CEDAR HILLS — In a few days, Chad Lewis will find himself on the African desert plains, the famed Serengeti of Tanzania. He'll then be on the trail to the summit of Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain on the continent and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world.
He'll be alongside wounded veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, helping the NFL shine a light on servicemen who made huge sacrifices for freedom.
It's not the summer the former
Philadelphia Eagle all-pro tight end planned before taking a phone call from NFL headquarters just over a month ago. But when you are an official ambassador of the NFL and have been sent to the far corners of the planet, you go.
Lewis is currently working in fundraising and development for BYU's athletic department. When he told his boss, athletic director Tom Holmoe. about the NFL's request, he couched it like, "I don't think I can be gone that long from work, so I'm thinking of turning it down."
Holmoe responded, "Who are you kidding? This is the chance of a lifetime.
Lewis will be joined by two other NFL alums, Tedy Bruschi and former Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher. They'll all meet Monday in New York City, where they'll visit Ground Zero where the Twin Towers toppled and ride on the New York Fire Department's boat No. 433, named after the 433 firefighters who died on Sept. 11 in the World Trade Center tragedy.
The servicemen who are part of the party of 12 include Bryan Wagner of Exeter, Calif., and Ben Lunak of Grand Forks, N.D., who each lost a leg; Mike Wilson of Annapolis, Md., who struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury, and Nancy Schiliro of Hartsdale, N.Y., who lost an eye.
"I could think of no greater cause than to honor these warriors who made sacrifices in service of our country," said Lewis, who will leave his wife Michelle with the eight kids while he goes up Kilimanjaro — a 10-day journey, seven on the trail.
A warning to the other 11 hikers: Lewis is capable of literally talking you up to the summit. Expect the most enthusiastic approach to life you'll ever encounter. Lewis sweats positive molecules.
For a decade, Lewis has represented the NFL on tours of China, Korea, Thailand, Singapore and Taiwan.
As an ambassador, Lewis is a natural. He speaks a language of happiness, enthusiasm and faith. I once wrote he could talk a light pole into switching on.
I asked Lewis what he knew of the famous Kilimanjaro. He immediately spouted off data like 22,000 attempt to climb to the summit every year and only 11,000 succeed. He cited the challenge of the 19,300-foot challenge and how it doesn't require supplemental oxygen like Mount Everest, but it requires a slow ascent to get acclimated to the heights on a daily basis.
"Of those who fail, it is because of the altitude."
It's a slow ascent.
"One of the servicemen has a titanium leg," said Lewis. "I can't wait to meet all of them."
Lewis has spent extensive time training since he got the call. He's put on his hiking boots and jogged up mountain hillsides. He's done it all outdoors, pushing himself and his body for the work ahead. He hiked two mountains in Las Vegas during the MWC basketball tournament. He went up Turtle Head Mountain with his wife and son Jake. He's hiked in snowshoes, run up the hills in Cedar Hills, tried to do 4 to 6 miles every morning for a month. He's done night work, knowing that near the summit, hiking will start at 2 a.m. with headlamps on heads, the start of a 17-hour day.
Lewis said the group will fly to Amsterdam, then on to Tanzania after Monday's meet-and-greet in New York. They'll start in the desert, walk through a rainforest into high mountain pines. When they finish, they'll have to wear winter gear, complete with goggles and low-temperature outfits to withstand below-freezing temps. It will be the most extreme climates found on earth in one week's time.
"I don't want to get there and not be prepared," he said.
Under Armour has provided Lewis with all his gear and outfits, from socks and shoes to underwear, long johns and coats.
Lewis will carry several banners with him. One will be a BYU football banner with signatures of every Cougar player and staff member. He'll also carry an NFL and Eagles banner, and he's accepted a gold banner from the LDS Church's Young Women's President Elaine Dalton.
"I'll be representing a lot of different people, and I'm proud to do it," said Lewis. "I'm proud to take the banners to the roof of Africa."
The 12 key hikers will be accompanied by 47 porters, who will carry their gear for them. One porter will carry a generator so an ESPN cameraman can keep his batteries charged and a laptop, and by satellite phone will chronicle every day online at a website Believeinheroes.org.
I told Lewis I had an old movie in my camping trailer about that mountain. It's called "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and stars Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward and is based on a novel by Ernest Hemmingway.
"Do you want to see the DVD?" I asked.
"Heck, yeah, I'd like to see what it's about," he said.
Don't know if it will help, being a Hollywood tale of Peck's character wondering if he'd lived life right and done all he could, an injured writer fighting for survival.
"Sometimes, thinking about it, I get nervous," admitted Lewis. "It's a really tall mountain."
But this is Lewis, an All-pro who played in a Super Bowl. Holmoe was right — this is a chance of a lifetime.
"It's your job," said Holmoe. "This is what you do."
Indeed, Lewis, a speaker and author, can use the anecdotes.
Just think, at a future time when Lewis is asking a wealthy guy for a donation and is met with excuses; if one of his teenage sons wants to quit a job or his Eagle Scout project; or if he sees a BYU tight end on the practice sidelines questioning his resolve, it is Lewis who can provide the ultimate refrain?
"You think that's tough? Well, I hiked Kilimanjaro. And did it with two guys — and each man had one leg."
Few I know can top that one.
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