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Chargers’ Lewis Has Long Road to Starting Job : Football: A seventh-round pick out of Oregon Tech a year ago, he gets nod to start opposite Anthony Miller.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nate Lewis has arrived, and it has been a remarkable journey.

Without prompting Friday, Chargers Coach Dan Henning wanted it known: An impressive Lewis has moved himself into position to start at wide receiver opposite Anthony Miller.

“Nate has played better in this camp than he did all last year,” Henning said. “He’s getting better and it looks like he’s going to be the guy on the other side when we’re using two wide receivers.”

Three years ago, Lewis was on his way out.

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He was just a kid in college, and while he was playing football at the University of Georgia, his classes and grades were getting away from him.

By the time he discovered he was in serious trouble, he learned he needed a B in psychology to stay in school.

“I was too far behind; I got a C,” he said, “And I was dismissed.”

Playing football had been a big deal to Lewis at Georgia, but receiving an education had been more important to Louise Lewis.

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“Took me two weeks to get the nerve to call my mother and tell her I was out of school,” he said. “I didn’t want to disappoint her.”

His journey was just beginning.

“I remember calling my mom,” he said, “and she said, ‘Baby, just come on home and we’ll talk about it. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake.’

“That’s always stuck with me, and looking back now I’m not ashamed about what happened. It was actually a blessing.”

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After returning home from school, he took some more of his mother’s advice and joined a friend in Los Angeles for a fresh start.

He took the night shift at Yellow Freight, spent his mornings working out and his afternoons calling colleges.

He could have disappeared into everyday L.A. He could have written off college as an experience gone sour and gotten on with his life. He could still be working as shipper and handler for Yellow Freight, but Lewis was reared to pursue his dreams.

So when Oregon Tech called, it did not matter that he didn’t know where the school was. He went.

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Klamath Falls, Ore., was not a regular stop on the National Football League scouting trail. And to complicate his future, he suffered a pulled hamstring that threatened to destroy his last chance at Oregon Tech.

But Lewis recovered sufficiently to play in seven games and catch 27 passes for 434 yards. And that was enough for General Manager Bobby Beathard.

While everyone else was saying, “who?” Beathard was announcing he had used a seventh-round draft pick in the 1990 draft to select Lewis.

“Sometimes it still amazes me,” Lewis said. “I could be still working at something I really didn’t want to do.”

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Lewis’ rise to prominence this summer followed a rookie season in which he caught 14 passes for 192 yards and a touchdown and rushed four times for 25 yards and a touchdown.

“It’s so different this season,” he said. “I’m comfortable. I’m not so nervous. I can make adjustments; I’m more alert.”

Lewis, a former running back who made the transition to wide receiver to enhance his chances of gaining entry to Georgia, also returned 17 kicks and 13 punts last season, including a 63-yarder for a touchdown against Seattle.

“Nate’s strong,” Henning said. “He’s out here physically working as hard as anybody, catching the ball better than anybody, and it looks like he’s making progress. It needs to go noticed.”

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Louise Lewis will not be pleased. She has raised her son to shun publicity, and he has as much humility as he has speed and talent.

“It’s nice to hear Coach Henning say those nice things, but I won’t pay it any attention,” he said. “My mom didn’t want me to read newspapers while I was growing up because she didn’t want me to get full of my self.

“I want to stay humble. I want to keep my work habits, stay focused and just play. It’s my mother. She’s told me not to be the big-headed guy who talks a good game.”

Lewis, however, has the chance now to call home and tell his mother that he’s made it. He has studied hard, and he has made it as a starting wide receiver in the National Football League.

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He’ll call, he said, but he won’t be passing on Henning’s remarks. He said he will call to tell his mother he’s still working hard. He said that’s what she will want to hear.

“My mom has motivated me to be the person I am today,” he said. “I could have just dropped out of sight, but it’s like they say, love can make you do anything.”

After praising Lewis for his climb into the starting lineup, Henning made it clear that Walter Wilson, the team’s 1990 third-round draft pick, has a fight on his hands to make the team.

“Walter is fighting a situation where he’s not involved a great deal on special teams, so he’s got to notch himself out a spot in the first two or three guys,” Henning said, “Or he’s going to struggle to be part of the team. He knows that; if he doesn’t know it, when you write it he’ll know it.”

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Kitrick Taylor, who returned punts last season for the Chargers, is expected to make the roster along with Miller and Lewis. Wilson will have to fend off Yancey Thigpen, the team’s fourth-round pick this year.

Last week defensive end Burt Grossman was forced to miss the exhibition opener with the Oilers because of a knee injury. Grossman said he took a seat in the stands, and the club took the price for a ticket out of his paycheck.

Grossman convinced Henning to let him practice Friday, and he said he will play against the Rams.

“He said he wants to play,” Henning said, “because he doesn’t want to buy his own ticket to this game. He wants to be on the sideline.”

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