“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. You’re worried that no matter how hard you play, everyone just looks at you and says, ‘He’s a loser like everyone else.’”
Such was the burden Mo Lewis shouldered throughout his 13-year career with the New York Jets.
Selected in the third round of the 1991 NFL Draft, the former University of Georgia Bulldog didn’t enjoy a winning season until Bill Parcells arrived in 1997. New York posted a 93-115 record throughout Lewis’ tenure, 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.
“It’s hard for people to separate the person from the team he’s playing for,” said Lewis.
“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 the early-mid 1990s, so did Mo Lewis. Seasons where he led the team in tackles and received the Jets’ MVP award went for naught. No. 57’s talents remained unnoticed around the league.
His pursuit for NFL glory was stunted by the reputation of the team to which his career was dedicated. 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. 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.”
Then the recognition finally came.
After eight seasons, Mo Lewis was voted to his first Pro Bowl. Parcells was in his second season, 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 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)...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 would end tragically in Denver.
Lemony Snicket would call Lewis’ career a series of unfortunate events.
Playing second fiddle to the late Derrick Thomas for Pro Bowl votes, despite posting better numbers in some seasons, was the first bout with despair. Lewis dealt with more suffering, finishing eight out of his 13 seasons without a winning record.
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 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 ridiculous thoughts should only be reserved for the most foolish of fans.
Brady’s success with the Patriots is unfortunate, but Lewis should never be faulted for doing what made him one of the most respected men to ever wear the 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, he experienced firsthand.
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,” said Parcells 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 Jun. 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.