Duke's Lewis leaves his mark

Four-year starter ranks among Duke's all-time best QBs

Staff WriterNovember 27, 2009 

— When he arrived at Duke two years ago, coach David Cutcliffe watched film of his new team, observing the punishment quarterback Thaddeus Lewis had endured.

Clip after clip showed defensive players knocking Lewis to the ground. They pounded the Blue Devils' young quarterback, sacking him 85 times and leaving the Devils with a 1-23 record after his first two seasons.

Lewis kept coming back for more - confidently completing passes along the way.

"After I watched the tape, he impressed me that he was still here," Cutcliffe said last week. "Good God, he'd been hit so much."

Where Lewis is from in Opa-Locka, Fla., you don't cut and run when hit. You stay at Duke and fight out of a losing tradition.

"The easy way out would have been transferring," said Lewis, who enters his final college game Saturday against Wake Forest at Wallace Wade Stadium.

No one would have blamed Lewis for leaving. But he never contemplated it, though the 11 consecutive losses as a freshman pushed him to the brink.

"I broke down crying one time," he said, "because I'm a competitor."

Scheduled to graduate in two weeks, Lewis walks away from Durham as one of Duke's all-time best quarterbacks - at least statistically - no matter that his record is 10-37 during his four seasons.

The inexperienced kid who became a starter in the second game of his career has grown into a canny, record-breaking veteran pocket passer. The prolific young passer who excelled even as his team struggled is getting ready to leave just as his team makes strides toward becoming a winner.

Although there will be no bowl game for Duke this season, Lewis, who turned 22 last week, can lead the Devils to their sixth win of the season and what would be the most victories since 1994. For the past two weeks, he has been hobbled by a deep thigh strain and limited in practice, but he has insisted on playing through the pain.

"When you love to do something, it's going to take for them to cut something off to stop me," he said.

Numbers don't lie

The evidence of Lewis' competitive spirit lies in the numbers he has produced at Duke, despite frustrating losses. He has passed for 9,678 yards, enough for third place in ACC history for career yards behind N.C. State's Philip Rivers (13,484) and Florida State's Chris Weinke (9,839).

Last week against Miami, Lewis became Duke's all-time career passing leader, and he owns the records for most attempts (1,462), completions (849), total offense (9,599) and touchdowns (64).

He is the first quarterback at Duke and one of only three in the ACC to have thrown for more than 2,000 yards in four straight seasons.

"Most quarterbacks are judged by the number of wins that they have," Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said. "In Thad's case, I think not only is he one of the best quarterbacks in the ACC but one of the best quarterbacks in the country."

Those who might have predicted such an outstanding passing career need to sell their services on eBay. Lewis was ranked 60th nationally among quarterbacks by several high school scouts, but no one expected a Duke quarterback to flourish in the manner that he has.

Former Duke coach Ted Roof recruited Lewis from Hialeah Miami Lakes High in South Florida. He showed raw talent.

"He could make all the throws," Roof said. "He had the touch to drop it in there. At the same time, he had the strength to throw it through a window and get it there quick."

Roof noted Lewis' leadership qualities and ability "to get it done." He trusted him as a true freshman to play in place of starter Zack Asack, who was dismissed from school for academic reasons before the start of the 2006 season.

Marcus Jones started at quarterback in the first game of that season against Richmond before Lewis relieved him. Lewis completed 15 of 24 passes for 148 yards and never relinquished the position, even after Asack was reinstated.

Lewis excelled despite the pressure, setting a freshman school record for passing in a season with 2,134 yards and 11 touchdowns. It was easy to see that football fit him.

"He loves to grind," Roof said. "What people think are the mundane tasks of playing football: He loves the film room. He loves the meetings. He loves all of that."

And he loves challenges.

This past summer he was invited to Peyton and Eli Manning's football camp, where he participated in a competition with the NFL quarterbacks and other stellar college passers.

Lewis stood in line behind Eli Manning for much of the competition.

"In the back of my mind, I was like, 'I'm not going to let Eli outthrow me,' " he said. "I'm going to complete every pass."

Playing tough

It was much the same for a 9-year-old Lewis who often visited his brother, Nakia Lambright, at football practice at Tuskegee University.

"He used to say, 'I'm going to be better than you,' " said Lambright, who is nine years older than Lewis. "It's just his drive. He watched me, but he always wanted to be better. He always wanted to work harder."

Lambright discovered Lewis' talent as a 5-year-old as they tossed a baseball. Everywhere he moved his glove, little brother hit the target.

It was up to older brother to toughen the crybaby of the family. He taught Lewis to fight, a survival skill both needed in their neighborhood where words often turned to fisticuffs.

Across the street from his house, Lewis played football and basketball at Sherbondy Park. Tall for his age, he would run and fall amid the palm trees. He always jumped back up.

It's a resilience Cutcliffe noticed about Lewis early on.

"I knew he was tough because he never took his eyes off the defense," said Cutcliffe, who in studying quarterbacks looks for signs of retreat under duress. "It's really hard. You can work with them, drill them, but it's an innate toughness."

Life after Duke

A sturdy player on the field, there's a sensitive side to Lewis that comes from his mother Renee Jackson. She taught him it was all right to cry when hurt.

She helped him make the decision to come to Duke, not necessarily by nudging but by posing one question: What do you do after football?

"He's never regretted his decision to go to Duke," said Jackson, who simply weighed the advantages of a Duke education. Her eldest son, Nakia, had graduated college, and she wanted the same for Lewis.

Lewis, a sociology major, wanted the same for himself, understanding that Duke offered an opportunity few in his community had. He doesn't paint a hopeless picture of Opa-Locka, yet the trappings of drugs, violence and prison were commonplace.

"You see everything," he said. "But it's how your parents brought you up to help you stray away from that."

He will take a shot at the NFL, but he wants a career in social work that helps young people - particularly African-American boys - achieve their goals. Some thought he'd never graduate, yet he has done it in 31/2 years, he said.

"Show them how to grow up like a gentleman," Lewis said. "They are influenced by the streets so much. Just let them know you don't have to be soft. You're from the 'hood, but you have to have some sense and be respectful. If I can do it, you can."

robinson@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4781

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