NEW ORLEANS — To Derek Lewis, driving an RTA bus was an honorable profession.
After all, his father, Derek Sr., did so in addition to working two other jobs.
But for a former All-Big 12 tight end at Texas with a Super Bowl ring, it wasn’t satisfying. Plus, it’s no fun to be held up at gunpoint or to deal with passengers who have overdosed.
So Lewis, who grew up in New Orleans’ Eighth Ward across from St. Roch Playground and starred at St. Augustine for Tony Biagas and Burton Burns before becoming a Longhorn in the mid-1990s, went back to Austin in 2005. He talked Mack Brown into making him a graduate assistant while he completed his degree in kinesiology.
That led to stints at North Texas and Minnesota before a fortuitous meeting with Will Muschamp led to his being hired as Florida’s tight ends coach when Muschamp took over the Gators shortly afterward.
On Wednesday, when Florida meets Louisville in the Sugar Bowl, Lewis will be riding the bus to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome instead of driving one.
“Whatever you do, you need to enjoy it,” said Lewis, who still sports his St. Augustine class ring. “And it’s scary how much I’m enjoying it now. When I got into coaching, it was like a fish discovering water.”
This is Lewis’ second Sugar Bowl experience. The first was not so good.
Texas was facing Virginia Tech in the 1995 game, which is best remembered for the discovery on the evening before the game that Longhorns defensive back named Joel Ron McKelvey actually was 30-year-old Ron Weaver, who already had played six years of college football and had somehow managed to land a spot on the team as part of a plan to wrangle a book and movie deal from the experience.
Shaken by the revelation, Texas lost 28-10.
“Nobody knew who he was,” said Lewis, then a freshman. “He was kind of a loner who always stayed in his dorm room. I guess we found out why.”
Lewis played a big but indirect part in Florida’s 1996 national title. His 61-yard catch on fourth-and-inches against Nebraska in the Big 12 Championship Game knocked the Cornhuskers out of a Sugar Bowl showdown with Florida State for the Bowl Coalition title, allowing Florida to move into the berth.
The Gators then beat the Seminoles 52-20.
After his playing time at Texas was over, Lewis spent two years with the St. Louis Rams, including their 1999 Super Bowl season, before a knee injury ended his career.
He returned to New Orleans, married his high school sweetheart, Adonis Dalton, and began working for the RTA until the coaching bug bit.
And now, somewhat unexpectedly, Lewis is back in his hometown, a member of the coaching staff of the nation’s No. 4 team.
“I’ve got tons of relatives coming to the game,” he said. “The tickets cost me $3,500 out of my pocket. But it’s worth it.”
And it sure beats driving a bus.