Advocate staff photo by ELIOT KAMENITZ Lake Area Tech coach Derrick Lewis leads his team at Joe Yenni Stadium in Metairie on Saturday.

Derrick Lewis probably could’ve found an easier coaching gig.

With five years of NFL playing experience on his résumé, including a stint as a receiver with the New Orleans Saints, surely he could have landed something at a more established program.

But instead, Lewis is coaching at upstart Lake Area, trying to build a football program from scratch for a team that calls themselves the Fighting Leopards.

The school, formed when Thurgood Marshall and Greater Gentilly merged, is just 5 years old.

The football program is even younger, fielding a team for just the third season this year.

Lewis has coached all three of those seasons.

He wouldn’t have it any other way.

“This is my way of giving back,” Lewis said. “When I would come to games and see the kids, I just felt like I had a lot to offer.”

His team dropped to 0-3 Saturday, losing a 19-16 heartbreaker to Grace King in overtime.

By the looks on his players’ faces as they filed one by one out of the locker room at Yenni Stadium, you would’ve thought Lake Area had just lost the state championship.

But junior receiver Cyrus Sutton had an explanation.

“It’s tough because we’re hungry,” Sutton said. “Everybody wants it.”

Sutton believes Lewis will eventually help them get it.

“He’s a fun, but strict coach,” Sutton said. “But he has high expectations for us.”

And Lewis has high expectations for himself as well.

But he knows success won’t come overnight, especially coaching a team that is young and inexperienced.

“Being from the area, I know we have a lot of talent, but a not a lot of resources,” Lewis said. “I feel like if I can take my expertise and give it to some of these young kids, hopefully it will help them go on and do something for themselves like sports did for me.”

Sports took Lewis from the NFL to starting his own business to spending one season as an assistant coach at then O. Perry Walker High School in 2009.

“I coached there to get my feet wet and decided I wanted to start my own program and establish something from the ground up instead of going into a school with a tradition,” Lewis said. “God blessed me to get to a school that didn’t have any sports.”

But for Lewis, this is about more than just sports and wins and losses.

It’s also about life.

“Football is the game of life,” said Lewis, who grew up in the Sixth Ward. “I minister to them and talk to them and take them to church. I do all I can to try to help curb some of the bad decisions they may make off the field and hope those split decisions they make on the field can help them take their time and make real decision in life. It’s really about the game of life.”

Lewis knows all too well about the life and the twists and turns of it.

He never played a down of high school football.

But he was standout in track at Joseph S. Clark High School. He quit school to work, then returned to graduate. He wound up running track at a junior college in California.

He gave it up after a year, deciding to give football a try.

After a solid season, he landed a football scholarship at San Diego State. After that, he signed as an undrafted free agent with the Saints, bringing him back to his hometown. He also played with the Buccaneers and Texans as well as in NFL Europe and arena ball. He doesn’t watch NFL games much now, preferring to watch college football instead.

But his heart is in high school football, where he is trying to build a program at the school located right down the street from Holy Cross.

The Fighting Leopards play Sci Academy next.

Their season will be even tougher next season when they begin competing for a district championship for the first time. They are expected to be placed in the rugged district that includes the likes of Karr, Warren Easton and Belle Chasse.

Lake Area Principal Darren Lewis, no relation, says Lake Area’s time is coming.

And he feels the school has the right guy to get it done.

“The toughest part is getting the kids to stay committed,” said Lewis, in his second year as principal. “We are playing against schools that have a 10, 20 or 30 year head start on us. We just have to get the kids to keep coming back and believe that greater things are coming later on. But he definitely has us headed in the right direction. We’re on the verge.”