As a cadet in the Air Force Academy’s powered flight program, Lewis would strap into the cockpit with a trainer and take off. He’d glide the Cirrus SR20 over the campus and get breathtaking views of Colorado Springs.
“At first, it definitely is scary, but the more you do it, it’s more calming,” the New York Jets safety said in an interview with The Associated Press. “You’re up there and it’s just like you. When you’re driving, there’s cars going past you left and right, But up there, it’s mostly just you.”
The worst part for Lewis, though, was coming back down. Literally.
“Landing was very, very tough for me,” Lewis said with a big laugh. “They aren’t big planes. They’re smaller planes, so there are times you’re coming in and you’re on a straight path and there’s like a gust of wind and you blow off to the side and you’re offline and you’re like, ‘Dang, I’m off path!’ And it’s tough to kind of get back on track. So the trainer will take it and they’ll land it from there.”
Conquering challenges is nothing new for the Richmond, Virginia, native. The latest has the 23-year-old Lewis making the switch from cornerback, the position he has played most of his career, to safety in New York’s defense.
Lewis has three interceptions in team drills during camp, flashing the type of playmaking ability that made him a star his last two years at Air Force.
“Obviously, there’s a learning process that he’s got to go through, going from corner to safety,” coach Robert Saleh said. “I thought he’s done a really nice job through OTAs and training camp. He’s stacked up some good days and he’s got to continue to stack things up. But I’m encouraged with the way it has gone for him so far.”
Last Friday, the Jets and Giants hosted their first Salute to Service Bowl at MetLife Stadium — a game that consisted of teams of active-duty service members from all branches of the armed forces. Given other circumstances, Lewis might have been playing in that event. Instead, he was on the field the following night for the Jets in their preseason opener.
“There’s still lots of work to do,” Lewis said. “So my goal is to go in and give my best effort and make the coaches notice me and just make plays out there.”
This NFL opportunity didn’t come without overcoming a few hurdles.
Serving five years of active military service is required of Air Force Academy graduates. The Department of Defense adopted a policy in November 2019 that allows athletes to delay their active-duty service. They must eventually fulfill their obligation or have to repay the costs of their education.
Lewis became the first Air Force senior to apply for deferred service time, a process that took a few months and requires service athletes to provide proof they have a viable professional career path. Lewis went undrafted last year, but was signed as a free agent by Arizona — fulfilling that major requirement.
“I’m thankful for the Force allowing me to be able to play this sport I love,” Lewis said, “and pursue this dream of mine.”
Lewis spent last summer in training camp with the Cardinals before being a late-camp cut. The Jets claimed him the next day and he was reunited with Chip Vaughn, a defensive assistant in New York who was Lewis’ secondary coach at Air Force.
Lewis was among the Jets’ final cuts but was signed to the practice squad, where he spent the season. Now he’s trying to make the Week 1 roster. Being at Air Force certainly helped Lewis prepare for the rigors of training camp.
“Going through basic training, that was very tough — long, long days,” he said. “In the morning, they’re screaming at you and going, ‘Get up! Wake up!’ You have to be up and do things very fast. And yeah, throughout the whole day, you have to be on your game. And that’s how it has to be on the field, too.”
Lewis, whose third cousin is former Pro Bowl safety Shawn Springs, has always been a terrific athlete. He played basketball as a youngster, and earned the nickname “Zanebron” from his buddies on the court. Lewis also lettered in track and football at Trinity Episcopal in Richmond.
Playing sports always offered Lewis a chance to feel normal — and briefly forget about the speech impediment that caused so much anxiety.
“That always kind of helped boost me up,” Lewis said. “I’m good now, though. I’m more confident now in my own skin.”
Lewis still speaks with the slight sign of a stutter, something that used to freeze him in his tracks in school. He would be extremely nervous when he’d have to answer questions in class or, worse, have to get up in front of his classmates.
He said he was bullied by some for it, but speech therapy helped him overcome his fears — even though he acknowledged doing an interview even at this age can cause some uneasiness.
“But I’m grateful for it because, you know, it definitely taught me a lot growing up — it taught me not to judge people and just be proud of who I am,” Lewis said. “It’s a reminder throughout life that we all have our own struggles, our own backgrounds, so it really taught me to not judge people and be grateful for the life I live because it could be a lot worse.”
Lewis is now flying high on the football field and looking to make a smooth landing onto the Jets’ roster.
“The journey for me has been great thus far,” Lewis said, “and I’m just definitely blessed.”