Reading the autopsy report on former Panther quarterback Jeff Lewis – as I did Tuesday after The Observer’s Joseph Person acquired it and wrote this story about it -- is a stark reminder of our mortality.
But for every question the report answered, it seemed to ask another one. Most obviously: Why?
Why did this happen to Lewis, who was only 39 when he died in Arizona of an accidental drug overdose in January? Why would he have been taking morphine and zolpidem – a sedative and sleep aid more commonly known as Ambien? Why did he have a possible history of prescription medication abuse, as the medical examiner wrote?
Lewis was listed as a 6-foot-2 quarterback who weighed 211 pounds when he played for Carolina. I knew he was shorter than that – I’m 6-2, and I looked down on Lewis in the locker room. The autopsy report said he was actually six feet tall, but more strangely, that he weighed 265 pounds. The report characterized him as obese, and cited obesity that as a contributing factor to his death (along with a heart condition that included blocked arteries).
Lewis had been an assistant coach at Northern Arizona, his alma mater, for one year when he died. He had once been the Panthers’ “quarterback of the future” – George Seifert traded for him and then later released Steve Beuerlein in 2001 to try and pave the way for Lewis to inherit the starting job. Lewis was so bad in the 2001 preseason, however, that Seifert ended up reversing field, cutting Lewis and starting rookie Chris Weinke for what turned into a 1-15 season. I still remember how classy Lewis – who was generally well-liked in the locker room -- was when the Panthers fired him. “I’m not going to make any excuses, " he said after being released in 2001.
“Obviously, I'm disappointed it didn't work out. I tried as hard as I could. I probably tried too hard.”
When asked if anything could have been different about his time at Carolina he said then: “I want to take the high road on this whole thing. I played as hard as I could every time I was out there.”
What happened to Lewis when he played for Carolina wasn’t totally his fault. He wasn’t the guy who pulled the trigger on a trade in which the Panthers shipped a third- and a fourth-round pick to Denver to get him – that was Seifert. He didn’t give himself the “quarterback of the future” nickname at Carolina – that was simply what Seifert wanted him to be and so what everyone expected. He didn’t pay himself millions before he ever took a snap at Carolina – the overzealous Panthers did that before they realized he couldn’t make the right decisions under pressure in the pocket.
Strangely, Lewis and Bryan Stoltenberg – a former Panther center who used to snap the ball to Lewis in practice – died on consecutive days in January 2013.
Stoltenberg, 40, started 18 games for Carolina from 1998-2000 and is survived by a wife and three sons. The University of Colorado’s website said at the time of his death that he had undergone several surgeries after being in a car accident in mid-December and had likely died of a blood clot.
The deaths were completely unrelated, but made many former Panthers – and current fans – think of issues of life and death, just as so many of us have in the past few days after the bombings at the Boston Marathon.
As for Lewis, reading his autopsy report saddened me. And it reminded me again that elite athletes are just like the rest of us despite their prowess on a playing field – flawed and sometimes confused, trying to find a peaceful place in a difficult world.