- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2005

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Maintaining the standard of excellence of Philadelphia’s secondary wasn’t that big a deal to cornerbacks Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard and safety Michael Lewis.

After all, the three had overcome bigger challenges than replacing veteran standouts Troy Vincent, Bobby Taylor and Blaine Bishop to become top performers for the NFC champion Eagles, who will meet the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX tomorrow night.

Sheppard’s 26-year-old cousin, Terrell Buiey, was gunned down in Jacksonville on Jan. 8. Sheppard dedicated Philadelphia’s playoff-opening victory over Minnesota to him but isn’t focused on the tragedy as he prepares for the biggest game of his life in the city where Buiey was murdered.

“He was my brother-cousin, and he’ll always be with me,” said Sheppard, who was extremely close to Buiey. “But you can’t keep mourning and focusing on that.”

Lewis had a scare at the beginning of his sophomore year at Colorado when he was diagnosed with a heart condition called atrial fibrillation.

“I was a little shocked, but when I did all the research on it and all the doctors cleared me to play, I regained my confidence,” said Lewis, who takes only an aspirin a day as a precaution. “Sometimes you think about guys like [former basketball stars] Hank Gathers and Reggie Lewis [who dropped dead on the court], so there’s always a concern, but you just keep doing what you do. I just enjoy every day I wake up. I don’t have any limitations.”

And Brown learned the day he was to leave to start his college career at South Carolina that the NCAA had ruled one of his ninth-grade science classes didn’t count, leaving him a credit shy of eligibility. Rather than spend two years in junior college, Brown went back to high school in his native Lancaster, S.C.

“It was a shock, but I just sucked it up,” Brown said. “I went back to finish that one class while I was working two jobs, one in an amusement park warehouse loading boxes, pushing hand trucks and sorting dirty plush animals, and another packing fabric. I thought I was the toughest guy around, but I learned that anything can be taken from you at any time. I hated those jobs, but they helped me mature. I tell guys all the time not to take the road I’ve taken.”

Brown, 25, Lewis, 24, and Sheppard, 23, have had fairly quick roads to success in Philadelphia. Lewis, like Brown a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back, was picked in the second round of the 2002 draft because the Eagles knew Bishop was past his prime. (He was cut after Lewis’ rookie year.)

Jettisoning both Vincent, a Pro Bowl pick as recently as 2003, and Taylor (2002), last offseason was a surprise, but the Eagles had chosen Sheppard, a two-time All-American at Florida, in the first round and Brown in the second round in 2002 with the hope of them taking over the starting jobs eventually.

Perennial Pro Bowl free safety Brian Dawkins was stunned by the departures of his longtime cohorts, but he wasn’t worried.

“I had confidence that Lido and Sheldon could get the job done because I knew they had the talent and because I had seen them play in tough situations last year when Bobby and Troy were hurt,” said Dawkins, who has mentored his younger backfield mates. “But no, I didn’t expect they would play to this level.”

Neither did Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, who said Lewis and Sheppard — both headed to their first Pro Bowls next week — and Brown are all ahead of schedule.

“Michael is as good a hitter as there is,” Johnson said. “Like Michael, Lito and Sheldon aren’t real big, but they’re tough. And they can both run. The difference is that Lito might be a little quicker.”

And although the secondary has started together just one season, it came together very quickly.

“Each guy has had something he has had to go through, but that has made us stronger as a unit,” Lewis said. “Each of us has each other’s backs, and we go out there on Sundays and let it hang loose.”

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