BSJ Oral History: How Dion Lewis went from forgotten man to offensive centerpiece

(Brian Fluharty/USA TODAY Sports)

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — The most impactful team-building additions don’t always come on the first day of free agency, or the initial rounds of the draft. Instead, the moves that help craft a champion often come in the most random of times, like New Year’s Eve.

While the rest of the world was preparing to ring out 2014, the Patriots announced that afternoon they had signed three guys to reserve-futures contracts: Rufus Johnson, Antonio Johnson and Dion Lewis. The transaction was so far under the radar, it barely registered as a blip on the Boston sports landscape. But while Johnson and Johnson would go on to have little impact on the fortunes of the Patriots, it was Lewis who would go on to become one of the most important pieces of New England’s offensive puzzle over the next three years, bringing a dynamic running style to the Patriots’ ground game.

Here’s the oral history of how Dion Lewis went from undersized overachiever to one of the key ingredients in the New England offense.

A native of upstate New York, Lewis caught the eye of Blair Academy coach Jim Stone at a prep showcase in Massachusetts in 2006. The speedy youngster had the chance to show off his skills at the prestigious New Jersey prep school, and in two years he was there, the football team went 17-1. Lewis was refining his football skills, but he was also learning how to balance his time between school and sports. It would be the sort of thing that would pay off later.

Lewis: “Working with coach Stone meant a lot. Going back to Blair, just having the opportunity to go to a school like that, a very prestigious school when I got to stay at school overnight. It was a blessing. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today if I had never gone to Blair.”

As a senior, Lewis had great numbers, but his size - he still hadn’t grown to his full 5-foot-8 stature — still made it difficult to attract the attention of college programs. That’s when Pitt entered the picture — coach Dave Wannstedt wanted to restock the Panthers’ backfield after losing LeSean McCoy, and so he dispatched his coaches to land a running back who might be able to finish school early so they could hit the ground running the following season. One of his assistants, Jeff Hafley — the current secondary coach of the Niners — found video of Lewis, and brought it to Wannstedt.

Wannstedt: “Jeff came back to me and said ‘I have tape of a guy who can graduate in January. Now, don’t be alarmed, because he’s five-foot-nothing, But he’s quick. And nobody is recruiting him.’ I put on the tape. Jeff says I watched eight plays, but it was maybe four — honest to God — and I saw that made about three guys miss at the line of scrimmage on one play, and he made someone miss downfield later, and he scored a touchdown. I turned it off, and said ‘Bring him in.’ He came in with his Mom and Dad, and instantly, we pretty much knew he was the kind of kid we wanted. But I was thinking he’s 5-foot-8 before he came in. He’s standing in my door and he’s maybe 5-foot-5. But it was clear he was a special player. We did some tests on him, and our strength guy came back and said, ‘He might only be 5-foot-something, but pound for pound, he’s as powerful as any guy we have on the team right now.’ And the rest was history.”

The prep school experience helped him get up to speed, both on and off the field.

Lewis: “Moving to college was a pretty smooth transition actually, because I went to prep school. I had been living away from home for a year-and-a-half — I had been living away from home since I was 16 or 17 for months at a time, so I was kind of used to that. Just the way we were taught to measure our time and things like that, it was definitely a big help, so when I got there, I was really prepared for how it was going to be. Not so much how the classes were going to be, but to manage my time and whatnot. The fact that I was able to get there and play spring ball and be able to compete, that definitely helped me out. Being able to get there in January definitely helped me get a leg up on the competition. I’m very confident in myself — whenever there’s open competition for a job, I feel like I had a leg up, and that started at Blair and continued to Pitt.”

Lewis had 2,860 rushing yards in two seasons with the Panthers, averaging 5.3 yards per carry with 30 rushing touchdowns. He didn’t shy away from contact, working between the tackles and getting the sort of tough yardage that other small backs might shy away from. He also had 52 catches for 405 receiving yards along the way. He didn’t have elite speed, but that didn’t bother Wannstedt.

Wannstedt: “When it comes to Dion, I use that same line that John Robinson used when talking about Marcus Allen: ‘How fast does Marcus Allen run? He runs as fast as he has to.’”

After two seasons at Pitt, Lewis entered the draft, and was a fifth-round pick of the Eagles in 2011. Philadelphia had high hopes for him.

Former Eagles president Joe Banner: “He was extremely quick, had great vision, and could be an asset in both the run and pass game.”

But in a year when Philly tried to assemble its Dream Team, Lewis’ career languished. In two years with the Eagles, he had 36 carries for 171 yards and two touchdowns as Philly sank with higher-profile talent. Lewis was asked this past week what he remembered most about his experience with the Eagles.

Lewis: “Not playing.”

He wasn’t completely free from blame, however. By his own admission, he needed to learn how to be more mature.

Lewis: “I was young. Straight from college, I have never really been in that position. It was still football. I was still playing because it was fun, not because I looked at it as a job or anything. I had the same approach I always had. I just had to learn how to be more like a pro, how to take care of my body and had to put more work in.

Banner: “I think everyone realizes now that he's a weapon that can create huge problems for any D.”

The Browns acquired him in the spring of 2013 and it looked like he had found a home with Cleveland … before breaking his leg in a preseason game in his first summer with Cleveland, an injury that would keep him out of football for all of 2013 and 2014. But Browns personnel man Mike Lombardi would keep an eye on Lewis, and when Lombardi landed in New England, he convinced Bill Belichick to sign him to a futures contract. Lewis agreed to a deal on Dec. 31, 2014. A team in the midst of a playoff run had very quietly added a piece that would have a lasting impact for the next three seasons.

Belichick: “Mike was with him. He saw him and the same thing that I just talked about with Danny with Josh, Mike saw that at Cleveland. We signed him as a future player and that’s, again, when you see somebody on the practice field on a daily basis and you’re around them, you know a lot more about them, especially a player like Dion who you didn’t get to see on the field a lot. What you saw was good, but it just wasn’t very much. When somebody’s on the inside like that, you know a lot more about the player than what you do just seeing him on however many snaps he gets on Sunday afternoon, which in Dion's case wasn’t very many. They were good, but they were just minimal.”

The summer of 2015, Lewis was going against the likes of Travaris Cadet as the Patriots tried to find a third down back. But little by little, rep by rep, Lewis took over the job, winning the trust of quarterback Tom Brady in the process.

Brady: “When (Dion) got here, there was a lot of people kind of vying for that spot, and he really took advantage of it.”

Almost two full years after taking his last snap in a regular-season game, Lewis was an electric presence over the first half of the 2015 season — in his first seven games, he had 234 yards on 49 carries, to go along with 36 catches for 388 yards through the first six-plus games. He was immediately rewarded with a new deal, one that gave him the sort of professional security that had eluded him to that point in his career.

But a knee injury in November sidelined him for the duration of the 2015 season, and put him back into a rehab situation. There were occasional glimpses of that old explosiveness at times in 2016, but for the most part, he was the third man in a crowded backfield that included LeGarrette Blount and eventual Super Bowl hero James White. But he never stopped working.

Running backs coach Ivan Fears: “You have to give him all the credit in the world, because he did the work. Every injury he had, Dion would be in there. He’d be in there and it’d be a holiday. I’d say, ‘Aren’t you going away?’ He’d say ‘No.’ Everyone is leaving? He stayed. He worked. He worked endlessly to get himself healthy. I mean to the point where I would be worried about him. I’d say ‘Boy, you need a life. You need to get out of this building.’”

It all paid off down the stretch this past year. Lewis regained the starters’ job, and over the last 10 games of the season, he rushed for 745 yards, averaging 4.97 yards per carry, and added 25 catches for good measure. In all, he set career-highs in carries (180), yards (896) and rushing touchdowns (six). He was part of a legendary backfield — the 2017 Patriots were just the third team in NFL history to have three different backs finish with at least 30 catches and 30 carries in the same season. While Rex Burkhead and White had their moments, it was Lewis who made the whole thing go, powered by the chip that’s been permanently implanted on his shoulder.

Lewis: “I always try to play with a chip on my shoulder just to go out there, prove what I can do. That’s kind of my motivation -- just go out there and show people what I can do. It’s not because of who we’re playing, I just have that same mentality no matter what.”

Fears: “I would love to take a lot of credit for what he’s become, but Dion is a guy who accepted what was put in front of him, whether it was from Bill, or whether it was from Josh (McDaniels), or whether it was from me, and he listened. And he followed it up by trying to do what was said. That’s how he’s done what he did. That’s what’s made him so productive. You can coach your ass off with most guys and nothing really happens. Dion was really receptive to everything. He took it in the right way. And tried to do it the right way.”

Now, Lewis figures to be one of the key elements in Sunday’s Super Bowl, and could cash in as a free agent this offseason. His journey from Blair Academy to New Year’s Eve pickup to another Super Bowl serves as a reminder that no matter the circumstances, if you make the most of your opportunity, good things will happen.

Banner: “I'm very proud that he finally got a chance and he seized the moment. Few players demonstrate his relentless determination to overcome whatever came his way, and reach this point.”

Wannstedt: “He’s faced so much adversity. I’m happy the Patriots gave him a chance. The most rewarding thing for me is that he’s just found a way to overcome and overcome and overcome and overcome. I mean, there are a lot of teams out there who, if you’re a running back and not 5-foot-11, you’re off the board. Dion was fighting the odds to make it in the NFL even before he got to the field. To see him overcome those odds and make it to another Super Bowl, that’s a neat story. It makes you feel good.”