FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — On a steamy day in July 2015, Dion Lewis took the field under an angry sky in upstate New York. He was about to begin a workout on the University of Albany campus, not far from his childhood home, when the sun disappeared and it became “evil dark,” his trainer, Mike Grasso, recalled. The wind kicked up, and soon there was a drenching downpour. Grasso looked at Lewis, waiting for him to call it a day.
“He didn’t even blink,” Grasso said.
The lightning-quick running back decided to defy the real lightning. He stayed outside for an hour, capping off his workout with 100-yard sprints with a parachute attached to his waist. It wasn’t the safest decision, but Lewis was too focused to acknowledge the danger. You see, he was in the eye of his own storm — two years removed from his last NFL carry and only days away from a last-chance training camp with the New England Patriots.
“It was raining really hard and the wind was blowing, but it was a great day to get parachute work in,” Lewis said in a quiet moment last week in the Patriots’ locker room. “I pride myself on working as hard as possible, because I’ve never been the biggest, the strongest or the fastest. I have to work harder than other people.”
Lewis has handled the wind and other forms of resistance throughout his career, rising to a prominent role with the Patriots. He’s a study in perseverance, having overcome a fractured leg, a broken heart and a shredded knee ligament. That’s hard for any player, but there was an elevated degree of difficulty because of his height — 5-foot-8.
There aren’t many 5-foot-8 players populating the fields of the NFL, but that put a chip on his shoulder, helping him survive the two season-ending injuries and the shock of being released by the Cleveland Browns in the 2014 preseason. At one point, he went 985 days between regular-season carries. That’s longer than some careers.
Right now, Lewis is the biggest small man on the Patriots, who will play in their seventh straight AFC Championship Game this Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars. In their divisional-round win over the Tennessee Titans, he touched the ball 24 times (15 rushes, nine catches) for a team-high 141 yards from scrimmage. It took him three years, but he finally has climbed to the top of the depth chart.
Can’t you see him smiling? His mother can.
“What I’m seeing is back to the old days — Pop Warner, high school and college,” Linda Lewis said. “He’s enjoying playing, which is not something I saw the last few years. He wasn’t happy. But now I see him smile, and it’s not a strained smile.”
It’s hard to find joy when you’re living on the margins of the NFL, when your career trajectory is ruined by rotten luck.
A fifth-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011, Lewis fell out of favor when coach Chip Kelly took control in 2012. Kelly preferred bigger backs, so he traded Lewis to the Browns in 2013. He was reunited with Browns CEO Joe Banner, the former Eagles president who was part of the regime that drafted him.
“That was one of the first moves I made [in Cleveland],” said Banner, who loved Lewis’ elusiveness and toughness.
Lewis broke his fibula in the 2013 preseason, which cost him the entire regular season. By the time he was healthy, the Banner regime had been replaced by a new Browns administration, headed by general manager Ray Farmer and coach Mike Pettine. Once again, Lewis was victimized by a wrong-place, wrong-time scenario. Despite an impressive 2014 preseason, he was released.
Lewis was crushed.
“I remember the phone call,” his mother said. “I was up at Lake George and it was a Saturday morning. It was startling. That was a tough Saturday morning.”
The craziest part? Lewis couldn’t get another job.
It’s incomprehensible how someone with that much talent — he broke Tony Dorsett’s freshman rushing record at Pitt — could spend an entire season unemployed. Banner called his friends around the league, trying to convince someone to sign Lewis. Finally, someone listened — Indianapolis Colts general manager Ryan Grigson — but the GM cut Lewis after a week because he needed to replace an injured defensive lineman.
Once again, it was wrong place, wrong time.
So Lewis sat out another year, watching games from his couch or from Junior’s Bar and Grill in the Albany area. This was a tough, emotional period for Lewis, who felt like he was doing parachute sprints into a 40 mph wind with nothing to show for it. But he refused to give up.
“I always believed in myself,” Lewis said. “I always knew I’d get another chance. I didn’t know when it would happen or how it would happen, but I knew I had to make the most of it.”
At the end of the 2014 season — New Year’s Eve, to be exact — he signed a reserve-future contract with the Patriots. He had an ally in the Patriots’ front office in former Browns executive Mike Lombardi. The New York Giants also offered a futures contract, but Lewis picked the Patriots, in part, because they’re known for taking chances on undersized players.
The Patriots’ history is filled with diminutive stars — including Kevin Faulk, Deion Branch and Julian Edelman. Unlike some coaches, who obsess over height, weight and speed, coach Bill Belichick thinks outside the box. All he cares about is productivity. He has no qualms about giving 20 to 25 touches a game to Lewis.
“He carried the mail in college,” Belichick said. “This is different — this isn’t college — but he’s a guy who’s had some solid production in single games. … He’s a durable kid. I mean, he’s tough. He takes some hits, but he’s been pretty durable.”
Well, except for the ACL injury in 2015, which required a second surgery because of complications and impacted his performance in the 2016 season. This season was his first full campaign in New England, and he demonstrated his versatility with six touchdowns as a rusher, three as a receiver and one as a kickoff returner. He rushed for a team-high 896 yards, outperforming veteran newcomers Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee.
Lewis does it with his quickness, but you’d be dead wrong to label him a change-of-pace back. Consider: In the regular season, he averaged a league-best 2.75 yards per carry between the tackles and tied for the league high with 2.61 yards after contact, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Dude is powerful.
“My game is to get it and go,” he said, “and make good decisions.”
Lewis seemed destined for greatness at an early age. When he was 5, he scored on a long run on his first carry in flag football, according to his mother. She has a video archive of his best plays, from Pop Warner to Pitt to the Patriots, and sometimes the family watches them at holiday gatherings.
But maybe his finest moments occurred away from the camera, when there was no crowd, like that stormy summer day in Albany. Those were the days that got him to where he is now.
“He’s a very determined guy; that’s one of the reasons we picked him,” Banner said. “He’s one of those guys, a little smaller, always trying to prove himself, not wanting to get held back or stopped. There are people who would’ve given up hope, but not him. You see that resilience. You see it every time he has the ball in his hands.”