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The Life


December 10, 2002
No place like home
ESPN The Magazine

Driving in his red Escalade, with two phones and a pager resting in his lap, Saints kick returner Michael Lewis snaps his blinker on and starts us on a trip between the real world and his dream world -- and who knew what a short trek it would be.

Michael Lewis
Michael Lewis didn't have to stray far from home to find his dream.
The night before I sat with Lewis for three and a half (stinkin') hours, as attorneys and realtors and bank folks and even a cop (he was the seller) worked to help close the kick returner's new home: a modest red-brick ranch sitting on a manmade lake outside New Orleans. But before checking out where Lewis is headed, first we must set out to see where he came from: the timeworn but proud neighborhood of Kenner, which is only a few deep patterns away from the Saints' practice facility.

Because of my job, I have been in public shadowing quite a few NFL players. After he won the MVP award in Super Bowl XXXI, I rode in the limo to the Packers' team hotel with Desmond Howard. I have chilled in the desert with Donovan McNabb. Watched Soul Train at home with Torry Holt. Sat at a bar in Cincy with Takeo Spikes, hit the car wash with Priest Holmes and nodded to Eminem in the Bears' lunchroom with Brian Urlacher.

30 Second Column
Thirty secs from Saints defensive coordinator Rick Venturi on the thought of facing Michael Vick.

"When you work against a great runner you know he'll touch the ball 12-25 times. When you work against a great wide receiver you know he's gonna touch the ball 6-12 times a game. But in Mike's case you're dealing with a guy who touches it every single down. The great running quarterbacks, guys like John Elway and Randall Cunningham and Donovan McNabb -- I think of them as more like tremendous movement guys: they would move with the ball either to throw it or to make a first down. Mike moves with it to score. You have to stay aggressive and stay within your rhythm and tell your guys that no play is ever finished. If you are not careful your defense can become cautious and guys tend to get mesmerized by him."

The Flemister File
Wherein we follow the exploits of FlemFile mascot and Washington TE Zeron Flemister:

Caught up with ZFlem Tuesday morning on his way to a DC-area mall for some Christmas shopping. Like the rest of us, one thing ZFlem hates more than double teams and chop blocks is the mall this time of year.

"I always start strong but finish weak at the mall," he says. "I usually hit two stores and then I'm ready to go home. I have every intention of buying a bunch of stuff then I go to a store and they don't have the right size or it's the wrong color and pretty soon I'm exhausted." A-men. Is it, as I've always told my wife, more exhausting than football? "Oh yeah it is," says ZFlem who hit the stores anyway to purchase gifts for the two kids he agreed to "adopt" as a part of teammate Darrell Green's foundation. Besides, with the Redskins out of the playoff picture what else is there to do (other than make travel plans to watch your beloved Iowa Hawkeyes in Miami)?

"These next few weeks we're gonna find out who really loves this game and who doesn't," says ZFlem. "It's cold here, we don't have a lot to play for and things are tough because we've been so close the last three years." Still beats the mall though. By a mile.

The Flem Five
Top Five Christmas Cartoons:

5. A Charlie Brown Christmas It's not the holiday season until I hear Linus on stage giving his Christmas soliloquy.

4. How the Grinch Stole Christmas Remember Grinch's little dog pulling the sled?

3. The Year without Santa Claus Oscar worthy performance by the Heat Miser.

2. Christmas in South Park Mr. Hankey the Christmas poo stinks up the screen.

1. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Two words: Yukon Cornelius.

WHYLO of the Week
Almost a 1,000 emails came in from last week's column on Tommy Maddox. Many folks wrote in to remind me that wild turkeys do indeed fly and to remark about a sports column that included references to both e.e. Cummings and the Muppets' Animal. Still others wanted to poke fun of me for admitting I listen to the Indigo Girls. Uh, whatever. Jeff Lindemann writes, "I am a huge fan of your column, but alas, I almost horked my Diet Dr. Pepper out of my nose when I read what music you were listening to when you wrote this column. The Indigo Girls? Would you like some Birkenstocks with that Mr. Fleming?"

There were also many very thoughtful responses to my thoughts on Maddox. Spring Barnickle writes, "Just a note to let you know that I thought your article "Why, Tommy?" was one of your best -- eloquent, thoughtful, and right on target. I hadn't thought about the subject, and you made me wonder why not. I love football, but your article certainly gave me pause about the things players endure and why."

And, of course, many more emails displayed the exact kind of warped priorities the piece was trying to expose. Todd Seversons writes, "With attitudes like yours, we'd probably be negotiating Al Qaeda not to hurt us anymore." Harvey Gross writes, "I say you are a coward and should spend your time covering bake sales at the local churches and get off the sports beat. You are too faint of heart to be writing about a man's sport." Josh Lambert says it was one of the most "amatuer" and "rediculous" things he has ever read. Ryan Jackson writes, "You're the Larry King of ESPN The Magazine. That's not a compliment." Ken Sohaski writes, "F-ck you, Your column is as bad as John Madden on crack! B. (sic) Farve has more manhood in ONE of his testicle hairs than you will have in a lifetime of muckraking/tabloid writing."

And finally there's Jon Marshall's all-time classic. "Oh my god, What a stinking piece of sh-t that article was. (Maddox) made it all up. Period. He was NOT paralyzed. Don't fall for that crap. He got scared. He didn't even get hit, they keep showing that replay and I keep waiting for contact. He's a (wimp). He went into shock. End of story. Wow, he was so injured that he miraculously walked that night. And the best part is, you fell for it. Could you be any more stupid? I don't know what's worse, your writing, or people thinking Maddox is the answer."

I can think of only one thing worse:

Jon, Who Helped You Log On?

Flem Gems
An awestruck congrats to my wife, Kim Fleming, who finished the Raleigh Marathon in 5:09.00 with a big purple smile on her face from drinking grape Gatorade for 26.2 miles. Atlanta Thought Number One: Amazing observation on Michael Vick from CB Ray Buchanan. His running ability has to be a gift because Vick never practices what he does in games. "He never even crosses the line of scrimmage with the ball during the week," says Buchanan. ATN2: Dan Reeves was sporting a nasty shiner that he got when an excited Wade Phillips threw up his arms at the end of the Vikes game and hit his boss right in the face. Talked to Reeves about quarterbacks who are in the zone. When we finished I wondered out loud when I'd hit my writing zone. "Yeah, I'm still waiting for my golf zone to kick in too," he said. After abandoning Alabama and the kids he talked into sticking around for a 10-3 season despite the team's probation, I hope the first time Dennis Franchione tries to talk about loyalty, honor and teamwork at Texas A&M his new players just bust a gut laughing.
I know running a marathon is painful but near the start/finish line in Raleigh a DJ was blasting Maniac at 6:30 a.m. Now that really hurts. ATN3: When the Ice Storm of the Century hit my home in North Carolina I was where any good father and husband should be: in my hotel's hot tub near the Falcons practice facility. I'm not sure what's been worse, the storm or the cheesy, overblown and under-reported local TV news coverage. Your Kardiac Kids in Cleveland are worse (better?) than you dad's. In Butch Davis' 29 games as a head coach 16 have been decided in the last two minutes. ATN4: You knew this wouldn't take long: The Blistex people have already called the Falcons about getting Vick to switch from his beloved Chapstick. This column was written while listening to Weezer.

But I have never seen fans react to a player the way folks in N'awlins have taken to Lewis -- the guy with no college experience who, in two years, has gone from schlepping kegs for a Bud distributor two doors down from the Saints to the doorstep of the Pro Bowl. (Heck, I admire this guy so much I've written about him three times in the last year.) "This is such a cool, dream-come-true story," says Saints director of player personnel Rick Mueller. "Everyone on this team and in this town is pulling for this kid."

I'll say.

Driving out of the Saints' facility -- beep beep -- it's Kyle Turley waving goodbye to Lewis. At the first light, Lewis peers to his right to stare at the red Budweiser sign in the distance, pausing to remember and shake his head about just how far he's come. Then Norman Hand glides by in a black Mercedes and nods hello to Lewis. "When he went through a tough patch last year and got put on the practice squad for a few games, I've never seen anything like the support he got," says Ricky Porter, the team's director of player development. "D-linemen, quarterbacks, linemen, coaches -- everyone told me, 'We gotta get Mike back on this team.' The NFL isn't always like that."

Explains Saints special teams coach Al Everest, "I've seen Mike driving a car with no air conditioning when it's 110 degrees out. So returning kicks for him, as dangerous as it is, is a no-lose situation. I mean, everyday he wakes up and thinks, 'I'm the luckiest guy in the world.' That's hard not to rub off on people."

Thirty seconds later, a guy on a bus at a red light peers into the truck and shouts, "Michael Lewis? Wassup man?" The bus driver says hello as well. Down the road, a guy in a white pickup truck rolls down his window to say thanks for giving his kid an autograph at a school event. Another driver in a Buick Regal honks at us and yells for Kendall (Lewis' nickname). "That's my uncle," he says, "and that's the car I used to drive." A mean looking dude in a black Cherokee hollers, Sup? at us. A blue Chevy packed with teenagers near the fields and rec center where Lewis used to run circles around everyone all wave hello. And a woman with three kids standing under a giant cyprus tree screams "congratulations Michael Lewis" as we motor by.

She doesn't mean congrats on the league-leading return yardage or the Pro Bowl consideration or even the two TDs he scored against the Redskins. She means congratulations on living out your dream for the rest of us. Ya know, just when you think the NFL has become nothing but a giant corporation with shoulder pads and snobs -- all cash and no class, all brawn and no heart, all stars and steroids and no stories -- along comes a guy like Lewis to breathe life back into the league's underdog spirit.

He played no college ball, and very little in high school. "I called his high school coach once," says Saints coach Jim Haslett. "And the guy told me, 'Look, Mike wasn't a very good football player when he was here.'" He worked at a Taco Bell, as a janitor, at a car dealership, in asphalt, at a hospital -- you name it, he did it. Meanwhile, to stay in shape he played flag football and some semi-pro for the Kenner City Chiefs. That is, until a woman brought a duffel bag full of guns into the huddle to help settle an on-field dispute. That was, uh, his last semi-pro game.

"When I started this trip everything just seemed to roll and fall into place for me," says Lewis, whose trek from the IPFL (Indoor Professional Football League) to the AFL (Arena League) to the NFLE (Europe) to the NFL, and now maybe to Hawaii, makes Ulysses seem like a pampered tourist. In the last two years Lewis has rolled the dice on this NFL dream 100 times and watched them come up Lucky 7 on every single roll. "Everyone I met along the way just seemed to fall in love with me. I think people relate to me because I've been on that side of the world -- for a long time."

And when he was there, he spent most of his time at his grandparents' house in the heart of Kenner. As we drive up Lewis tells me the place was nicknamed The White House, partly because of the paint but more so because it's the focal point in the community.

Out back there are a dozen or so men sipping beer and leaning over cars talking about the Saints and the Hornets and the weather. The president of the White House is Lewis' grandpa, Willie D. Lewis. When Lewis finally got a tryout with the Red Dogs of the Arena League, the team told him he had to find his own way up to New Jersey. The flight cost $242, which Lewis wouldn't have until pay day. He told his gramps, and the next day the money was on the kitchen table in an envelope with his name on it.

Sitting around that table now there are women folding laundry, watching TV and chasing kids around the kitchen. His grandma and sisters show me his game balls and all his press clippings pinned to the kitchen wall. Then they shout, "Hey Kendall, tell him about your days as a breakdancer!"

(I tell Lewis not to sweat it. "It will just be our little secret," I say. "Did you wear parachute pants?" He smiles. "Yeah dude," I say, "so did my little brother!")

Just like that, though, we are back in the car motoring along the river. The sun is setting behind Lewis, dancing through the trees. "I'm not a one-in-a-million dreamer," says Lewis, his eyes focused ahead. "I'm the one-in-a-million guy who never gave up on his dream."

There is still another house to see. In fact, we have to hurry to get there because the movers are bringing a new bedroom set tonight. Later, Lewis' agent will call to talk about Pro Bowl balloting. "We're taking this thing worldwide baby!" he says. "Mai tais for everyone."

This house is much bigger, much newer, much quieter than The White House. "No matter what happens," says Lewis, "no one can take this place away from me."

It's a great house, no doubt.

But knowing Lewis, that place just a little trip down the road will always be home.

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at FlemFile@carolina.rr.com. But watch out -- you could be the WHYLO of the Week.



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