Community and team veteran looks to finish his inspirational career in New Orleans
Michael Lewis will make one more great return for the Saints - to the field.
Lewis was placed in injured reserve late last September after tearing ligaments in his knee in the Saints' Week 2 game at the New York Giants. At age 33, Lewis' rehab was to be challenging to say the least. But modern medicine and Lewis' indomitable spirit has brought him back to a level at which the Saints are comfortable giving him a new three-year contract. Lewis will be 35 before the 2006 season is over, so his new deal should carry him through his eventual retirement.
"He's a guy that's explosive, can run well, he's coming off of the knee injury but has rehabbed it well. That part of it has gone extremely well," head coach Sean Payton said after Sunday's minicamp practice. "I think that he's a weapon in the importance of field position in special teams, the importance of turnovers, the importance of playing a good defense. All these things go into winning games and field position has a lot to do with it, so we think he's a guy that will compete for the return position. So we'll see."
One of the most inspiring stories in Saints history, the diminutive 5'8, 170 pound Lewis began his career at the age of 29 after almost giving up on his career, which had toured minor and arena leagues across the country. Lewis was working as a beer truck delivery man when he managed a tryout with the Saints late in the 2000 season. After being cut by the Eagles in training camp earlier that year, he was fortunate to spend some unremarkable, unpublicized time on the Saints' practice squad in 2000. In 2001, he worked very hard on his receiving and ball handling skills.
At this size, Lewis had little chance of competing on offense. But on special teams Lewis worked tirelessly as both a returner - the job that earned him a Pro Bowl - and an excellent coverage man. It was his unbelievable foot speed that got him in the door with the Saints, but his tireless work ethic that made the team. Lewis will need to renew his toughness again to recover from this knee injury.
In 2001, Lewis had problems holding on to the ball on returns. An ankle injury and his struggles limited him to only 8 games in 2001. The Saints also didn't need Lewis much that year, they had a young runningback named Deuce McAllister who handled most of the return duties.
In December of 2001 in Tampa Bay, Lewis was the first man down on kickoff coverage and missed then-Bucs RB Aaron Stecker. As Stecker raced down field, so did Lewis, and 86 yards later Lewis made the tackle at the opposite end of the field.
In 2002, his work finally paid off. Lewis became an outstanding punt and kickoff return man, scoring three touchdowns on returns including two in one game against the Redskins - only the seventh man in NFL history to do so and the first in team history. Lewis also set NFL returns for total return yardage and managed eight catches for 200 yards including three catches over 40 yards. He and fellow special teams soldier Fred McAfee made the Pro Bowl in 2002.
In 2003 and 2004, Lewis continued to progress as a receiver and returner. He scored his first and so far only offensive touchdown in Tampa Bay in 2003 on an impossible-looking catch in double coverage over the middle. A valuable community member and teammate through this Saints coaching administration, Lewis' veteran presence and explosion will be missed this season.
His 2005 season was almost completely lost to the injury. He managed only two punt returns, two kick returns, and one tackle in one and a half games.