Even though almost no one in the sellout crowd of 67,044 at the Edward Jones Dome for the St. Louis Rams opener took notice Sunday, the eyes of the Duke football community were looking down proudly. There, roaming the sidelines, was former Blue Devil quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, clutching a clipboard as the understudy to No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford.
Lewis’ presence as a third-string quarterback is undoubtedly impressive, especially if you know the journey he’s made to get there.
Growing up in a tough neighborhood in Miami-Dade county, Lewis was a successful quarterback at Hialeah Lakes High School, leading his team deep in the state playoffs his senior year. But even as Scout.com’s 65th ranked quarterback in the nation, he received only a handful of offers and was not a prospect who scouts thought was destined to play at the professional level.
With his arrival in Durham, things would not immediately get easier. Initially, Lewis was the third-string quarterback, playing behind both Zack Asack and Marcus Jones. However, Asack would be dismissed from the team following a university suspension, and Lewis beat out Jones for the starting spot.
Being thrust under center as a true freshman was no easy transition, and while Lewis showed some flashes of potential, he finished the season with 11 touchdown tosses compared to 16 interceptions. However, his quick move up the depth chart is a reminder that he’ll never know when his number may be called.
“A lot of people forget that I was the third-stringer at the start of my freshman season at Duke,” Lewis said. “Football is an unpredictable game, so you have to be prepared. You never know when you’ll need to be ready.”
Fast forward to his junior season at Duke, one that was marked by the arrival of head coach and renowned quarterback mentor David Cutcliffe. Lewis, whose dream since childhood was to be a professional football player, impressed Cutcliffe enough that the coach began talking the quarterback up to some of his NFL colleagues in 2008.
“Thaddeus does a tremendous job of keeping his eyes downfield and reading coverages,” Cutcliffe said. “I told my boys [in the NFL] that he had a real chance even though he’s not very tall.”
Despite his head coach’s recommendation and a record-setting senior season in which he became Duke’s all-time leading passer and a member of the 10,000-yard passing club, Lewis wasn’t among the 255 players taken in the NFL Draft in April.
Fortunately, one of those coaches whom Cutcliffe has a relationship with was former Mississippi State head coach Sylvester Croom, whom Cutcliffe knew from his Alabama days. Croom, now the running backs coach for the Rams, was intrigued by Lewis and recommended bringing the undrafted free agent into camp, which would be the only offer Lewis would receive.
The quarterback was a long shot to make the final roster. Knowing he had a limited time to impress his coaches, Lewis took care of business both on and off the field. In the preseason, he completed 22 of 28 passes for 255 yards and two touchdowns. Off the field, he was someone coaches described as humble and hungry. If someone was needed to catch punts or kickoffs during drills, the Miami native was there to do it.
“I totally needed to prove myself,” Lewis said. “They gave me a chance. I had to make the most of the opportunity. I had to go out on the field and execute.”
When it was time to make final roster cuts, Lewis fell in behind Bradford and 10-year veteran A.J. Feeley. And no one could be prouder or happier than Cutcliffe.
“He is such a special young man,” Cutcliffe said. “It may be the most satisfying thing that’s happened to me personally [in football]. I love seeing good things happen to good people.”
Although it is unlikely that Lewis will see much game action this year, he does play the important role of impersonator of the opponent’s quarterback on the scout team. The fact that he had to learn three different offenses at Duke benefits him greatly in this capacity as he shuffles between playbooks on a weekly basis.
While Lewis did acknowledge that his competitive nature makes it frustrating knowing that he is unlikely to play, he is encouraged by the other opportunities that he has to help his team. And even if his football career isn’t lengthy, those who know him best suggest that he will enjoy a very successful future.
“He may be the best crossover leader I have been around,” Cutcliffe said. “Not only does everyone respect Thad, but they love him. Whatever he chooses to do after football, he will do it well. Folks should be lining up now to hire him.”
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