After a stellar high school football career in Broomfield, Colorado, and a season at a North Carolina prep school, Alec Lewis joined the University of Northern Colorado program in 2019 only to spend 3½ unfulfilled years as a quarterback with the Division I FCS school.
When he first joined the team, he was listed as sixth string on the depth chart and promptly redshirted. The following season, the Bears’ schedule was shelved by the COVID pandemic and, in the two seasons that followed, he saw little playing time.
Last season he completed just two of three passes for eight yards.
With his near future including a degree in the physics of engineering and an engagement to his longtime girlfriend, McKenna Palmer, a volleyball player at UNC, he seriously considered hanging up his helmet and getting on with his life.
“But toward the end of my tenure at Northern Colorado, I started thinking, ‘You know what? You’ll never forgive yourself if you don’t stick it out and see what you can do,’” said Lewis, who technically had two years of eligibility remaining because of the redshirt season and the extra COVID year granted by the NCAA.
“I still believed in myself,” he said. “That was the one thing that had remained unwavering, no matter what my situation was.” His mom, Emily, said she and her husband, Kevin, supported his thinking:
“You only get one life, so if that’s what you want to do, we were like ‘Go for it!’”
Lewis put his name in the transfer portal and said within a few hours he had a call from Buddy Blevins, the offensive coordinator at Central State.
“Coach Blevins was like, ‘You’ve probably never heard of Central State before, it’s in Ohio,’” Lewis recalled with a laugh. “He was right. I’d never heard of the school or even been to Ohio before.
“But we talked on the phone every day for the next week, and he told me more and more and he finally said, ‘Would you like to come visit?’
“I said, ‘I’d love to,’ and when I got here, I liked it a lot. There actually was a lot more to it than I expected.
“By the time I left, I knew in my heart this was the place I wanted to be —that something good could happen here — and I signed the next day.”
He spent part of the spring and the summer at CSU getting accustomed and ended up winning the starting quarterback job.
He didn’t realize just how good things could be in a Marauders’ maroon and gold uniform until he debuted last Saturday in the Chicago Football Classic at Soldier Field.
Throwing to a bevy of receivers — including Micah Lowe, a dynamic returnee from last year, and transfer Jeremiah Flores, a standout at Citrus College in California before switching to defense at Central Missouri State last season —Lewis completed 31 of 51 passes for an estimated 398 yards (official stats were not tabulated at the game) and led Marauders to a come-from-behind, 24-21, victory over Mississippi Valley State, a Division I FCS school.
Lewis completed touchdown passes of 17 and five yards to Flores, while Lowe had 12 catches for 160 yards.
In the final two minutes, Lewis led the Marauders down the field – thanks, he said, in part to protection from his offensive line and a catch and long run by Lowe – to set up the winning 32-yard field goal by Jose Chaires with four seconds left.
This Saturday the Marauders are on the road again, albeit just 22 miles away, when they face the Dayton Flyers at Welcome Stadium.
Over the years, the Flyers have won seven of eight games against CSU, but the two schools haven’t played since 2016.
Last Saturday UD was routed by Eastern Illinois, a Division I FCS scholarship school, 41-0.
“With Dayton having a new coaching staff, we don’t know a lot about them,” CSU head coach Kevin Porter said. “From the one tape we have, you saw they played hard on offense and defense, and they have some guys who can really play.
“But really, what we’re most concerned about, is how we play. That’s what we’re trying to improve here.”
Last Saturday was a huge win for a program that has mostly struggled since football — after an eight-year hiatus due to financial and other reasons — was reinstated at the school in 2005
Since the restart — as an NCAA Division II program instead of being in the NAIA, where CSU won three national titles in the early 1990s — the Marauders had lost 123 of 166 games before last Saturday. Porter is the seventh head coach in that span.
A former All-Southeastern Conference defensive back at Auburn who played five years in the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs and New York Jets and then compiled an extensive resume coaching small coaches and arena football, Porter was hired at CSU 21 months ago to make football relevant again at the school after two decades of decline.
He inherited a 2021 team that went 1-9 and had been outscored, 379-116.
The Marauders made some strides last season in a 3-7 campaign that included a season-opening victory over Winston Salem State in the Black College Football Classic in Canton and a season-ending, 31-30 victory over rival Kentucky State, who had beaten them 63-0 the year before.
This season the Marauders added several college transfers, none more key than Lewis.
Blevins knew of him because of several connections he has to Northern Colorado. He once coached there, as did his twin brother, Woody. He said he knows several of the current coaches and “a quarterback trainer” in the area.
All said CSU should look at Lewis.
“I reached out to the four coaches I know at Northern Colorado and every single one said it was a “no brainer’ to take him,” Blevins said.
“And the team’s quarterback coach, who I don’t know, called me when he heard Alex was visiting us. He was like ‘Dude, don’t let him leave campus without a commitment!’
“I was like, ‘Well, he’s already gone.’”
But Lewis, who had interest from other schools, was sold on CSU, by then.
“One thing I’ve learned in my college career, you want to go somewhere where you’re wanted,” he said. “And Coach Blevins and Coach Porter have been amazing giving me the opportunity they have.
“And my teammates have been tremendous. They’ve welcomed me with open arms.”
Asked about being a white player in a high-profile position at a historically Black college (HBCU,) Lewis seemed surprised by the question:
“To me it’s not a big deal. We’re all like brothers who are committed to playing for each other and winning.
“A big part of an HBCU is that it’s a great on-campus experience. Everyone is like family and is super active as far as campus life. If anything, it’s better than most college experiences. It’s amazing.”
‘Like something in a movie’
After the Marauders practice Wednesday, Lewis lingered for more than 30 minutes on the McPherson Stadium field chatting with some of his receivers, then a big offensive lineman and finally some of the defenders.
When she heard by phone about all that, Emily, who is an administrative assistant at a school, said she was not surprised:
“Alec always been very personable and very dedicated. He loves the game, and he loves his teammates, you can tell.”
She and her husband were part of a contingent of some 17 people — most from Colorado — who were at Soldier Field last Saturday to watch Alec in his debut.
“My parents and my sister, who goes to Southern Miss, were there and so were both of my grandpas, some of my cousins, an aunt and some family friends,” he said. “So was my fiancé and a lot of her family. I loved seeing them all there.”
He was especially buoyed by his dad.
“I was really nervous the day before the game, but I talked to my dad, and he was like ‘You’ve worked so hard all these years for this moment to start. You’re ready!’”
That the moment was coming at an iconic NFL Stadium initially added to the build-up.
“There’s just so much football history there, you can feel it as soon as you walk in,” Lewis said. “It’s got that old stadium feel. The bricks. Walking out of the tunnel, it was like something in a movie.
“And they have such nice grass, oh my goodness! It’s the nicest grass I’ve ever been on. But once the first hit comes, once you start playing, all that goes away. You realize the field is the same size as our practice field and we can play on it like we can any other place.”
In fact, he played better than ever before.
“Getting to see him so happy, doing what he loves, living his dream, that’s what every parent wants for their child,” Emily said. “The most exciting thing was finally seeing him come off the field with that big smile lighting up his face.”
It was a golden smile.
On a maroon and gold day.