Eugene Lewis welcomes being the face of the Edmonton Elks’ franchise.
Edmonton made a huge splash when it landed the all-star American receiver Feb. 14, the first day of CFL free agency. Lewis signed a two-year deal reportedly worth $320,000 annually, which would make him the league’s highest-paid non-quarterback.
And Lewis is ready to shoulder the weight of responsibility that comes with being a club’s marquee player.
“Absolutely, I was born ready for this,” Lewis said during a recent telephone interview. “Not a lot of guys in my position get this kind of opportunity and I’m up for the challenge.
“I’m up for going out each and every day and making the guys around me better and competing … anybody who goes against me is going to have to bring their best because I’m going to bring my best. There’s no mercy out there, we’ve all got families we have to take of.”
Lewis, 29, earned CFL all-star honours last season after registering 91 catches for 1,303 yards and 10 TDs, all career highs. He was named the East Division’s top player.
The 6-foot-1, 208-pound Lewis played his first five CFL seasons with Montreal. He accumulated 276 catches for 4,347 yards and 28 TDs in 68 regular-season contests and twice was a league all-star.
But Lewis said the indecision that surrounded the Alouettes this off-season played a role in his decision to leave.
The CFL assumed control of the franchise Feb. 14 – the first day of CFL free agency for the second time since 2019. The league ended up selling the Alouettes to Quebec businessman Pierre Karl Peladeau last month.
“Yeah, it [Als’ situation] definitely had some weight in my decision,” Lewis said. “Just because I know of where I’m at in my career … I feel I’m in my prime time and I want to keep building with that.
“But I also want to win Grey Cups. I want to keep building on something that’s bigger and I want to help the next generation after me be better than we were.”
Still, Lewis said leaving Montreal wasn’t easy.
“It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make in my life,” he said. “I had to change high schools the last six months of my senior year and when I went to Penn State, I had to grad transfer to Oklahoma my last year.
“I’ve always had to change places.”
Lewis joins and Edmonton club that’s finished last in the West Division the last two years, posting a combined 7-25 record. The franchise last made the CFL playoffs in 2019, crossing into the East Division.
Last season, Edmonton ranked last in offensive scoring (19.2 points per game) and passing (231.7 yards) and second-last in offensive yards (310.7). The Elks also allowed 53 sacks, second-most in the CFL.
Sophomore quarterback Taylor Cornelius was 3-9 as a starter, completing just 57.4 per cent of his passes with 11 TDs and nine interceptions. However, the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Texan ran for 502 yards and seven TDs on 71 carries (7.1-yard average).
Edmonton has also dropped a CFL-record 16 straight home games and opens ‘23 season hosting the Saskatchewan Roughriders on June 11. Lewis said turning around any program is a process that takes time but added the Elks changing their fortunes at home is a good starting point.
“My mind is win, it’s all about winning,” Lewis said. “I know everyone has been talking about the home streak so that’s the first thing we’ve got to get that off the list.
“There are definitely goals we have to meet but people must understand it’s a process to get to the Grey Cup. You can’t flip everything in one year … but before we get there, there are steps we’ve got to take.”
And a solid start to the ‘23 season would also definitely help Edmonton’s fortunes, Lewis said.
“In the West, I feel like you have to get a good head start,” he said. “If you wait too late, it’s going to be too late.”
Making hay in the West Division won’t be easy, though. The top three teams (Winnipeg, B.C. and Calgary) last year not only all registered double-digits victories overall but had winning records within the conference.
‘It’s going to be a very, very competitive league, I love it,’ Lewis said. “I just feel like as a competitor the best comes out of you when you play the best.
“If you’re going up against that every single week, just imagine the type of excitement that can bring to a game and the type of games we can have. I’m prepared, I’m up to the task, I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life and I’m ready to get this thing going and flip these negatives around for the Elks.”