EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Dion Lewis grew up in Albany, N.Y. when the Giants' training camp was held there. Lewis and his father would drive over to the University at Albany to watch practice.
"It was probably about 10 minutes from my house," Lewis said in a phone conversation today. "I would go with my dad, and we would go watch training camp three times a year. That was a great experience for a young kid like me, who had football dreams. Getting to watch some of the pros practice, that was always pretty cool. I used to always look forward to that during summer time."
Lewis admired quarterback Kurt Warner in 2004 and wide receivers like Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard. But he was most impressed with the running backs, the position he played in his youth league. Lewis' favorite player was Tiki Barber. "I used to wear 21 as well when I was younger, too," he said. Lewis later met Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs and even scored an autograph from the latter.
"That was a pretty cool experience for me," Lewis said. "I think I still have it. I think I have the autograph tucked away somewhere. I would have to ask my mom and dad where it's at."
Now Lewis will wear the same uniform as the heroes of his youth. The Giants last week signed the nine-year veteran to be Saquon Barkley's backup.
"It's a perfect and unique opportunity," Lewis said. "Can't wait to get to work."
Lewis began his career in 2011 with the Philadelphia Eagles and spent the last two seasons with the Tennessee Titans. In-between, he missed two entire seasons – he broke his leg in 2013 - and spent three years with the New England Patriots, for whom he played in two Super Bowls, winning one. Like fellow free agent signees Nate Ebner and Cam Fleming, he was in New England with Joe Judge, the Giants' head coach. Lewis returned two kickoffs for touchdowns when Judge was the Patriots' special teams coordinator, in a 2016 postseason game and a 2017 regular-season contest.
"Every time we did a kick return, every special teams unit, we were so in sync with the game plan," Lewis said. "We knew exactly what the other team was going to do. When I was returning kicks, we knew where they wanted to kick the ball. The whole kick return unit, we knew where they were kicking the ball because our return was based off where they were kicking it. We all had to be on the same page, and he made sure we were.
"(Judge is) very attention to detail oriented. He does a great job. He works really hard. He takes pride in what he does. But he's also pretty funny. He throws a couple of jokes in there to keep it light. But at the same time, he's always letting you know that he expects the best out of you."
Lewis has started 27 of 86 regular-season games and rushed for 2,310 yards and 11 touchdowns on 538 carries (4.3-yard avg.) and caught 172 passes for 1,281 yards and seven scores. He has also played in nine postseason games with five starts, including the two Super Bowls. His playoff totals are 60 carries for 222 yards and one touchdown, plus 23 receptions for 158 yards and one score.
In 2019, Lewis played in all 16 regular-season games for the third consecutive season and three postseason games for the Titans as a backup to Derrick Henry, who led the NFL with 1,540 rushing yards. Lewis finished second on the team with 54 carries for 209 yards and added 25 catches for 164 yards and one touchdown. It was a much smaller workload than he had in 2017 (his final season in New England) and 2018 (his first in Tennessee) when he totaled 335 carries, 1,413 rushing yards and 91 catches and scored a total of 11 touchdowns.
"It was tough," Lewis said. "But at the same time, I think it helped keeping the team mentality first. Another thing that helped was Derrick and me had a great relationship. The relationship we had, I wanted nothing but success for him. I was rooting for him. We always helped each other, we were tough on each other. Those two factors made it easy for me to root for him to do well, just because we were close. I knew the type of runner he is. He's the type of guy that needs to be in the game a lot and gets better with more carries. I understood that, and just did whatever the coaches asked me to do and whatever they thought was best for the team."
Lewis has always had a close relationship with his running back teammates, whether he was starting in front of them or was behind them on the depth chart.
"I played behind LeSean McCoy my first three years in the league in Philadelphia," Lewis said. "I built a great relationship with him, learned a lot from him, especially as a young player, the way he studied the game and things like that. I played with LeGarrette Blount and James White in New England and those are two of my best friends now. James is an extremely smart player, so I learned a lot from him protection-wise, how to run routes. Then being with Derrick. Just being around great backs my whole career, just learning from them and just trying to keep a little piece from each player's game. I think that's what helped me be in the league for a long time, just learning, being open to learn and competing with guys."
Now he will partner with Barkley, who totaled 3,469 scrimmage yards his first two seasons and was the 2018 Offensive Rookie of the Year.
"We texted the first day when I signed," Lewis said. "I haven't met him in person, but everything I've heard about him, he's a great kid, works extremely hard. I'm excited to play with him. I like the way he plays. I think he's one of the best running backs in the league, so I'm excited to work with him. I'm going to push him, I'm going to try to learn some things from him, and I look forward to building that relationship, that strong chemistry with each other. We're going to hold each other accountable, pick each other's brains, come together, make this team better and try to win some games."
Sounds like the perfect plan for a lifelong Giants fan.