“You play on enough losing teams and it breaks you down. I don’t care who you are, (or) how strong you think you are,” Jets linebacker Mo Lewis told the Daily News. “You’re worried that no matter how hard you play, everyone just looks at you and says, ‘He’s a loser like everyone else.'”
In his 13-year career with the New York Jets, Mo Lewis managed to counter the consistent agony of defeat with a relentless pursuit of glory.
Selected in the third round of the 1991 NFL Draft, the former University of Georgia Bulldog didn’t experience a winning season until Bill Parcells was hired in 1997 to bring a reputation to Gang Green. Lewis’ tenure saw the Jets post a 93-115 record, while he recorded 1,236 tackles, 52.5 sacks, and 14 interceptions of his own.
His production earned him three trips to the Pro Bowl (1998, 1999, 2000) and All-Pro honors in 1998 and 2000. But the acknowledgment came late in a career where Lewis was consistently overlooked despite his value to the organization.
In September 1995, Gerald Eskenazi wrote of Lewis’ reputation in the New York Times, highlighting the fact that No. 57 was considered the best football player in New York—including the Giants.
“It’s hard for people to separate the person from the team he’s playing for,” Lewis told the Times in 1995. “They say, ‘Mo Lewis of the New York Jets.’ But if the Jets haven’t had success, then it doesn’t mean anything.”
As Jets’ fans suffered through most of the 1990s, so did Lewis.
Seasons where he led the team in tackles and received the Jets’ MVP award went for naught as Lewis’ talents, contributions, and impact went largely unrecognized around the NFL.
The Jets’ reputation as a bottom-dwelling team made glory even more elusive for the loyal linebackers. Lewis would have to reserve himself to winning personal battles rather than holding his breath for proper recognition.
“We’d go out there at the end of the season, and no matter what our record was, I’d tell myself the game meant everything,” Lewis said. “The team’s record would be 1-12 and I’d tell myself I was really 13-0. That was the game I’d play with myself. Or the way I’d trick myself.
“I’d be a winner in my heart, and in my mind. Because if you don’t do that, you become the thing you hate the most.”
And then his talents were finally recognized.
After eight seasons, Mo Lewis was voted to his first Pro Bowl. Parcells was in his second season as head coach, effectively changing the Jets’ culture and working to establish a new winning tradition. It took a 12-4 record, seven sacks, and an interception to send Lewis to Hawaii for the first time in his career.
But for Lewis, it was four years too late. While his teammates were happy for him, Lewis was already focused on another goal.
“I felt like, in ’94, I should’ve made (the Pro Bowl),” Lewis admitted. “But after all these years of losing, having that ring on your finger is the most important thing.”
Unfortunately for Lewis, the playoffs following the 1998 season left Gang Green with another heart-wrenching end to the season after losing to the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship game..
Lemony Snicket would call Lewis’ career a series of unfortunate events.
Playing second-fiddle to the late Derrick Thomas of the Kansas City Chiefs for Pro Bowl votes — despite posting superior numbers in some seasons — was the first bout with despair. Couple that with the fact that Lewis only enjoyed five winning seasons in his 13-year career, and you have an illustration of despair.
Ultimately, his career ended without earning what would have been a well-deserved Super Bowl ring.
Such is the cruelty of life. As if 13 seasons of disappointment weren’t enough, fate concocted a more devious plot. One of the most beloved New York Jets of all time would be the catalyst for the success of a sworn enemy.
That bone-crushing blow to New England Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe ushered in the Tom Brady era, and historical revisionism nearly thrust Lewis into the bowels of Jets’ hell with the jerseys of Neil O’Donnell, Blair Thomas, and Doug Brien.
But such asinine thoughts should belong only to the most short-sighted fans.
Brady’s tenure with the Patriots was going to begin in the Bill Belichick era, regardless of how hard Lewis rattled Bledsoe’s organs. He should never be faulted for doing what made him one of the most respected men to ever wear the Jets’ uniform.
The hit should be a footnote — not a definition.
Mo Lewis was the on-field extension of Jets’ fans. All the pain and agony the fans felt through years of defeat were emotions he experienced first-hand. That makes him a martyr, of sorts — more appropriately, a legend for the New York Jets.
His loyalty and dedication to the Jets — through all of the ups and downs — make him absolutely worthy of admiration from any fan who cherishes the Jets’ history. The fans who celebrate No. 57’s career hold him in the highest regard for being a player who wanted the Jets to win as badly as any of them.
“I think one of the most interesting conversations I had was with Mo Lewis,” Parcells recalled after being hired.
“He was just telling me, ‘I am sick of people running up points on us. I’d just like to have, one day, a defense that when the other team comes out of the huddle, we know they’re not getting anything. You’ve had those defenses before and I’d like to have one where they have a hard time moving the ball.'”
On June 27, 2005, Mo Lewis signed a one-day contract with the New York Jets to formally retire with the only team he’d ever known.