By: Ken LaVicka
Tommylee Lewis was not one of the Dwyer "Big Three".
The recruiting attention paid to Lewis in his 2010 senior season at the Palm Beach Gardens school was minimal compared to names like tight end Nick O’Leary (Florida State), quarterback Jacoby Brissett (Florida), and linebacker Curt Maggitt (Tennessee).
Unlike his more-heralded Panthers teammates, Lewis selected Northern Illinois as his college of choice without fanfare, hoping to make a mark in the MAC, never thinking he’d sniff college football’s lucrative BCS bowl series. That turned out to be one heck of a decision.
In modern college football’s most shocking big-name bowl match-up, Lewis’ Cinderella Huskies will take on O’Leary’s powerhouse Seminoles in the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day. No one saw this coming, especially Lewis.
“Not at all,” admits Lewis, NIU’s top kick-returner. “I never thought I’d be back home at the Orange Bowl.”
Lewis, a Riviera Beach native who transferred from Palm Beach Lakes to Dwyer, says he’s already chatted with O’Leary about their upcoming meeting at SunLife Stadium.
“We talked when it first was announced. Yeah, we’ve definitely spoken,” laughs Lewis.
Looking back at Lewis’ graduating class at Dwyer, even Brissett has received infinitely more newspaper ink as Sugar Bowl-bound Florida’s back-up signal-caller than Lewis has at barely-a-blip-on-the-radar NIU.
Lewis wasn’t even fully aware that his team had a shot at playing in Miami until just prior to the MAC title game in Detroit, a 44-37 double-overtime win over Kent State. A teammate was parading a newspaper around the Huskies locker room, making sure everyone knew they had a shot at the Orange Bowl before they took the field. That was really the first time the possibility ever occurred to Lewis, a sophomore who has become a game-changer in DeKalb.
He has three kickoff return touchdowns in his career and was the only FBS player to return two for scores in the same game in 2011, accomplishing the feat at Toledo. Lewis claimed a MAC West Specialist of the Week honor at the end of November and was NIU’s Rookie Offensive Player of the Year last season.
Life in the Midwest has been good for Lewis, but he’s thrilled to be able to return to South Florida, as is his family.
“Oh, they were excited,” says Lewis. “I’m going to have a lot of emotion out there.”
When talking to an NIU player, the national outrage surrounding the Huskies’ BCS berth inevitably comes up. Lewis, much like the rest of the NIU roster, brushes off the huge contingent of nay-sayers, including ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit, whose televised comments about the Huskies triggered orange-tossing at a big-screen TV during a selection show party at the team facility.
“You just add it to the fire, just laugh it off,” states Lewis. “I’m actually not offended by it.”
“We deserve this. We won the games. We should be there.”
A former Dwyer football player in a BCS bowl is not a rare occurrence, but no one, not even Lewis, could have foreseen his unlikely trip to college football prominence.
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