- The Washington Times - Monday, May 15, 2006

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — No one has to tell Jai Lewis anything about defying the odds or ignoring the critics.

Two months ago, Lewis was the burly center helping lightly regarded George Mason put together one of the most astonishing runs in NCAA tournament history. As an unheralded No. 11 seed out of the Colonial Athletic Association, the Patriots turned into bracket busters, compiling upset after upset — including a memorable overtime victory over No. 1 seed Connecticut — to storm to the first Final Four appearance in school history.

Now Lewis is seeking his own personal upset, armed with evidence to shout down each naysayer with reasons why he can’t make it in football.

Lewis has undertaken a daunting challenge, hoping to make the move from solid mid-major basketball performer to NFL player. He is one of the undrafted rookies who were on hand this weekend at the New York Giants’ rookie minicamp and of all the hopefuls vying for a job, none have a similarly unusual resume.

“Definitely, when you have a lot of people telling you that you can’t do something, you just want to use that to prove them wrong,” Lewis said. “You use that negative energy to fuel you, to prove them wrong. I am definitely trying to use the negative energy to my advantage to prove that I can play at the next level without playing the last five years.”

There are obvious signs of rust. When Lewis reported to Giants Stadium on Friday and was immediately issued a helmet, he couldn’t remember how it was supposed to fit.

“When they first asked me ‘How does it feel’ I didn’t know what to say, because it’s been five years since I put a helmet on,” Lewis said. “My neck started hurting a little bit.”

In his first workouts, the 6-foot-5, 292-pound Lewis — he played basketball at about 275 — lined up at offensive tackle and also tried his hand at long-snapping, another skill he hadn’t attempted since his senior year at Aberdeen (Md.) High School. From a physical standpoint, Lewis did not look completely out of place. But no one was wearing any pads and there was no hitting.

“I was out there kidding him,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. “I said ‘Gee, Lewis, look at that body of yours. It looks like a basketball player’s body.’ He loved that. He has got a lot of work to do, no doubt. But the key thing is he is excited about trying, about working at it.”

Believing his lack of height made a career in basketball unlikely, Lewis turned his attention to a sport of his youth. He was good enough as a high school defensive lineman and tight end to receive offers from Virginia Tech and North Carolina but poor SAT scores forced him to attend prep school before he landed at George Mason.

As a husky but surprisingly agile post man for the Patriots, Lewis averaged 13.7 points and 7.8 rebounds last season. In his finest moment, he befuddled the taller and supposedly more talented UConn front line for 20 points in a memorable upset victory at Verizon Center.

Lewis had visions of trying to burst into the NFL as a tight end, following the path blazed by Antonio Gates, who starred in the NCAA tournament at Kent State before blossoming into a Pro Bowl tight end with the Chargers. On April 20, the Giants protected themselves by sending Ken Sternfeld, their assistant director of player personnel, to a private workout Lewis arranged for himself. The Giants were one of 11 teams to attend.

“We did not go down there thinking we were going to sign him,” Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi said. “Kenny’s statement was ‘You could hit on this.’ He’s pretty much grown beyond a tight end. He has the skills, the feet and the hands to be a tight end, but most likely his future is at offensive line.”

Still, why would the team sign a basketball player?

“There’s a chance with this guy,” Accorsi explained. “I’ll take a chance on someone with a flicker of talent that just might develop over just some solid guy who absolutely has no chance. This kid’s a [heckuva] athlete.”

Having never played on the offensive line, Lewis is learning a new position in addition to getting reacquainted with an old sport. The best-case scenario is for Lewis to show enough in training camp to convince the Giants to sign him to their practice squad, where he could spend the season refining his technique.

“When I first got there on the field, the first couple of steps it took me a while to realize I was on the football field again,” Lewis said. “I think the hardest thing is definitely going to be the contact and memorizing the plays. Those two things are going to be the toughest things. I’m definitely ready to put some pads on to see if I can take the hit. If I can take the hit I’ll be able to get down and dirty.”

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