Thad Lewis’ first pass as a high school freshman was a disaster.
The young quarterback from Opa-locka threw an interception, a nightmarish start to his ninth-grade football season. And it tore him up.
As Lewis returned the sidelines, he had tears in his eyes.
“He’s a such a perfectionist,” said Jerry Hughes, who coached Lewis at both Miami Booker T. Washington and Hialeah-Miami Lakes. “He doesn’t like making mistakes. Now look at him.”
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Look at him indeed. On Sunday, 11 years after and just a few miles away from that first errant throw, Lewis returns to his hometown as a starting quarterback in the NFL.
Lewis will be under center when the Bills face the Dolphins, the team he grew up watching.
“It’s awesome to be able to come back,” said Lewis, 25. “They always say the quarterback position is one that leads, so you just want to show everyone that you belong in this league.”
Dozens before him escaped Miami’s rough streets with incredible natural ability. Lewis did so by force of will and intellect.
Others were bigger. Plenty were stronger. But Lewis flourished because of that same inner drive that once brought him to tears.
“When we brought him in, you could see why people pulled for him, and why people want him to do well,” Bills coach Doug Marrone said.
In his Bills debut a week ago, Lewis didn’t disappoint. He threw two touchdown passes and didn’t have an interception. The Bills lost, but he wasn’t the reason.
“As far as the team, they feel like they can win with Thad Lewis,” Marrone said. “That’s the most important thing. That’s what I look for.”
That comes as no surprise to many in South Florida who watched Lewis direct Hialeah-Miami Lakes to the state quarterfinals as a senior.
His numbers — 1,237 yards and 12 touchdowns — weren’t gaudy, but Lewis was still ranked as the nation’s 10th-best dual-threat quarterback by Rivals.com.
But it was a difficult road. Lewis’ father was shot dead when Lewis was just a toddler, and his mother, Renee Holmes, was the rock at home. She made sure Thad always put school first.
Hughes was a disciplinarian on the football field, teaching lessons that extended beyond sports. Theirs is a relationship that has survived time and distance.
When injuries forced Marrone to search for quarterback help in August, he didn’t know much about Lewis, then a reserve with the Lions.
So he reached out to a few people he knew and trusted. One was David Cutcliffe, Lewis’ college coach at Duke (where Lewis graduated in three and a half years).
Hughes, now retired, was another. There’s no better character witness. Even in high school, Lewis was a mature, steadying force, acting as a coach on the field, Hughes said.
“This is the great opportunity he has ever had,” the coach said. “Things happen for a reason.”
Although his future with Buffalo is probably not as a starter — it’s EJ Manuel’s job when he returns from a knee injury — Lewis has impressed Marrone and the rest of the Bills’ first-year coaching staff.
The team signed Matt Flynn this week, but Lewis will start, assuming that a foot injury he sustained last week allows him. Lewis was in a walking boot a few days ago, but he said he’s fine.
“It’s going to take more than a little foot sprain to keep me out,” he said.
Good thing, since Hughes and a handful of other former coaches will be there. His immediate family has tickets, too.
“I don’t know what the future holds with the Bills; I just know I’m going to give it my best shot while I’m out there,” Lewis said.