When Brad Childress laid eyes on Greg Lewis 14 years ago, he quickly realized there might be more to the 6-foot, 185-pound rookie.
“He was like a piece of gristle,” said Childress, now a Chiefs’ assistant head coach. “(But) he was a little, small guy.”
They would one day work on the same coaching staff, as the Chiefs hired Lewis as receivers coach this January.
But back then, Childress was the offensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles and Lewis was an unknown, undrafted receiver from Illinois. His lack of bulk was an issue almost immediately.
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One time, Childress recalled, the coaching staff decided to try out Lewis as a special-teams gunner, and Eagles teammates Michael Lewis and Sheldon Brown drove him so far off the field that Childress still laughs at the memory.
“I mean, honest to God, (they) catapulted him out of the building,” Childress said. “If they did that to him on the street, they would have put them in jail.”
Lewis still shakes his head at the recollection, calling it a “bad deal.” His parents happened to be in attendance that day, too, adding to the embarrassment.
“They basically took me out of the facility — that’s where they took me,” Lewis said with a chuckle. “I was over there joining the fans.”
But Childress would soon learn about Lewis’ resilience, a defining trait that has allowed him to thrive as a self-described underdog for the better part of his professional life.
After that play, Lewis rose to his feet, dusted himself off and squared off against the same two players who had just embarrassed him.
“And I killed both of them,” Lewis recalled, content at his comeback.
And by the end of the practice, Childress said, Lewis was slipping guys and finding creative ways to get by people … not bad for a little guy who had never done that specific dirty work on special teams before.
“He ended up being a hell of a gunner,” Childress said. “He was hard to block.”
Lewis applied himself in the same manner when it came to improving on offense. He learned every receiver position, whether it was the “X,” “Z” or elsewhere, in little time, and caught 152 passes for 1,992 yards and eight touchdowns in his eight-year career. He was the only Eagles receiver to catch a touchdown pass in Super Bowl XXXIX, a high-water mark for a self-made player who eventually earned his coaches’ trust with his diligence and effort.
“He’s an everyman,” Childress said. “He walked on at Illinois, he quit once, he came back and won a position before landing in the NFL. He’s been through the whole ringer, and to make it in the NFL … odds would say that wasn’t going to happen.”
Lewis is applying the underdog mindset to his coaching career, which has spanned six years at six different stops, including stints as the receivers coach at the University of San Diego, San Jose State, the University of Pittsburgh and the Philadelphia Eagles, where he coached under former Andy Reid disciple Doug Pederson in 2016.
The Eagles’ young receiving corps struggled badly last season, however. They not only let Lewis go, they also added a pair of high-paid veterans in Alshon Jeffrey and Torrey Smith and two mid-round picks, Mack Hollins and Shelton Gibson.
Lewis was still thought of enough as a teacher to latch on with the Chiefs a mere two weeks later after his dismissal, as Reid hired him to replace longtime assistant David Culley, who left to coach the Buffalo Bills’ quarterbacks.
“I thought (in Philly), our guys came and worked tremendously hard everyday,” Lewis said. “We didn’t get the results we wanted, but it is what it is … the Eagles will be great with what they’ve got going on there. I’m excited about being here in Kansas City and what we’ve got.”
Since his arrival, Lewis has picked the brains of his fellow coaches to figure out how they relate to players and how they teach. Through nine voluntary offseason practices, it has not been unusual to watch Lewis repeatedly correct receivers — even veterans like Jeremy Maclin, before his release — about the details of a route or concept.
On Thursday, for instance, Lewis chided the receivers to sprint off the field after every play, lest they be forced to get their conditioning in after practice, a request that is consistent with the all-in approach he took to the game as a player.
“I coached him forever,” Reid said. “I’m not telling you he was the most talented guy we had, but he maximized his talent.”
When it comes to coaching style, Lewis is somewhat comparable to Chiefs running backs coach Eric Bieniemy, whose booming voice overtakes nearly every practice. Like Bieniemy, Lewis often issues loud instructions to his players during practice, and while he doesn’t think he’s in Bieniemy’s class as a yeller, he has indeed been told he talks a lot.
“Which is probably true,” Lewis said with a laugh. “But when I talk, I’m saying something important.”
That’s another trait should come in handy with a young group of receivers — their oldest player is 24 — that has a lot to learn.
Lewis plans to do with the Chiefs what he’s always done in his professional career when faced with an setback: buck up, bear up and bounce back.
“At the end of the day, it’s about the guys we’ve got here in Kansas City right now and what we’re doing moving forward,” Lewis said. “We’re going to try to get better each day, and when it’s time to go out and show it, we’re going to put it on tape.”