There was never any doubt what Johnathan Lewis’ role would eventually be at St. Peter’s Prep.
From the minute Lewis enrolled at Grand and Warren, he was going to replace Brandon Wimbush, the former all-everything quarterback with the Marauders.
It wasn’t going to be an easy task for Lewis, considering Wimbush was only the New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year his senior year, grabbing Hudson Reporter Offensive Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors as well in 2014.
But there have been moments in Lewis’ development that were hindrances. He suffered a broken leg that required major rehabilitation as a freshman. There was Wimbush’s incredible year during Lewis’ sophomore year that kept the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Lewis on the sidelines.
And last year, during Lewis’ junior year, when the Marauders lost to Bergen Catholic by the unthinkable score of 47-14, Lewis lost his job as the starting Marauder signal caller. It didn’t matter that Lewis had already established himself as a big-time college prospect. He wasn’t going to start again for the Marauders.
“He made some really bad mistakes against Bergen Catholic,” longtime Prep head coach and athletic director Rich Hansen said. “I remember benching him. John understood why I benched him and why I didn’t start him. From that point, there was a competition.”
“It was a horrible game for me,” Lewis said. “I was really bad. I threw a pick [an interception] to a defensive lineman. I turned the ball over so many times. I was just not in the zone that day.”
So from that game forward, Hansen and offensive coordinator Bill Fitzgerald established a competition between Lewis and his heir apparent Maasai Maynor, a sophomore.
“We always hoped one would emerge,” Hansen said. “After I gave Maasai the start, a lot of other kids would have sulked and walked away. John emerged from that adversity and never lost another competition [to Maynor]. He grew up a lot from that. He wasn’t going to accept he wasn’t starting.”
Lewis didn’t mind the competition, especially since he developed a friendship and a bond with Maynor.
“I think the competition made us both better players,” Lewis said. “I probably would have become complacent. But it motivated me.”
Lewis eventually earned the starting role for the rest of last season, leading the Marauders to an 8-3 record, passing for 1,700 yards and 19 touchdowns and rushing for 500 yards and scoring eight times, earning the Reporter’s Offensive Player of the Year honors.
Lewis’ fine performance earned him a scholarship with Rutgers. He was the first blue-chip recruit to commit for new Rutgers head coach Chris Ash.
Lewis thought that the move to give a verbal commitment to Ash and the Scarlet Knights early last May was a smart one.
“It was the best thing I could have done,” Lewis said. “If I didn’t do it then, I’d be worried about it this year. I could concentrate on playing football and not worry about anything else. I was set with Rutgers. It was a great thing for me to be the first commit. It’s good to know that I’ll be playing there and helping others to get there.”
Despite Rutgers’ recent struggles on the field with Big Ten foes Ohio State and Michigan, Lewis is steadfast about becoming a Scarlet Knight. He’s never wavered from that decision.
However, the competition between Lewis and Maynor continued into this season, despite the successes that Lewis has enjoyed.
“John’s been through a lot,” Hansen said. “He had the experience, but he made so many mistakes. I believe in competition. We find it a lot here.”
Lewis had guided the Marauders to a 4-1 record this season prior to last Friday night, when the Marauders were set to take on the state’s No. 1-ranked team, old nemesis Bergen Catholic, the team that Lewis struggled so mightily against last season.
“It was a big motivator for me,” Lewis said. “Going from last year to this year, I knew I couldn’t have another game like that. I couldn’t afford it. That game [against Bergen Catholic in Sept. of 2015] was the big motivator.”
Lewis couldn’t have dreamed what transpired. In fact, no one could, because Lewis had one of the best all-around performances in Prep history.
Lewis carried the ball 18 times for 138 yards and scored five touchdowns while completing 16-of-25 passing for 194 yards and another touchdown in the Marauders’ 48-42 victory over the Crusaders, catapulting the Marauders into the No. 1 ranking in the state.
For his efforts, Lewis has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week. It’s the second time Lewis has been chosen as Reporter Athlete of the Week, earning the honor last November.
Neither Wimbush nor another celebrated former Prep quarterback Will Hill, the former Baltimore Ravens and New York Giants safety who ruined his professional career because of his documented marijuana use, ever enjoyed a game of that magnitude in their careers with the Marauders.
“I think they’re three different guys,” Hansen said. “Hill hated playing quarterback and Brandon is a passer first who didn’t like running. John likes both. John is also bigger than those guys.”
“I don’t know how to classify myself,” Lewis said. “I’m just a quarterback who tries to get the job done all the time.”
One thing’s for sure: The competition between Lewis and Maynor is over.
“John is at peace with himself,” Hansen said. “He’s confident and we have confidence in him. He’s in a rhythm right now, much like what Brandon had [in 2014, leading the Marauders to the NJSIAA Non-Public Group 4 state championship and No. 1 overall ranking in the state]. He has a confidence that is really good for him right now.”
Hansen is pleased with Lewis’ incredible performance in a huge game.
“I’m happy for him,” Hansen said. “He has experienced a lot in his career and come through it well. He’s becoming the player we thought he could be. It’s great to see him enjoy his success. He really deserves everything he gets, because of all he’s been through. We knew he was a player. We just had to harness that talent. He’s right up there [with the all-time greats]. John’s capable of that every week. He’s a talented guy. He’s a true dual threat [running and passing].”
So far this season, Lewis has thrown for almost 1,000 yards and seven TDs while rushing for nearly 700 yards and scored 10 touchdowns. He’s well on his way.
“I didn’t realize what I did until after the game was over,” Lewis said. “I think that was just God’s way of saying I could do it, that anything I did wasn’t a fluke. It’s all made me a better player and made me a better person.” – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com