- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 2, 2005

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - This could be a sad Super Bowl story, a XXXIX hanky job, but Chad Lewis won’t allow it. Most players in his situation would be scouting out the many bridges here, deciding which one to jump off, but Lewis has a sense of perspective that’s rare in the athletic world.

Maybe it’s because he was a walk-on at Brigham Young and essentially a walk-on in the NFL. Or maybe it’s because he was cut twice in his first few seasons before going on to fame and Pro Bowls with the Philadelphia Eagles. Or maybe, as he says, it’s because his father “had a stroke [in 1990], has been paralyzed ever since on his left side, and has never once complained about it.”

What’s a broken foot, he figures, compared to that?

Of course, it’s not just any broken foot. It’s a broken foot suffered with three minutes left in the NFC Championship game — while in the act of catching his second touchdown pass of the day, the score that clinched the 27-10 win over the Falcons. The Philly crowd was going bonkers — after three straight title game disappointments, the Eagles were finally going to the Super Bowl — but all Lewis could do was lie there and think: My season’s over.

“Just a flood of emotions,” he said yesterday. “I knew right away what had happened. I heard it pop, felt it go. But I didn’t want anyone [outside the organization] to know about it for a couple of days. I wanted the city and team to enjoy the moment. I didn’t want them to be talking about my broken foot. That’s why I didn’t get up and [try to] do a dance. I just walked slowly back to the bench.”

Instead of lamenting his fate, Lewis began thinking about who might be able to replace him. There aren’t, after all, too many able-bodied tight ends lying around at this time of year. But Chad knew of one who might be able to fill in for him. So the morning after the game, he called his buddy Jeff Thomason, who played for Philadelphia from 2000 to 2002.

Thomason had retired from football and just started a management training program with Toll Brothers, a builder of luxury homes. Fortunately for the Eagles, he was still keeping in shape, even competing in the occasional triathlon.

“How’d you like to play in the Super Bowl?” Lewis asked him — or something to that effect.

Naturally, Thomason thought he was joking — just as his own friends thought he was joking when he told them the news later. But soon enough, tight ends coach Tom Melvin phoned, and then player personnel man Tom Heckert, and the reality began to sink in.

Still, “the first few days were surreal,” he said. “I’d wake up in the morning and tell my wife, ‘I just had this wonderful dream.’ And she’d say, ‘It’s not a dream. Go to practice.’”

Like his fallen friend, Thomason is a jumble of emotions. Part of him can’t stop smiling; “I’ve definitely won the lottery,” he said. But he feels awkward being a center of attention after not shedding a drop of blood this season. The last time he was in the Super Bowl, he recalled — with the Packers in ‘97 — “I sat in a corner trying to get somebody to talk to me.” But yesterday wave after wave of reporters descended on his podium. Never in Super Bowl history has a tight end averaging six catches a year gotten so much publicity.

His construction company, needless to say, is thrilled to have its name dropped, over and over again, in the national media. The man has to be a lock for Employee of the Month — if not the millennium. On the Toll Brothers Web site, there’s a news release trumpeting his appearance in the Super Bowl. “Everyone at [the firm],” a company spokesman is quoted as saying, “is ecstatic — except perhaps our New England division!”

Thomason thought he’d have to use his two weeks of vacation to live out this fantasy, but he got an unexpected bonus. “I got a call from [chairman and CEO] Bob Toll, and he said, ‘We have a new policy. If one of our employees plays in the NBA Finals, World Series or Super Bowl, they get an extra two weeks vacation.”

A boss with a sense of humor.

Thomason is certainly no Lewis in the receiving department. But he does have experience in the Big Game and is familiar with the Eagles’ offense and personnel — most of them, anyway. The club could do a lot worse for a last-minute substitute.

He expects to be on the field — in two-tight-end sets opposite L.J. Smith — for 15 to 20 plays. Every second he’s out there, he’ll be thinking of Lewis. “He’s such a positive guy,” Thomason said. “He’s happy for me. That’s why it’s kind of a thrill to play for him and hopefully do something for him.”

Lewis will watch from the sideline, two screws in his healing foot. His job, he’s convinced, is in the best of hands. “Touchdown Thomason’s back in town,” he said. “I named my younger son Jeff, you know, which tells you how much I think of him.”

If Lewis comes across as a Boy Scout, well, that’s because he was one. Made Eagle, in fact.

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