Wiedmer: Lewis solid BYU, NFL promoter

Wiedmer: Lewis solid BYU, NFL promoter

April 27th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

The letter arrived at the Brigham Young University athletic department a few weeks ago, not long after the school suspended star basketball Brandon Davies for violating BYU's honor code regarding no premarital sex.

Sent by North Carolina resident Sylvia Nance, it contained a letter and a $100 check to the Cougars athletic department.

According to BYU assistant athletic director for development Chad Lewis, Nance wrote the following note to the Mormon-based school: "I am Catholic and far from wealthy. But I've seen what you've done and how you've done it and I appreciate you standing up for good things."

Said Lewis on Tuesday as he prepared to address Chattanooga's BYU alumni group, "I've been surprised by the number of letters, phone calls and emails we've received regarding this issue. People from all different religions, people from all parts of the world have written the school to say they support us standing up for what we believe in."

Lewis is the kind of guy everybody wants to believe in. A BYU grad who signed with the Philadelphia Eagles as an undrafted free agent tight end in 1997, he was on the St. Louis Rams' Super Bowl champs two years later (sorry, Tennessee Titans fans), then returned to the Eagles from 2000 to 2005 to finish out his nine-year, three-time Pro Bowl career.

In fact, Lewis caught the game-deciding touchdown pass for the Eagles in the 2005 NFC title game, but he was injured on the play and missed the Super Bowl loss to New England.

But that career gives the 39-year-old married father of seven a unique and educated perspective on the NFL's current labor problems.

"I know what the players are fighting for," he said. "They want more respect, better health benefits and they don't want to play 18 games. And I support them on that, especially if the health benefits cover the older, retired players who have so many health issues today.

"But I've also been the general manager for a rebar company, so I know what it's like to run a business, to deal with unions. I have some understanding of how the owners feel. Because of that, and because the entire world is in the middle of the biggest economic turmoil of our lives, I would encourage the players to get back to work as soon as possible.

"If making millions to play a game is too difficult for them, they should try teaching school on a teacher's salary for just one year. Maybe that would help them be more grateful for what the average American worker is going through these days."

That said, Lewis expects everything to be settled before August and the season to go on as scheduled.

Yet whether that happens, Lewis will soon serve as a goodwill ambassador for the league with former Titans coach Jeff Fisher and former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi. They are going to climb 19,300-foot Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa with four disabled American war veterans.

"It's part of the league's Wounded Warriors program, which helps our war veterans adjust to civilian life," Lewis said. "It's supposed to take seven days to get to the top and back. It's a 10-day trip and ESPN is going to cover it. Among the four veterans, two have lost legs, one an arm and one an eye."

Lewis has served as an NFL ambassador many times over, however. Because a pre-college Mormon mission trip to Taiwan helped him become fluent in Mandarin, he has made several trips to China on behalf of the league.

"I'll speak to our troops, meet with Chinese government leaders," he said. "They know football just a little bit better than we know cricket. But they love America and they know football is important to us."

And could the Chinese someday be good enough to fill a roster spot or two in the NFL?

"They have 1.3 billion people," Lewis said with a grin. "We have the point-three. If you've ever been to northern China you see people as big as anyone in America. So I think we'll see it one day."

Judging from the country's attitude about the Davies suspension - "And he'll be back next year," Lewis said - perhaps we'll someday see more major college athletic programs hold their student-athletes to standards more approaching BYU than "Animal House."

"There's a misconception that we don't have fun there," he said. "There's tons of partying at BYU. It just doesn't include drinking and premarital sex."

So how did Lewis avoid such temptations in both college and the NFL, which he freely admits "has an abundance of sex, drugs and rock-'n'-roll at every turn"?

"You have to know who you are before you go in," he said. "You can't be self-righteous, but you have to stick to your principles."

At a time when there are seemingly so few principles in big-time athletics, which school's alums - not boosters or fans, but diploma-wielding alums - do you think sleep better at night when thoughts turn to their favorite sports teams: Ohio State's or BYU's?