Jeff Lewis is only 20 years old, yet he’s experienced a lifetime of challenges in his quest to answer a mission call to the Philippines the past two years, and as he now tries to make BYU’s football team.

The son of former NFL All-Pro tight end and current BYU associate athletic director Chad Lewis is currently working full time mowing lawns and working out four times a week with Dave Stroshine of Stroformance in Pleasant Grove.

He once played as an offensive lineman at Orem High alongside Kansas City Chiefs second-round draftee Kingsley Suamataia. But after helping win a state title and graduating, Lewis set aside football and accepted the call as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He departed for Santiago, Philippines, in July 2022 with a suitcase, his scriptures and a growing knowledge of the Tagalog language.

A preferred walk-on, Lewis was coached at Orem by Gabe Sewell, the father of Chicago Bear linebacker Noah Sewell, and by former BYU and NFL lineman Dallas Reynolds. His skill? He was known for his pass blocking. He has the reach, size and foundation to play beyond high school.

Two months into his mission service, Lewis began having stomach issues. In the ensuing year, the 6-foot-6, 305-pound athlete lost 70 pounds and had to return home for medical treatment.

After what he described as a series of miracles, he returned to the Philippines and continued what he started: answering the call.

“I am so grateful that under direction from a prophet of God, President Russell M. Nelson, I was called to serve a mission to the Philippines,” explained Lewis.

After his stomach issues began, tests showed he had acquired a parasite. He continued to serve in Santiago with the help of the mission nurse, Janet Shirts, but ultimately his mission president, Ricardo Cobing, decided Lewis should return home in May 2023 for treatment, including a colonoscopy.

Newcomer Gerry Bohanon on his shoulder rehabilitation, BYU’s starting QB battle ... and more

That procedure found precancerous polyps, which were removed. He was told if they had remained undiscovered, they could have become stage four life-threatening cancer.

Once home in Provo, Lewis continued to believe he would and could fulfill his assignment to teach the people of the Philippines. He sent a letter to church leaders, who reviewed his case and approved his return to Santiago. Once back in Santiago, he says the experience changed his life.

“I was a completely different person. My perspective changed. I love the Filipino people and I was able to teach, serve and dedicate myself to the work. It was a life-changing experience,” said Lewis.

Eventually, Lewis ran into another health-related challenge in Santiago City in March. He experienced numbness on the right side of his body. Doctors in the Philippines believed it was serious, either a tumor or possibly MS. A decision was made in April that he should return home to Orem two months before his official departure date from the Philippines, June 5.

Jeff Lewis, center, is flanked by his parents, Chad and Michele Lewis, after returning from his Latter-day Saints mission.
Jeff Lewis, center, poses with his parents, Chad and Michele Lewis, after returning from his Latter-day Saint mission. | Courtesy of Lewis family

In the past month, he’s continued tests while home. He will undergo an MRI to see if something is pressing on the nerves in his neck.

“I’m still trying to get the proper diagnosis. They thought it was something serious like MS, a tumor or something and so that’s why I came home again,” he said. “I’ve had no pain throughout this whole process since March. It was kind of scary to have my right side numb, but that’s gone. I’m good. My hands are both numb right now. So we’re working with some doctors and I know God’s in the details of my life forever. I know he’s in charge. So, I’m moving forward with my life preparing for the BYU football season.

“It’s all in God’s hands. He is in control,” said Lewis.

In the meantime, in his preparation for football, he’s regained 35 pounds and is up to 275, still short of his pre-mission weight of 305.

Lewis has a big frame and can carry that weight. He just needs to find some answers to the numbness that forced him home from the Philippines two months early.

Puka Nacua’s brothers are headed to the UFL playoffs

He is a humble, sensitive man whose faith is genuine and his outlook is positive. He is the fourth of seven children in the Chad and Michele Lewis family.

Jeff Call, a former colleague at the Deseret News, knows Jeff Lewis as a former neighbor and current buddy of his son, Janson. Jeff Lewis and Janson did mission service at the same time and corresponded.

“My sons grew up with the Lewises,” said Call. “My youngest son, Janson, became really good friends with Jeff, who is a gentle giant. My son is small enough that he looks like something that fell out of Jeff’s pocket. We joked that he was Janson’s bodyguard. Janson and Jeff kept in touch as much as they could throughout their missions. Jeff Lewis is a humble young man with a great sense of humor. Janson and Jeff will be roommates with another gentle giant, Joe Brown, this fall. I’m happy that Janson has a great friend in Jeff to hang out with after his mission. Jeff’s been an amazing, positive influence on Janson for years.”

I remember decades ago standing by a shed at the Orem City Center, checking out shoulder pads and helmets to his father Chad and his brother Mike to play in the city’s youth football program sponsored by the Orem Jaycees. I remember, years later, BYU offensive coordinator Norm Chow telling me one summer he had a returned missionary tight end prospect who was 6-foot-6 and would walk on the team.

“Keep (your) eye on Chad Lewis,” Chow said.

I did. He was that kid I’d checked off the list that day for a helmet and pads.

His father played on the 1996 Cotton Bowl team with another NFL-bound tight end, Itula Mili, who was injured right before the bowl in Dallas. Chad not only excelled in the NFL as an All-Pro, but was an ambassador to China for the league.

As I sat in an Orem restaurant and chatted with Chad’s son, I was impressed with Jeff’s aura and his belief in miracles, because he’d experienced many in the past two years. Much of his father’s positivity is embedded in his persona.

Jeff’s world is heading toward a unique intersection: His health and his dream to play college football must be resolved.

No winner has been declared, but his hope and optimism are evident, born of his genetic makeup — both physical and spiritual.

Royal coach Chad Lewis smiles after his team won the BYU alumni game at BYU in Provo on Friday, March 22, 2024. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News