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Big-Time Catch

St. Bonaventure High's Lewis emerges as one of the nation's best receivers


It looks simple enough from a distance, the white baseball hat that sits snugly on Whitney Lewis' head.

Then you see it up close and realize it offers much less as sun protection than as a window into Lewis' life:

His carefree days as a toddler. His troubled teenage days, when he found solace in front of the TV on Saturdays in the fall, watching his favorite college football team. And perhaps his future days, when he could return to the state where he was born ... as a football star.

On the back of Lewis' hat, written in small block letters, is his last name. On the front is a light gray silhouette of the Texas Longhorn.

Football has always come easy for Ventura St. Bonaventure High's Lewis, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound senior receiver considered to be one of the top five high school recruits in the nation.

On the first play of his first varsity game, he ran a post pattern and pulled down a 28-yard touchdown pass over two defenders. Lewis was 14 at the time. A freshman.

He has improved with age, scoring 31 touchdowns and making 99 receptions the last two seasons.

Tim Gutierrez, the Seraphs' offensive coordinator, is familiar with speed and skill. Gutierrez played quarterback at San Diego State from 1991-94, handing off to Marshall Faulk and throwing to future NFL receivers Darnay Scott and Will Blackwell.

"[Lewis] kind of reminds me of Will Blackwell as far as things he can do in the air, one-handing balls, acrobatic moves.... He has that grace in the air," Gutierrez said. "And he has that speed of Darnay Scott, the fastest receiver to ever go through San Diego State."

Football has been simple for Lewis, compared to being a child of divorced parents.

Lewis has lived in a rough-and-tumble area of Oxnard with his mother, Sherri Laws, since his parents divorced six years ago.

"It was weird at first, when you're used to having your dad around and all of a sudden he's not there," Lewis said. "It puts a lot of pressure on me. It's like, you've got to be the man of the house, you've got to take care of your mom. That's something I like doing, where everything's on you and all the pressure's on you."

Lewis said he sees his father, Byron, once or twice a month.

"He keeps me level-headed," Lewis said. "A lot of people come up to me and say, 'Whitney, you're the top recruit in the nation, you're this and that.' As soon as I see [my dad], he says, 'You're nobody. You stay level-headed. You're no different than anyone else.' "

Lewis has managed to succeed, the lone misstep coming earlier this year, when he was ruled academically ineligible for basketball and had to sit out the second half of the Seraphs' season. He has since improved his academics--"Without grades, you can't go anywhere," he said wistfully--and is up to a 2.5 grade-point average for core classes, St. Bonaventure Coach Jon Mack said.

"He fits the mold for all the negative things in our society--on his own a lot, lives in a rough neighborhood. He easily could have fallen into negativity," Mack said. "Credit his mother, his primary parent, and his father, who have helped him avoid drugs, alcohol and gangs."

Lewis was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, but moved to California with his parents before he was 2.

He goes back almost every summer to visit family and has followed the Longhorns for years, but he has not officially committed to Texas. Lewis said he is also considering Florida State, Washington and Miami, but he talks warmly of Texas as he adjusts his Longhorns hat, given to him by a teammate's mother.

"My grandpa used to take me to the Texas games all the time," Lewis said. "Whenever it was game week, everywhere you went there was a Texas flag flying outside the house. It seems like a championship game every week. Everyone's out there and everyone wants to cheer you on. I wish I could have stayed there and grown up, but my mom and my dad wanted to come out here."

The eyes of Texas--and almost every other successful football program in the nation, for that matter--have been fixed on Lewis for years.

As a sophomore, he had 52 catches for 879 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Last year, he had 47 catches for 901 yards and 14 touchdowns on a run-oriented team. Quarterback Jack Swisher averaged only 10 passes a game while Lorenzo Booker piled up 2,870 yards rushing and 50 touchdowns.

Booker is now at Florida State, which leaves plenty of work for Lewis, who will play receiver, running back, defensive back and kick returner this season.

Lewis has been slowed the last two weeks by a hamstring injury, but he had an impressive off-season, running a 4.34 in the 40-yard dash at a high-school combine at USC in April. He also bench-pressed 305 pounds and lifted 590 pounds in the squat.

The off-season training has prepared him for this season, when the competition will be substantially tougher for St. Bonaventure, which moves to Division IV in the Southern Section after winning three consecutive championships in Division XI.

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