On Wednesday, December 12, three-time world champion San Jose SaberCats of the Arena Football League called to inform Nate Lewis—who had just piled on more AAA records to his growing legend during the Catalina Kickoff Classic—that he would be worked out for a week by the coaches and staff on January 13 as the team searches for a new cornerstone.
At the December 8 game, 6'5", 235-pound SoCal Coyote quarterback Nate Lewis threw for three first-quarter touchdowns, added another in the second and finished the first half 17 for 21 (.810 percent) for 331 yards and an astronomical QB rating of 127.0. Two other drops would have put him over 400 yards, but hey, who's counting?
The final result was a 56-8 annihilation of a stocked Division I-talent team that called itself the "Elite," but on this night, Lewis taught them the meaning of the word. He was also benched for the first time as a Coyote, when head coach J. David Miller mercifully sat him down at half time.
It was hard to believe this was the same quarterback who considered quitting football just a year ago and had once asked Coach Miller if he had "a legitimate chance to go to the next level if I give this game everything I have."
Miller, a veteran of Arena Football wars, assured him yes.
"If you don't believe in yourself," Miller told him, "the vote's unanimous. Trust yourself, trust your teammates, trust the system. When we're finished, you're going to get your shot. All you can ask for in life is a legitimate shot."
And that shot came.
Will Lewis Make the SaberCats?
That was the $64,000 question that immediately rumbled through Coyote nation.
The optimists predicted Lewis's arm, maturity and mastery of the offense would impress the veteran San Jose coaching staff. Behind Lewis, the Coyotes rolled up 5,212 yards in total offense last season, and Lewis was named National Player of the Year.
The SaberCats have asked starting quarterback and future Hall-of-Famer Aaron Garcia to groom the next cornerstone of the franchise that the team selects, whomever he might be.
Lewis's teammates were ecstatic, especially All-American wide receiver Rashad Roberts, who was asked by the SaberCats to accompany Lewis. Backup Coyote quarterback Travis Russell—himself only a few years removed from being one of the nation's most highly recruited college quarterback—suddenly had the look of a high school senior who might get to drive the family car, for real, for the first time.
But make no mistake: Good, bad or indifferent, all eyes were on Lewis, who scouts compared to a young Kurt Warner in size, strength and ability. Coaches around the nation called to congratulate Lewis and the Coyotes, regardless of the outcome.
"This is a great day for football and why every kid should never give up on his dream," said one coach in a text. "Whether he makes it or not isn't the issue. He earned the right to be there."
"We hope Nate makes the Sabercats," texted an Arizona opponent. "Let the Arena League figure out how to stop him, because we damn sure couldn't."
It was a heady day for the 26-year-old Lewis, a minor-league football emigrant who now made the scouts who overlooked him years ago embarrassed, set new AAA records for attempts and completions every time he took a snap and in his last six quarters of work was averaging a touchdown about every 5 attempts.
How did the best AAA quarterback celebrate? He mowed grass and directed employees at his landscaping business.
"I'm speechless," he said when he heard the news by phone and got the email from San Jose. "I've trained my whole life for this. But can I call you back? I've got to finish this job for a client, and I gave them my word that it would be done today."
Favoritism on Miller's Part?
On Saturday, Lewis had 177 yards and three touchdowns—in the first quarter. His final stats were surreal, namely because he didn't appear to be sweating in the 48-degree ocean air. There's no way to quantify Lewis's commanding pocket presence, his ability to release the ball just before the rush arrived or the amazing array of passes he threw with chilling accuracy.
Somehow Lewis became a player so lightly regarded out of Fairmont State that pro scouts ignored his MVP status from the College of the Desert and state-championship prowess from Cathedral City High School. But after being resurrected by Miller, Mouse Davis and the entire Run 'n' Shoot family, he is playing like a natural-born thriller.
"He's in a zone," says Miller. "I've never been around any quarterback that is this hot, and that includes 'Sugar' Shane Stafford when he lit up the Tampa Bay Storm (AFL)."
Miller has been criticized publicly for his promotion of Lewis, and the coach doesn't flinch under scrutiny. It has come from former players and opponents alike, who protested the Coyotes' "classless" wide-open aerial assault and Miller's "favoritism" of his signal-caller.
Miller had this to say:
Oklahoma ran the wishbone for 12 years and won multiple national titles, but when they got Marcus Dupree, Barry Switzer went to the I-formation. When Don Shula drafted Dan Marino, the Dolphins went four-wide and Marino became the face of the franchise. We are the Run 'n' Shoot. We aren't changing our offense because we have the best quarterback in football and we're winning 50-0 and you can't stop us.
That's your job. And yes, I show him favoritism. He works so hard it would be shameful not to. What are we doing wrong? Take Nate away from us last season, and we're a great defensive team that can't score points on offense. His arm and proclivity in the passing game, even the threat of it, makes everything work, including our running game.
Such proclamations might serve as a red flag for even the mildest of cynics, but once you meet Lewis and hear his story, it's awfully tough to question Miller's faith. He is as grounded and solid as a redwood, and it's certainly no accident that he has emerged as the anti-Ryan Leaf, a quiet leader who exudes maturity, was handed nothing and is grateful to even earn a shot to make an AFL roster.
Sheer hope guided Lewis along his unlikely path to AAA football prominence, from his time as a two-year starter and MVP at College of the Desert to earning a full scholarship at Division II Fairmont State, before a broken collarbone put him on the bench.
Yet he clung to his dream of playing football, even when it seemed he didn't have a prayer—but the doors just didn't seem to open. He toiled in the minor leagues, including a season in which he played safety just to get on the field, and in one game as a backup quarterback completed only four of 12 passes for 41 yards. Other minor league 'coaches' (many of whom had never coached) thought his size might actually make him a good defensive end.
Lewis admits there were times when he lost his grip on his confidence. He built up his own business and was on the verge of putting the game behind him for good. Until his wife encouraged him to give his first love one more shot.
Enter Miller, Mouse, June Jones and about a combined 100 years of Run 'n' Shoot experience.Lewis said about them:
I don't know where these guys came from, but thank God they did. They all told me they believed in me, and that restored my belief in myself. They never asked me to do things I couldn't do. They took what I could do, built around it, and exploited every single skill and asset I brought to the table.
What he brought to the table was plenty. "Which is uncanny leadership, a cannon arm, intelligence, and what all the great ones have," says Miller. "An unbelievable, unexplainable desire to win, and the ability to put the dagger in you, in ways you didn't think were possible."
Many highly drafted or scouted quarterbacks typically don't shine quickly, but Lewis's minor-league seasoning might allow him to burst onto the scene like an old pro.
"His accuracy is frightening, and he shows poise, toughness and an aptitude for reading defenses in a hurry," says Nick LaPointe, who coached last year at a nearby college and joined other coaches and scouts on the sidelines to witness Lewis and the Coyotes first-hand. "You have to see it to believe it. The Coyotes wide-open style has helped Nate perfect the art of making quick, decisive throws."
"A lot of young quarterbacks struggle to adjust to the speed of the game," says Mouse Davis. "That's something you can't glean from watching them practice. This kid slows the game down a little bit, and part of that's because of running our deal. It's not uncommon for us to throw the ball 300 times in a single practice, and we will keep throwing until we get it right."
Nate's speed is unexceptional, but his arm strength is impressive, and the touch on his passes is as soft as fleece. He can make all the throws, as he proved with his touchdown passes against the Elite: a hard, 15-yard arrow to slot Mondo Delgado after freezing the safeties with a pump fake; a willowy, 46-yard fade to Josh Asuncion in the back right corner of the end zone; a crisp 18-yard curl to Rashad Roberts that the receiver caught in stride and turned into a 53-yard score; an airtight, 67-yard strike to a well-covered Roberts along the left sideline.
The defense threw a variety of blitzes at Lewis, but he never flinched—which wasn't surprising to his teammates.
"We make a a conscious effort to pressure and confuse Nate every practice, but none of it fazes him," says assistant head coach Wayne Anderson Jr.
The more you watch Lewis interact with his family—and reaffirm his faith—the less stunning his phenomenal ascent seems. He appears to be sincere, unabashed and unspoiled.
"Nate's the most grounded person you'll ever meet," says Coyotes S-back David "The Diesel" Cathcart. Even though Lewis is off the charts right now, "there's no way he'll let this go to his head, regardless. He's Nate Lewis, week in, week out."
When Coach Miller got off the phone with San Jose, he called his former pastor in Florida who has become a rabid Coyotes fan and broke the news.
"Lord, we ask sharpness and clarity for Nate Lewis," the minister prayed. "He is still a Coyote, and he still has games to win in the desert before he goes. Let him stay humble and focused, yet be bold and perform beyond the realm of the skills you've blessed him with."
Then Miller scrambled to replace Lewis's NFL practice footballs with Arena game balls for Saturday's 7 a.m. practice at Freedom Park, where the quarterback's time as a Coyote might be dwindling.
"Go in there, work your ass off, make all of your throws, listen more than you talk, lead with your actions, and the other guys will accept you," Miller advised Lewis. "There are only two kinds of quarterbacks in the world: One gets better when he gets his shot, and one gets worse."
"Coach, I'm blessed to have this opportunity, even if it's for a single day," Lewis replied. "But this is only the beginning. We have to climb the mountain. I know I can play at this level."
Already, Miller was preaching to the choir.
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