t really know. The Browns fired Shurmur on Monday and with Lewis a restricted free agent this offseason, neither man knows where they’ll be next.
“It’s a business,” Lewis said. “You can’t take anything personally. He’s a good coach. I’m sure he’ll get a job somewhere.”
Lewis will leave it to his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, to help court teams for a contract for next season.
But getting that start against the Steelers certainly will make things easier to find a job.
“They gave me that one opportunity to audition for 32 teams,” Lewis said. “Hopefully, I impressed someone. Anywhere I go, I just want to play football and want the opportunity to play.”