THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Patriots finally have Lewis covered

Nemesis receiver is on their side now

By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / August 9, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH - There have been no Pro Bowls or Super Bowl rings, just a solid, unspectacular, six-year career in the NFL. Which, considering how Greg Lewis got there, is pretty spectacular.

If actions speak louder than words, the 29-year-old wide receiver should be doing something else besides participating in his first training camp with the Patriots. When Lewis graduated from high school, not one Division 1 school offered him a scholarship. Five years later, no NFL team saw fit to use a draft pick on him.

Yet here he is, catching passes from Tom Brady and putting on the uniform of a team that repeatedly tried to trade for him, finally convincing the Philadelphia Eagles to part with Lewis in March. Lewis has faced rejection. Each time, he’s responded with resolve.

“Just hard work, really, not taking no for an answer,’’ Lewis said. “I just love playing football. Getting out there and doing something I love is a blessing.

“Life’s too short not to have fun, so I’m going to enjoy every second that I’m out here, every second that I’m in the meeting room, and every second of every day. That’s how I am, and that’s how I’m going to continue to be.’’

The affable seventh-year pro from the University of Illinois figures to compete for the No. 3 receiving position, and his toughness and versatility - the Eagles utilized him in the slot, but he’s also comfortable and effective running outside routes - are attributes that appealed to the Patriots.

The fact that he played well against New England certainly factored into his new home as well. Lewis caught his first NFL touchdown pass in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XXXIX against the Patriots, and had four catches - all on third downs - for 88 yards and two touchdowns during a tense 31-28 Patriots home win in 2007, when Philadelphia nearly ruined New England’s quest for perfection.

“Greg’s always killed us; every time we’ve played him, he’s killed us,’’ said coach Bill Belichick. “We haven’t been able to cover him very well, so that kind of catches your attention, catches your eye a little bit.

“It was an annual conversation, maybe more than annual, that I had with [Eagles coach] Andy Reid. We had discussed Greg Lewis in trade situations for . . . at least the last three years, and maybe longer. It might have even been his rookie year. It’s gone back a long way.’’

Lewis landed on Belichick’s radar when the Patriots’ coaching staff was studying Illinois game tapes and evaluating defensive back Eugene Wilson, whom the team would take in the second round of the 2003 draft. But Belichick said it was difficult to ignore the Illini receiver making plays on the other side of the ball.

That was in college. Why is someone who’s never had more than 48 catches in any of his six seasons with the Eagles, only one season of at least 350 receiving yards, and seven career touchdowns so valuable to an elite NFL team? Statistics don’t always provide an accurate picture.

“I saw a guy that liked to compete, and had a knack for making plays. You may not have seen that right away, but it grew on you,’’ said Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner, who is in his ninth season in Chicago (two stints) but was Lewis’s head coach at Illinois. “He just had a good feel for the game, and was a very, very tough player.’’

Turner was involved in one of Lewis’s defining moments in football. Upset at what he perceived to be a lack of attention and opportunity during the weeks before his freshman year, the walk-on from Matteson, Ill., abruptly quit the team. Halfway through the season, Lewis’s roommate, also a walk-on receiver, kept going on and on about how well he was practicing, and had been named MVP of the scout team. Lewis’s mind began to race.

“I was like, ‘Man, I’m better than you,’ and I knew that if he could do it, then I could do it,’’ Lewis said. “[Quitting] was just me being young and dumb. So I went to Coach Turner and asked him if I could get back on the team.’’

Turner agreed, but he established a challenging list of criteria Lewis would have to meet before he could be reinstated. Lewis met them all, eventually earned a scholarship, and finished his Illinois career ranked in the school’s top 10 for receptions, yardage, and touchdowns.

“He got bigger, got stronger, and continued to develop his skill,’’ Turner said. “He’s quick and competitive, and has an ability to position his body away from the defender to give the quarterback somewhere to throw. But the biggest thing is what he’s got inside, in his heart, his desire. I love him, he’s one of my all-time favorites.’’

The Eagles signed Lewis in 2003 as an undrafted free agent, and after six seasons of personal improvement sprinkled with team success (he played in all nine of Philadelphia’s playoff games while he was there), he now finds himself in New England, where he could potentially grab an even bigger role on possibly an even better team.

“I think he’s a good fit in our system; he certainly has been a problem for us defensively when we’ve played against him,’’ Belichick said. “He’s a high-character guy, a smart, hard-working kid that has some flexibility. Those are the kind of players that every coach likes. I know it was hard for Andy to part with him.’’

Said Lewis, “The trade was somewhat bittersweet. I enjoyed being in Philadelphia. I loved the players there, the coaches, the city, it was all great. But getting a chance to play with the Patriots - I mean, I didn’t have a choice - but it’s something that you wouldn’t want to pass up at all. I’m happy to be here.’’

Perhaps ironically, Lewis’s first game with the Patriots comes Thursday, in the preseason opener at Philadelphia (“It’ll be different being on the other sideline’’). For someone living in a new city, playing for a new team, and enjoying a new baby - he and his wife, Tamika, welcomed their second son, Gavin, July 8 - a trip back to old stomping grounds might make for an appropriate transition. Just don’t expect Lewis to get all sentimental about it. Especially not on game day.

“When the lights come on, either you’re going to do it or you’re not,’’ Lewis said. “It’s not about what you did in practice, or in college, or in high school. It’s about what you are doing right at this moment, because everyone is going to see it, and that’s how they’re going to judge you. It’s worked out for me thus far.’’

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com

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