Lewis Familyassociated Press
Former BYU and Eagles tight end Chad Lewis (89) stands with team MVPs from the 2005 Beijing city flag football finals.

CEDAR HILLS, Utah County — Nearly two decades later, he remembers it vividly — being humbled to tears in the private, late-night hours of a darkened bedroom.

A fresh-out-of-Utah Mormon missionary in his first weeks of a two-year assignment in Taiwan, Chad Lewis was simply overwhelmed.

Intimidated by a strange, new Asian land and its culture. Self-conscious for towering over the shorter Taiwanese people. Devastated by the prospects of learning to communicate in an extremely difficult written and spoken language.

And then there was the food — would he ever be able to stomach such different dishes of Chinese cuisine?

"I cried myself to sleep at night because I hated the food — it was all too hard," he recalled.

With equal parts of prayer, perseverance and positive thinking, Lewis turned a challenge into an opportunity and an opportunity into a success. He learned the language, loved the people and gained a new appreciation for the Chinese culture.

And the food? He developed such an appetite for the local fare that he often accepted challenges that if he could eat everything put on his plate by servers, the meal would be his for no charge.

No problem for Lewis — he came, he consumed and he conquered.

It's just one stage of Lewis' challenge-turned- opportunity-turned-success life. In football, Lewis went from Orem High standout to BYU walk-on and later Cougar star tight end as well as from undrafted NFL free agent to a multiyear All-Pro with the Philadelphia Eagles. And in his Chinese experiences, he went from overwhelmed LDS missionary in Taiwan from 1990 to 1992 to a student and speaker of Mandarin and later to be the National Football League's ambassador to China.

"To think the NFL would send me back there and to travel with the commissioner — it's just too good to be true," said Lewis, who first returned to Taiwan — as well as Singapore and Thailand — in his inaugural effort on the NFL's behalf in 2002 before making a half-dozen official trips since to mainland China.

He's not only involved in helping pave the way for professional football in a country of 1.3 billion people, he also has become unofficial spokesman for China, to speak of "the great people I've met" and their friendship and acceptance of him.

His NFL assignments come with considerable personal sacrifice — the across-the-globe travel is draining, he's away from his family for extended periods of time, and in some cases, he has less than a week's notice to pack up and head out.

"But we made a big priority to China in my family," said Lewis, who resides with his family — his wife, Michele (a former BYU volleyball standout), and five children — in Cedar Hills.

When he signed on as a vice president of a local steel company a couple of years ago after retiring from football, one condition agreed upon was he needed to be free to travel when called upon by the NFL. The company recently was sold to a larger corporation, and Lewis agreed to a buy-out of his position.

"It's never been about the money," he said. "It was the love for the game and the opportunity, and we look at China the same way."

Lewis' connections with China could be problematic when working as the NFL's spokesman on the mainland. His first foray with the language and culture came from his missionary experiences in Taiwan — and the government of the People's Republic of China has strained relationships with Taiwan and does not legally recognize The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Mindful of the sensitivities, Lewis is able to explain his background to Chinese media, dignitaries and others in appropriate but limited manner. Rather than find differences, he accentuates similarities.

Such was obvious when he was helping with the NFL's inaugural Mandarin TV broadcast of the 2004 Super Bowl as a color analyst. Another announcer on the broadcast mentioned Lewis' family — large in comparison to China, where most parents are allowed only one child. Lewis found a chance not to dwell on a difference but express a thought common to the family-oriented Chinese culture when he said, "There's no success that can compensate for failure in the home."

In addition to his work in China with the NFL, Lewis was featured in a television promotion for Brigham Young University and its language-studies program. Seen regularly in conjunction with TV broadcasts of Cougar football and basketball games, the promo shows Lewis speaking Mandarin — his comments are shown in English subtitles — as he interacts with people, touts BYU's program, exchanges high-fives and even sings parts of the Cougar fight song in Mandarin.

While some may think it was filmed in China, the promo was in fact the result of a single-day shoot in San Francisco's Chinatown. Taking equipment and crew to Taiwan or mainland China or getting government approval for the latter would have been too costly and "too much trouble," said Lewis, adding that he loved the interactions from the day's filming.

Because of his Chinese experience and language skills, NBC had expressed some interest in getting Lewis involved with its coverage next month of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But that fell through, leaving Lewis with another challenge to turn into an opportunity as he hopes someone needs a Mandarin-speaking liaison or representative during the Games.

As he's shown with last-minute NFL calls, the passport-toting Lewis is available on a moment's notice, saying "I want to be there."


E-mail: taylor@desnews.com