From the field to the boardroom
Former DI walk-on Lewis now key part of NCAA championships
Mark Lewis wasn't fast enough, but that never slowed him down.
The son of a coach, Lewis spent the fall Saturdays of his formative years roaming college football sidelines across the country. He knew speed. He knew athleticism. He knew he didn't have enough of either to flourish as a football player at Georgia, where his father, Bill, was defensive coordinator. Yet he yearned to play between the sidelines, not stand on their periphery.
A diligent student, he knew every problem had a solution.
Lewis, now the NCAA's executive vice president for championships and alliances, spent his freshman year at Georgia trapped on the very sidelines where he'd spent years keeping drive charts and carrying his father's headset cord. Playing defensive back -- his primary position at Clarke Central High School in Athens -- wouldn't be an option after he walked on at Georgia in 1985, Lewis understood. So he approached longtime Georgia head coach Vince Dooley armed with a proposition and a valuable skill; he would be Dooley's long-snapper.
Bulk up from 170 to 200 pounds and you've got a deal, the coach told him.
Lewis did just that. He pushed through the pain of the weight room and honed snapping skills through hours of tedious repetition. Eventually, he earned the right to cross the threshold that separated spectator from player and made his first snap against Vanderbilt during his sophomore season.
"He was a very average high school player," said Bill Lewis, now a member of the Notre Dame athletics community relations staff. "But he had Division I talent in one skill. Mark taught himself how to snap. ... I'm not a bragging father, but he did it very well."
Well enough, in fact, to serve as Georgia's starting long-snapper for two-and-a-half seasons. When facing an impediment to his goal of playing college football, Lewis maneuvered around it, and he's been doing the same in his professional life ever since.
"He was in an extraordinary group, a small percentage, of student-athletes that you can tell early on are going to be really good at what they do," Dooley said. "I'm not surprised at his success."
For instance, when 2012 presidential hopeful Mitt Romney assumed control of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, which had been besmirched by scandal, he called Lewis to help him lure back wary sponsors. And $1.5 billion of corporate support later, the once-tarnished Olympics were a success.
"I like him because he's an integrity-first guy," said Peter Ueberroth, the former chairman of the United States Olympic Committee who has worked with and befriended Lewis. "He understands the value of people who are grounded in doing the right thing. His style of communication is very direct and people learn they can rely on it."
The foundation for that success was forged in a household where the moniker "student-athlete" was fully embraced. While he was raised on sidelines and practice fields as his family traveled from one coaching job to the next -- before Georgia, Bill was head coach at Wyoming and defensive backs coach at five other schools -- Lewis's parents never let him lose sight of the fact that his homework mattered more than his footwork.
"My dad taught me from a very young age -- as did my mom -- that doing well in school wasn't optional; doing well in athletics was," Lewis said.
Lewis split his time at Clarke Central playing defensive back and snapping for placekicker John Kasay, who is in the midst of a 21-year NFL career, 15 of which came with the Carolina Panthers. Kasay and Lewis were friends growing up in Athens -- Kasay's father was also an assistant on Dooley's staff -- and later roommates during Lewis's senior year of college.
In Georgia's athletic dorms, Kasay said, he came to understand Lewis's work ethic as he watched his roommate, an accounting major, devote hours to his studies every day. Kasay insists, though, that Lewis was not merely a bookworm gifted a starting spot on Georgia's special teams thanks to nepotism. He labored just as hard on the field as he did off of it.
"I've been blessed to work with a lot of guys who've done really well snapping the ball, which is one of the reasons why I've been able to play for as long as I've been able to play," Kasay said. "He's definitely one of those guys who is very professional and who did a really good job every single day, every single snap."
Lewis had no desire to coach after he graduated in 1988, but he didn't want to leave behind completely the life he'd spent immersed in sports. Once again, the industrious student was forced to tackle a life-altering problem. So he earned a law degree from Georgia in 1992 and combined his lifelong love of athletics with the legal and business acumen he's sharpened since he snapped his last ball as a Bulldog.
His subsequent work with the Olympics, as an executive at NBC and with Jet Set Sports ensured he remained near the heart of the sports-business world. Now his role overseeing championships at the NCAA will keep him close to those college sidelines he grew so accustomed to in his youth.
"To be in sports and business is a perfect marriage," Lewis said. "I sometimes pinch myself and say, 'This is too good to be true.' "