EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Jai Lewis played a major role in George Mason basketball's improbable run during the NCAA basketball
tournament this spring.
For his next trick, he'll try to make it in the NFL after not
playing organized football for five years.
Lewis, a forward on the George Mason hoops team that stunned
Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut on its way to the
Final Four, agreed to a rookie free-agent contract with the New York Giants on Monday.
"I'm very excited that somebody's taking a chance on me and
giving me the opportunity to go out there and show what I can do,"
Lewis said by phone. He said the Giants project him at tight end, a
position he played in high school, or offensive tackle, a position
he has never played.
The St. Louis Rams made a similar move Monday, signing
Connecticut basketball player Ed Nelson to a free-agent contract.
Nelson, a 6-foot-8, 265-pound power forward, also has not played
football since high school.
Lewis, 23, is listed on George Mason's roster at 6-foot-7 and
275 pounds but said he actually weighs 290. He has not played
football since high school in Aberdeen, Md., though he was
recruited by schools such as Virginia Tech and North Carolina.
At George Mason, he averaged 13.7 points and 7.8 rebounds last
season and helped the Patriots reach the Final Four, where they
lost 73-58 to Florida. Lewis scored 20 points in George Mason's
86-84 upset of Connecticut in the regional final.
Being in the Final Four "definitely helped" raise his
visibility for NFL coaches, Lewis said. The Giants already knew
about him, according to general manager Ernie Accorsi, and sent a
scout to a workout Lewis held earlier this month. They were
impressed with his footwork and overall athletic ability and
envisioned him as a tight end if he loses some weight, or an
offensive tackle if he continues to grow.
"He's a project. It's not going to happen overnight," Accorsi
said. "Basketball teams are filled with great athletes. The
question is, does he have the fortitude to play this sport, where
you're getting hit in the mouth every play? It's going to depend on
how hard he wants it and how hard he works."
If Lewis makes the Giants' roster, he will follow a similar path
as that of Antonio Gates, the San Diego Chargers tight end who
played basketball but not football in college at Kent State. Gates
led all NFL tight ends last season with 89 catches and has been to
two Pro Bowls.
"He did open the door a little bit," said Lewis. "A lot of
power forwards are the right size to play in the NFL. But it's not
going to be an easy task. It's a battle I'm going to have to fight
for if I want to play in the this league."