GREEN BAY – Marcedes Lewis was 8 years old the first time his mother, Yvonne Withers, signed him up for football.
Or at least tried.
The child was a ball of energy who always had something to say with a deep, baritone voice well beyond his years. Lewis also was a head-size taller than his peers, making him an easy No. 1 selection whenever kids in his neighborhood held pickup games.
As a single mother working multiple jobs, Yvonne wasn't thinking superstardom, scholarships or the National Football League when she scraped together the $75 registration fee.
All she wanted to do was keep her son off streets with dangerous tentacles that had latched onto several of Lewis' close relatives.
Lewis spent most of his childhood in Long Beach, Calif. There were drugs, gangs and poverty. But even when money was its tightest, Yvonne's goal was to keep her family "a few lights" away from the roughest parts of the area.
"I grew up on the East side of Long Beach. That's where Snoop Dogg is from; Warren G, Nate Dogg," Lewis explains. "When you heard gunshots, you didn't think twice. You continued to play."
Lewis and football began as an arranged marriage and the youngster treated it as such. Mom paid, so Lewis played but he wasn't necessarily happy about it. When Yvonne was working, Lewis would walk 15 minutes to the city bus in pads and uniform and take the 15-minute ride to practice.
A month into this process, Lewis began noticing his friends playing outside and wanted to join in. One skipped practice led to another and the money Yvonne gave him for bus fare started to get allocated to candy and arcade games.
That was until Lewis' youth football coach showed up at their place one day asking for Lewis' pads. Yvonne was floored by the realization her son hadn't been attending practice.
"I'm like, 'What do you mean he hasn't been to practice in two weeks? I give him money for bus fare every day,'" Yvonne recalled. "When I called him out of the room when the coach was there, he looked like a deer in headlights. His eyes were so big."
Lewis was instructed to round up his pads and give them back to the coach. Yvonne was disappointed over the whole situation. It wasn't about the wasted money. It's that her son gave up – and where they come from, you don't do that.
"I told him that next year he's going to play again," Yvonne said. "I said this time you're going to finish the season. If you decide you don't want to play after you finished the season, then you don't have to play the next year but I don't raise quitters."
That is the last time Marcedes Alexis Lewis didn't play football.
Every fall, for the past 28 years, Lewis has put on his pads and left it all on the field during a football career that's now spanned 292 games between college and the NFL (including playoffs).
The sport allowed Lewis to break a generational family curse. He earned a full-ride scholarship to his dream school, UCLA, where he became the first in his family to earn a college degree.
Lewis became a first-round draft pick and is one of just five tight ends in NFL history to play 16 NFL seasons. His 234 regular-season games played now ranks inside the top 100 in league history.
The backbone for it all is his "Supermom," Yvonne, who gave birth to Lewis when she was just 15 and often worked 16-hour days split between two or three jobs to make sure a roof stayed firmly above his head.
In August, at the start of his 16th NFL season, Lewis was asked what keeps him going at 37 years old. There's one answer.
"My mom had me when she was 15 years old and so to watch her struggle, that's what gets me up in the morning," Lewis said. "Nothing I could ever go through will be tougher than what she had to go through raising me."
'She's a warrior'
Yvonne saw the worst of her neighborhood growing up and worked tirelessly to shield her kids from that.
Her own childhood was scarred by unimaginable abuse, but that early adversity created resolve and from that resolve she found grace, a trait she has passed down to her children.
By the time she was a teenager, Yvonne knew how to cook, clean and care for her younger siblings when her mom was working. As difficult as it was to be a mother at 15, Yvonne felt a duty and purpose in caring for a young Marcedes.
It was not easy, though. At two months old, Marcedes broke his femur when a family friend accidentally bumped the child from Yvonne's arms. He was put into traction for three weeks to separate the bone before being placed in a body cast for months.
Marcedes never really crawled as a baby but he did start walking at seven months old. The tradeoff was he cried almost nonstop as an infant.
So here I am, I’m 15 years old with this baby and I just signed the lease to my own apartment.” Yvonne Withers, Marcedes Lewis' mother
After an argument with her mother and her mom's boyfriend, Yvonne was sent to live with her grandparents in Los Angeles. Her grandfather didn't take kindly to the screaming baby and Yvonne moved out on her own a little more than a month later.
At just 15 years old, Yvonne managed to get a lease at a one-bedroom apartment in four-unit, two-story building in downtown Long Beach.
"I told them I lost my ID but I do have my social security card," Yvonne said. "When they ran your social security card back then, it didn't come up with all the details that it comes up with now. So here I am, I'm 15 years old with this baby and I just signed the lease to my own apartment."
On the advice of a friend, she went to the welfare office and applied for assistance. She used that money to make the initial deposit and help with childcare, while working to make the $375 monthly rent.
The two lived in that apartment for three years before Marcedes' younger brother, Ashley, joined them. A couple months later, Yvonne moved back to South Central in a house near her grandparents.
It should have been an ideal situation but Yvonne's boyfriend also moved in with them. She had met him while attending continuation school and he turned out to be extremely abusive.
“My mom was doing the best she could just so we could survive." Marcedes Lewis
Lewis has blacked out much of this part of his childhood, building corridors in his mind he rarely travels down today. To some extent, so too has Yvonne. There weren't many positive memories to draw from.
She was frequently hit, had her hair ripped out and even had her head put through a wall on more than one occasion. Mentally, the relationship took its toll and Yvonne lost a significant amount of weight during that time.
The stress led to her passing out and being rushed to a local hospital. Doctors and nurses in the emergency room shook to wake her up and asked her what drugs she was on. She told them she wasn't on anything and the tests confirmed that.
Once Yvonne stabilized, the doctor gave her some advice that changed the direction of her life.
"They ran a whole battery of tests and the doctor just told me, 'I'm not sure what's going on with you but I have an idea,'" Yvonne recalled. "'Whatever's going on in your life, you need to let it go. Because you almost died today.'"
Afterward, Yvonne began selling possessions to save money for an escape. Things finally came to a head when she went to the Carmelitos Housing Project in Long Beach to visit her boyfriend's sister, with whom she was close.
When the boyfriend came to pick her up that evening, he was in a surly mood. Yvonne suspects he was high. The outbursts were always the worst when he was high.
Another argument ensued and Yvonne was badly beaten after the boyfriend stopped the car on a service street off the 91 freeway. Marcedes and Ashley cried, looking out the backseat.
The boyfriend threw Yvonne back into the vehicle and drove to get gas. Before they could get back to the next service station, however, the car stalled out.
The boyfriend grabbed the gas can and started walking. After he went out of sight, Yvonne and her boys got out the car and "never looked back."
They ran about a mile before Yvonne found a payphone and called her mom to ask if her brother could pick her up. They moved back in for a short while, so Yvonne could save enough money to begin the next phase of their lives.
"My mom was doing the best she could just so we could survive," Lewis said. "She's a warrior, bro."
Maturing at a fast rate
Money was tight but so was the family. Yvonne worked hard to make sure her boys got to pick a few of their favorite presents every Christmas, along with other items to open.
Yvonne was honest with her boys but also realized she had to be careful how she said things. For example, she fell into a pattern of replying, "When I get my county check," anytime Marcedes asked for something.
One time, when Marcedes was pretty young, the two had boarded the city bus. After sitting down, he asked Yvonne in a deep, bellowing voice, "Mama, when you get your county check, can you buy me a Teddy Ruxpin?"
Today, it's one of Yvonne's favorite memories, laughing when she recalls Marcedes' pronunciation of Ruxpin (WUP-xpin) to describe the popular 1980s children's toy. At the time, however, the young mother was slightly embarrassed at the announcement of the family's reliance on government assistance. The bus was startled by the youngster's deep voice and all eyes turned in their direction.
"The fact that I knew what the county check was … is because she was honest with me and kept it real with me," Lewis said. "You know how sometimes kids will cry for certain things or whine until they get them. I didn't have that in my blood because she was very honest with me and our situation."
Yvonne got off government assistance when Lewis was five, but worked two and sometimes three jobs to make ends meet. She slept intermittently. When he was older, Marcedes began to watch over his little brother the same way Yvonne once did her own siblings. He learned how to cook, clean and wash clothes before he was 8, with Yvonne teaching him how to properly separate whites, lights and darks.
“I just remember being so in tune with my life is different. It’s not going to be like the storybook white-picket fence." Marcedes Lewis
When he was 7, Marcedes often went down to the laundromat by himself with a shopping cart filled with four or five loads of clothing. By the time Yvonne got home, Lewis would have everything folded up and ready for her to put away.
Ten years later, Lewis would carry that trait with him to UCLA.
"He taught people in college how to clean and wash clothes. Yes, he did," said Yvonne, laughing. "He knew how to do everything."
Yvonne's workdays were grueling. Monday through Friday, she was a dispatcher for an alarm company before picking up security shifts with Shoreline Village from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. On the weekends, Yvonne also worked security at the LA Convention Center.
Mom's hectic schedule led to Marcedes spending a lot of time alone at home with Ashley. Yvonne grimaces a little when thinking about it now, but she didn't have a choice back then.
To cover her bases, she even called the local police department to make sure it was OK to leave her boys at home when she was at work. She was told as long as the boys didn't cause trouble, it wouldn't be a problem – and it wasn't.
There were ground rules, though. As a latchkey kid, Marcedes had to stay off the streets and look out for his little brother. While he was apt at cooking eggs and pancakes, Marcedes could use only the microwave while she was gone.
"That's what I grew accustomed to and I was kind of like my mom's right-hand man at that time," Lewis said. "I just remember being so in tune with my life is different. It's not going to be like the storybook white-picket fence, but I was able to adjust and adapt from a young age, and understand that adversity was something that was going to be a part of my life, at least for that time period."
Life got better. Yvonne met future her husband, Mike Withers, and the two were married when Marcedes was 9 years old and Ashley was 6. He was a veteran with a military mindset who filled that father-figure void in Marcedes' life.
Yvonne scaled back to one full-time job, and she and Mike welcomed the birth of two more children, Cody and Nikia. Life was better, Marcedes was wiser and things came to feel normal.
"Before I got to college, I kind of regretted not being able to have a childhood because my mom is working two jobs," Lewis said. "But the older I get, in hindsight, I wouldn't change a thing. I'm an old soul, in general, but I was able to mature at a fast rate with everything my mom taught me."
'You have an opportunity to change your life'
Marcedes was 12 years old the first time he got arrested. He and a few of his buddies had fallen into a habit of going to a local Alpha Beta grocery mart in between school and practice.
They took bread, lunch meat or candy depending on the day and brought the haul to a nearby abandoned house that served as a makeshift clubhouse.
This routine went on for months and the kids thought they were getting away from it. That was until one day when Marcedes and his friends left the store and saw police cars on both ends of the block. His buddies bolted from his side, but Lewis stood frozen in front of the officers, dropping his goods on the cement.
“There were times I would hear, or see little things, and be like, ‘Where did this come from? You better not be stealing." Yvonne Withers, Marcedes Lewis' mother
As it turns out, the local authorities had been building a case against Marcedes and his friends for 3½ months. The officers cuffed him and put him in the back of the police car. To make matters worse, the store was down the block from his middle school. Every kid walking home saw him in the squad car.
Given Yvonne's position as a local dispatcher, word traveled fast of what had happened.
"They knew who I was and hit my mom up right away, and were like, 'Hey, we got 'Cedes down here. What do you want to do?'" Lewis recalled. "My mom said, 'Leave his ass in there.'"
Yvonne, the mother, wanted nothing more than to get her son but Yvonne, the parent, knew Marcedes had to be taught a lesson. So, there he sat – stomach in knots and not a molecule of moisture in his mouth. The cops took his mugshot and fingerprints (strictly for show but Marcedes didn't realize it at the time), and he spent the night downtown.
Yvonne picked up him in the wee hours of the morning, got her son ready for the day and sent him right back to school. It was hard because she knew her son wasn't a bad kid. He was just a class clown and impressionable.
"I was like, 'Why are you stealing stuff like this? We have food,'" Yvonne said. "There were times I would hear, or see little things, and be like, 'Where did this come from? You better not be stealing. I would tell them if you get caught stealing, you're going to end up in jail. The only thing that's going to happen in this area that we live in is either jail or death if you keep doing stupid stuff.'"
The stakes were high in Long Beach. Marcedes had several family members get mixed up with gangs, drugs and other distractions. His biological father had spent time in and out of jail, as well.
“From drug addicts to alcoholics to domestic violence, everything that went on within my family, I had all the examples of what not to do and what not to be. I think that is what kind of shaped my path.” Marcedes Lewis
During one argument with his mom, he challenged Yvonne that his dad would be a better parent than her. So, Yvonne gave Marcedes $40 and dropped him off with his dad for two weeks.
"He said his dad took his money for beer and all kinds of stuff," Yvonne said. "He went over there and saw that it wasn't peaches and cream. He came back, and I think more that than anything, he appreciated the life that he did have."
Those early episodes were all Lewis needed to be done with the riffraff. It wasn't even about sports. He just wanted to be a son Yvonne could be proud of.
"She was like, 'You have an opportunity to change your life and change everything that we've ever been a part of,'" Lewis recalled. "'You're not your dad. You're not your uncles. You're different. Don't fall on those same tracks.'"
Yvonne wanted her children to enjoy their childhood but was transparent with them. She often sat Marcedes and Ashley down in the living room and popped in "Boyz n the Hood" and "Menace to Society" to warn against the dangers of their environment.
Over time, Lewis built goals to keep him on track. He wanted to attend Long Beach Polytechnic High School and attend UCLA. Stealing from local stores wasn't going to help him get there.
"I was the type of kid that had to touch the stove to know it's hot," Lewis said. "Once I already faced that fire, it was kind of like, 'OK, that's what I don't want to do and want I don't want to be. These are my uncles who did drop out of high school. I don't want to do that.'
"Throughout my family, from drug addicts to alcoholics to domestic violence, everything that went on within my family, I had all the examples of what not to do and what not to be. I think that is what kind of shaped my path."
For love of the game
After some initial reluctance, Marcedes fell headfirst in love with football after Yvonne re-enrolled him when he turned 9 – and he was dominant at every level he played.
With Marcedes already standing 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds as an eighth grader, Yvonne and Mike routinely had people come up to them saying he was going to play in the NFL someday.
"All I wanted was to keep him focused on something," Yvonne said. "Then, he was 12, 13 years old and people were saying, 'Oh, he's amazing. He's going to go pro.' At the same time, we're like, 'He's 12.'"
Lewis enrolled in Long Beach Poly and Yvonne doesn't remember her son ever giving her trouble again after his freshman year. His focus was on sports.
“She’s a mom who really loves her kids and wants to make sure they’re doing the right thing. She obviously has her head screwed on pretty well and knows what she’s doing.” Former Long Beach Poly football coach Raul Lara, on Marcedes Lewis' mother Yvonne Withers
Lewis arrived on the school's campus at 6-3, 210. While shooting hoops in the gymnasium one day, Lewis caught the eye of basketball coach Ron Palmer. After a little convincing, Lewis agreed to play organized basketball for the first time.
Lewis hardly knew anything about the game from a technical standpoint but still averaged 23 points and 19 rebounds per game and was named the MVP of the freshman team.
On the football field, Lewis developed into one of the most highly coveted recruits in the country. As talent rich as the area was, Lewis was still a man amongst boys as a senior.
Already all of 6-6 and 235 pounds, Lewis caught 44 passes for 710 yards and 11 touchdowns during a 13-1 season for a Long Beach Poly that culminated in a CIF Division I Southern Section championship.
"Obviously when a kid is 6-7 flexed out and as athletic as he is, he can pretty much beat anybody," said Long Beach Poly coach Raul Lara. "He was just remarkable. The opponents would see him and be like, 'Oh my goodness.' Not only him but there were a whole bunch of guys on that team who were pretty good."
Lara, who was in his first season as head coach that year after previously serving as defensive coordinator, also played Lewis on defense and he recorded seven sacks. A University of Nebraska recruiter came to one game and thought Lewis could be a college defensive end if he wanted to be.
As a tight end, however, Lewis was widely viewed as a top-10 recruit nationally alongside the likes of Vince Young, Haloti Ngata and Devin Hester. Before Lewis' senior year of high school in 2001, ESPN recruiting analyst Tom Lemming told the Los Angeles Times: "He looks like an NFL tight end already."
Lewis could've played anywhere but didn't take many visits. Miami (Fla.) put on a full-court press, which was enticing given how dominant Jeremy Shockey and Kellen Winslow were during the Hurricanes' national championship run in 2001.
However, there were two factors working in UCLA's favor few schools could match – Yvonne didn't fly at that time and Lewis had loved the Bruins' blue and gold.
Years of grinding were finally paying off for Lewis and his mom, as UCLA turned out to be a "utopia" for Lewis. The school and football program were everything he dreamed.
Yvonne proudly attended all her son's home games during a four-year run, in which Lewis caught 126 passes for 1,571 yards and 21 touchdowns.
"She's a mom who really loves her kids and wants to make sure they're doing the right thing," Lara said. "She obviously has her head screwed on pretty well and knows what she's doing. That's what's neat about that family."
As a senior in 2005, Lewis was a consensus first-team All-American and won the Mackey Award as the nation's top tight end, a year after getting edged out by Virginia's Heath Miller.
That spring, Jacksonville chose Lewis with the 28th pick in the first round of the 2006 NFL Draft. With his rookie contract, Lewis bought his mom the house she lives in today and told her she could finally quit her job.
Yvonne tried to stop working, but that shoe didn't fit. She's too focused, too driven. All Yvonne knows is work, and without it, she felt like she lost a part of her identity.
Instead, she started running Lewis' foundation, football camp and other outreach efforts in Long Beach. In recent years, she's opened three businesses of her own: Long Beach Live Scan, Fingerprinting and Notary; KidsZone Preschool Academy; and KidsZone Visitation Services for court-ordered supervised visits.
"One of the things that will tell you is I'm extremely grateful to my son for affording us the life that we have," Yvonne said. "Because he's made a way for me to focus on things that I want to do without having to worry about finances. It's just crazy how all that goes."
His true value is priceless
Once Lewis was playing in the NFL, Yvonne saw a hypnotist to help overcome her fear of flying. She's not 100% certain it worked but she has flown to watch her son play for 15 years.
There have been highs, lows and everything in between. Yvonne sympathized when Lewis endured six consecutive losing seasons in Jacksonville and rejoiced with her son when the Jaguars advanced to the AFC Championship Game in 2017.
Two months later, however, Jacksonville released Lewis out of nowhere. Yvonne could feel Lewis' hurt. He played 12 years with nine different quarterbacks and still gladly would have played for the Jaguars forever. He's that loyal.
“The fact they utilize him and they talk about his strengths, you would think he’s a new player in the league the way they talk about him." Yvonne Withers, Marcedes Lewis' mother, on the Packers
Lewis took two months to decide if he still wanted to play before signing with Green Bay. In 2019, the arrival of new Head Coach Matt LaFleur breathed new life into Lewis' career.
While Lewis no longer is the 700-yard, 10-touchdown tight end he once was, the past three years have been some of the most rewarding of his career. He remains one of the game's premier blocking tight ends and was voted a team captain this year.
When the situation calls for it, Lewis still can catch the ball. His 23 receptions for 214 yards in 2021 were both single-season bests during his four seasons in Green Bay. Fans have learned to embrace his contributions, barking in approval for "Big Dog."
"The fact they utilize him and they talk about his strengths, you would think he's a new player in the league the way they talk about him," Yvonne said.
Despite being older than most of the locker room, Lewis has a way of connecting with people. He's been a mentor to Robert Tonyan, Josiah Deguara, converted defensive lineman Bronson Kaufusi and even five-time Pro Bowl receiver Davante Adams.
“What are the old commercials? ‘This costs this much, and this costs this much, and then this is priceless?’ That’s how I feel about ‘Big Dog.’ His salary is X, he’s been on the team this many years, but his true value is priceless." Packers QB Aaron Rodgers
Adams and Lewis have grown especially close the past two years. In fact, Lewis lived with Adams for 2½ months at the start of this season while waiting for his rental property to be ready.
While the two are both Californians, their friendship has been forged by an old-school temperament and a love for film study. Where some roommates might pop in a movie on off days, the two would watch film for hours to pass the time. Lewis even got ahold of some of his old Jaguars tape and showed Adams a little of what he could do back in the day.
"We had a bunch of 'Step Brothers'-type moments, saying the same things at the same time, same thought process," Adams said. "Just two dudes who are really simple as far as what they do on the day-to-day and naturally just kind of gravitated to each other based off work ethic and mindset overall. He's one of my best friends, for sure."
There's also the friendship Lewis has developed with quarterback Aaron Rodgers over the past four years. When asked to explain Lewis' value, the MVP quarterback used an old MasterCard commercial to illustrate his point.
"What are the old commercials? The, 'This costs this much, and this costs this much, and then this is priceless?'" Rodgers said. "That's how I feel about 'Big Dog.' His salary is X, he's been on the team this many years, but his true value is priceless.
"Because it's so much more than just his on-the-field production. It's his presence, his personality, his leadership, his countenance, his energy, everything he brings to the squad."
A few months ago, while running some errands, Yvonne happened upon that first apartment she shared with Marcedes. It looked eerily similar to when they rented it nearly 40 years ago.
Yvonne snapped a photo and texted it to her son. When Yvonne flew to Green Bay last month for Christmas, she and Lewis stood around his kitchen table reflecting upon their journey.
And my, oh my, how far the two have come.
"Just everything that we've been through and everything that she put on my shoulders for me to be the man that I am today – I'll never take that for granted," Lewis said. "It's one of those things that I'm going to keep with me for the rest of my life."
Yvonne stands in awe of what Lewis has accomplished. He has done everything he set out to do as a kid in Long Beach. She likes to tell her son whenever Lewis finally hangs up the cleats that he should work as an adviser to young football players on what it takes to not only make it to the NFL but also last.
“More than anything I’ve ever done in my life that was positive, making her proud means the most to me." Marcedes Lewis, on mother Yvonne Withers
For now, Yvonne enjoys watching her baby play the game he loves. She'll be in town again this weekend for the Packers' NFC Divisional playoff game against the San Francisco.
"I'm proud of him. I'm so proud of him," Yvonne said. "But it's not like I didn't expect it. If anyone could do this, I knew it was him. He's always been driven. He's a student of everything that he does. … He can do anything."
At 37, there isn't much left for Lewis to prove on a football field. He's still chasing a Super Bowl ring and wants to make a run at the record Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten share for most NFL seasons played by a tight end (17).
But that isn't what motivates Marcedes Lewis to keep doing this. That isn't what inspires him to work out three-times-a-day, five-days-a-week in the offseason to ready his body for another grueling NFL season. It's his mom.
It's for Yvonne. The woman who started Lewis on this football journey 28 years ago, but more importantly, taught him to never quit.
"More than anything I've ever done in my life that was positive, making her proud means the most to me," Lewis said. "There's nothing else about life that means more than me following up on everything I said I would do. It all comes back to every day being a man of your word and following through."