Former Panther quarterback Jeff Lewis died Saturday in Phoenix at age 39. The cause of death has not been released at this time.
Lewis had been coaching the wide receivers at Northern Arizona, his alma mater, a job he took prior to the 2012 season. The school put out a statement announcing his death (his Northern Arizona bio and a "Getting to Know Jeff Lewis" video can be found here). Lewis was a four-year starter at Northern Arizona from 1991-95 and was in the college's hall of fame. He also had previously spent three years as an assistant coach at the University of Louisville and done some high school coaching as well. His official school biography had said Lewis was the "proud father" of one son but did not mention any other family. Funeral arrangements are pending.
The Panthers traded for Lewis in 1999, shortly after hiring coach George Seifert. Seifert was very enamored with Lewis, who had the sort of mobility that he had liked and had been considered the heir apparent to John Elway in Denver before he blew out his knee in a pickup basketball game and fell out of favor with coach Mike Shanahan.
The Panthers gave up a third-round pick in 1999 and what turned out to be fourth-rounder in 2000 for Lewis. Seifert wanted Lewis to eventually replace Beuerlein as the starter. Beuerlein kept playing too well for that to happen, however – making the Pro Bowl in 1999 and then also playing decently in 2000.
In the spring of 2001, Seifert sped up the timetable by making one of the most bizarre moves in Panther history – he released Beuerlein with the idea of making Lewis his starter. That backfired badly. Lewis had two awful games in a row in the 2001 preseason – in one, throwing three straight interceptions -- and the mercurial Seifert first demoted him to fourth team and then cut Lewis outright before the season began, handing the starting job to rookie Chris Weinke. The Panthers then went 1-15.
Lewis was sensitive to his mistakes during his three rocky years in Carolina, understanding that he had not fulfilled expectations. He never threw a touchdown pass in 11 exhibitions and his limited regular-season duty for Carolina. Yet the Panthers paid him more than $7 million and gave him a three-year contract extension before he had ever taken a snap.
"I'm not going to make any excuses, " he said after being released in 2001. "Obviously, I'm disappointed it didn't work out. I tried as hard as I could. I probably tried too hard."
When asked if anything could have been different about his time at Carolina he said then: "I want to take the high road on this whole thing. I played as hard as I could every time I was out there."
And he did. He just wasn't a very good player. In fact, he was really, really bad by NFL quarterback standards and never threw an actual NFL TD pass.
But by all accounts – including mine -- Lewis was a good person. I did not get to know him well, but I always respected him as a player who tried to make the best out of one bad situation after another. And it wasn't his fault Seifert invested so much in him. So I am very sorry to hear of his passing, as I am sure all Panther fans are.
Lewis becomes at least the fifth Panther I can remember that has died. If I am missing someone, please tell me. The others I recall are: Curtis Whitley (former center for the 1995 and 1996 Panther teams); Fred Lane (running back, 1997-99); Reggie White (defensive end in 2000); and Sam Mills (linebacker, 1995-97).
-- Scott Fowler, for the Charlotte Observer
Published in Charlotte Observer on Jan. 6, 2013