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The Life


December 10, 2002
Blew Bayou
ESPN The Magazine

The keys to Michael Lewis' dream home have been sitting there, just out of reach, for the past 3 1/2 hours. They're perched on top of a giant wood conference table and guarded by the meaty hands of a Louisiana state trooper. That's right, the seller just happens to be a cop and, well, he's not handing his home over until everything is just right. At this rate that may be sometime next June. The realtor was late. The printer jammed. There are termite reports to review, several pages regarding "truth in lending" that need to be notarized and a small mountain of paperwork that is still missing Lewis' signature. Earlier in the day, Lewis retrieved a voice mail from the phone in his red Escalade instructing him to come straight to the closing after the Saints' practice ended at 4:30 p.m. It is now well past 8.

Finally, the closing attorney hurries in, apologizes for the delays and hands Lewis a pen. Lewis leans over the deed of sale, takes a deep breath and signs his life away to the bank for 140 big ones, forcing himself to break the habit, just this once, of adding No.84 next to his autograph. But the page remains blank. He shakes the pen. Nothing. Click-click. Nothing. He pounds it on the table. Nothing.

"Ya'll are killing me now, baby," he laughs.

The trooper intervenes, offering his own pen.

"This is your dream house, right, Mike?" he asks. "Well, dreams are a lot of hard work, big guy."

No one knows that better than Lewis. In less than two years, the 5'8", 165-pound bayou waterbug has gone from driving a beer truck, schlepping kegs for a Budweiser distributorship two doors down from the Saints practice facility, to leading the NFL with 1,950 total return yards (1,504 kickoff, 446 punt). At the NFL-ancient age of 29, with just a year of JV high school football and no college experience, Lewis began his journey through the darkest recesses of professional football like some kind of Dante character in shoulder pads. Now he's 31, and fans have made him the leading vote-getter among kick returners in this season's Pro Bowl balloting.

So he's not buying a dream house as much as he's getting a home built on dreams. "Mike's tale is a hero's tale," says a Saints teammate, RB Fred McAfee. "He gives the rest of us hope. Not just the average-Joe fan, but the players, too. So many of us let our dreams die. He's that one guy who just refused."

Just don't call him the Beer Man around Saints coach Jim Haslett. In Week 6 Lewis became the seventh player in NFL history, and the first in 25 years, to return a kick and a punt for touchdowns in the same game. In the 43-27 win over the Redskins, Lewis rocketed a kickoff return 90 yards for a TD, returned a punt all the way from his own 17 and added two catches for 70 yards to finish with 356 all-purpose yards. That's when Haslett put the Beer Man gimmick to rest. No more pictures or TV interviews in front of your old truck. You're a professional now, he told Lewis, not a sideshow. †

The coach wanted Lewis to understand that, sometimes, the real work begins after your dreams come true. "At first I think people took Mike as a joke, a mascot. You know, the Beer Man and nothing else," says Saints player development director Ricky Porter. "Now they see he can play and win games and go to the Pro Bowl. This isn't a Rudy story. Don't call him Rudy. Rudy couldn't play. Mike has All-Pro talent."

Before finding a home in the NFL, Lewis lived in Kenner, a hardscrabble neighborhood just a few deep patterns from the Saints practice facility. Here, at his grandparents' white clapboard home -- nicknamed the White House -- Lewis learned of his family's gift of blazing speed by wandering out to the garage and listening in as the old-timers sipped beer, tinkered with their cars and told tales. Mostly, they spoke about his father, Michael Lewis Sr., a standout wide receiver at Bonnabel High in the early 1970s, who gave up his dreams of playing college ball when as a 16-year-old he fathered Michael. As a teenager, Lewis could sense his father's football frustration and he would always turn around, after rushing out of the house to football practice, and promise, "Daddy, I'm gonna go to the NFL!"

"And now that boy has made it -- for both of us -- and I love him for it," says Mike Sr., 47, who works in medical waste management at a New Orleans hospital. "This has been a dream come true for me, too. I watch that boy run, I see his moves, I know where he got 'em and I think, 'That's me playing ball out there.'"

The younger Lewis used to pull into work each afternoon at Budweiser in his 1989 champagne-colored Buick Regal. Sitting in the front seat, he'd watch footballs from the Saints fields shoot through the sky like birds taking off. He felt haunted by his giving up in high school, by his father giving up his dreams for his son. In the fall of 1998, on his way to a delivery in Baton Rouge, Lewis heard a commercial for the Bayou Beasts of the now-defunct Indoor Professional Football League. "I looked at myself driving that truck and I listened to people who knew my dad, and I thought, 'We've been blessed with all this talent in our family and have nothing to show for it,'" says Lewis, who wears his father's high school jersey number as a tribute. "My dad never took that chance to see what he could do. I know he regrets it. I didn't want to do the same thing, to live a life of what-if?"

Lewis scored an IPFL-record 23 TDs in 24 games with the Beasts, and jumped to the New Jersey Red Dogs of the Arena League in 1999. In the crowded confines of indoor football, where the game can feel as if it's being played inside a double-wide trailer, Lewis' flashbulb speed distorted normal pursuit angles. Tacklers would head to where they expected him to be and end up with the football equivalent of an air kiss. After a slow start, he busted out in a midseason game against Tampa, hooking up with current Pittsburgh Steelers QB Tommy Maddox for 275 yards and 3 TDs.

It happened that Saints owner Tom Benson was considering purchasing an AFL team and had sent Randy Mueller, his GM at the time, to scout that game in Tampa. Lewis stunned Mueller with his reckless play. That was what Mueller -- who'd already brought to the Saints misfits and junkyard-dog types like Aaron Brooks (unwanted by the Packers) and Joe Horn (a former sofa-factory worker) -- looked for in his players.

In the winter of 2000, when Lewis was back at Budweiser, Mueller had him come in for a workout. "This is a one-in-a-million type deal," says Rick Mueller, Randy's brother and the Saints director of player personnel. "And without exaggerating, Mike is the one."

Rick Mueller gets thousands of appeals -- no, pleas -- each season from street free agents like Lewis, and follows up on almost every prospect for one simple reason: Despite the millions of dollars and thousands of man hours spent by pro football each year to evaluate talent, it will never be an exact science. Prospective MVPs like Kurt Warner will continue to fall through the cracks.

It was a rainy, miserable day and the turf was soupy and slippery when Lewis lined up to run the 40 for a handful of Saints scouts who, on a lark, wanted to check out the Bud Man. Haslett was up in his office when he noticed the scouts and Lewis out on the field, thought nothing of it and went back to work. Lewis took off. Even out of the corner of his eye Haslett saw that he was running so fast he didn't seem to get hit by a single raindrop. The coach rushed to the window, his hands palm-up against the cold glass, to catch the end of the run. Was that a rain rooster tail forming behind him like he was a hydroplane, Haslett wondered? "I saw him flash and I thought, 'Só, that looks fast,'" says Haslett. "He was just a little guy, but he could flat fly." Haz beelined for the field, skipping steps on the stairs as he went.

"What'd he run?" Haslett asked.

4.19.

"Run him again," Haslett demanded.

Whoosh.

4.22.†

"Sign him."

The Saints shipped Lewis off to play with the Rhein Fire in NFL Europe because, as Haslett put it, "Nobody we had could catch Mike and Mike couldn't catch a thing." But Lewis had 20 receptions for 262 yards in 10 games with the Fire, had a great training camp with the Saints, made the 2001 team and -- four weeks into the season -- was leading the NFL in kick returns with 32.3 yards per return.

One day in September, he walked through the locker room to his stall and saw an envelope that contained his first pro paycheck, which was for a little more than $20,000. Lewis, who had never earned more than $25,000 in a year, called his agent in a hushed panic, worried that this was some kind of clerical error.

Now came the hard part. Everyone yada-yadas about keeping your dreams alive, but no one has a clue what to say or do when they actually come true. After Lewis had two fumbles against Carolina in Week 6, Haz walked into a coaches' meeting and hissed, "That's it, I'm cutting his ass. I want him gone -- today."

What ensued, according to coaches in the room, was a knock-down, drag-out argument between Haslett and Porter. Before it escalated into a physical confrontation, Haslett reluctantly agreed to put Lewis on the practice squad. At the same time he made it clear that Porter's future with the Saints was now linked with Lewis'.

Says Porter, "I called Mike and said, 'Listen I just basically put my job on the line for you. If you drop one more kick you're going back to Budweiser.' And Mike says to me, without hesitation, 'Ricky, I'm not going back to that place unless it's to buy the company.'"

Over the next nine months Porter and special teams coach Al Everest put Lewis through the equivalent of a four-year catching college. At first, they were dumbfounded by his utter lack of technique until they realized that, despite how far Lewis had come, no one had ever bothered to offer him anything in the way of formal football training. Lewis didn't know to keep his elbows pinched to his ribs or to stagger his arms -- with one higher than the other -- when making a catch. That's stuff they teach you on the first day of Pop Warner. "He was like a 29-year-old freshman when we got him," says Everest. "It was like taking a person from a small village in China and trying to teach him how to catch a football."

Every day the Jugs machine would start at 8 a.m. sharp, spitting out hundreds of simulated punts and kicks. Porter made Lewis catch 100 balls in a row with one hand, 200 with his back to the ball until he turned at the last second -- and 100 more with a football tucked under each arm.

Still, it didn't click for Lewis until one day just before the Saints' 2002 camp, when Porter switched off the Jugs machine, walked to where Lewis was standing and asked if he had any kids. "Well, yeah," said Lewis. "I have an 11-year-old daughter, Keneisha. She's my backbone, she's my life, Ricky." Porter bounced up, excited. "Okay Mike, how about this? Catch the ball like someone just dropped your girl out of a third-story window. You can't just catch her. You gotta save her."

Lewis has fumbled only once since, and he now ranks in the top five in the NFL in both kickoff- and punt-return average. He's also got seven catches for 192 yards (27.4 ypc) and, as the gunner in the Saints' coverage units, nine special-teams tackles. In a crucial 23-20 win over the Bucs in Week 13, Lewis set up the Saints' two second-half TDs with a 41-yard kick return and a 56-yard punt return.

"Lots of people dream through me now," says Lewis. "They see their dreams not dying because I'm living mine. That is the most I can do, and it makes me feel invincible out there, playing for the little guys, the nobodies of the world."

Lewis is speaking from atop a brand-new end table, and his voice echoes throughout his new, but still empty, house. He'll live alone, but Keneisha will visit often. Playing like he's on MTV Cribs, Lewis gives a tour of the three-bedroom, redbrick, lakefront ranch. And he stops near the kitchen to point out his favorite detail: an open beam with crown molding that extends from above the fridge to the back door. This is where he intends to display his football trophies and trinkets from his long, strange trip, including helmets from the Beasts, Red Dogs and Saints, dual-framed photos of himself and his father in their No. 84 jerseys and a collection of game balls that grows every week.

Lewis stands below the beam and eyeballs the space needed for all his trophies, making sure his planned layout leaves enough room at the end for perhaps an item or two from Honolulu. When he's done laying it all out in his mind, the collection extends halfway to the lake out back.

He moves in tomorrow, and already Michael Lewis needs a bigger dream house.

This article appears in the December 23 issue of ESPN The Magazine.



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