By Sal Maiorana Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
Growing up approximately a Dan Marino-to-Mark Duper post pattern away from Sun Life Stadium, it was quite natural that Thad Lewis became a Dolphins fan.
"Dan the Man, which we called him, that was his nickname where I was from," Lewis said of the Pro Football Hall of Famer who played his entire career with the Dolphins and was an icon to any aspiring young quarterback in South Florida - or anywhere, really.
But when it came to actually attending games in person, the stadium that opened the same year he was born (1987) might as well have been up in Buffalo, where Lewis is now, at least temporarily, the starting quarterback.
Lewis' father was shot and killed before Lewis even got to know him, so his mother raised him and his brother in Opa-locka, and there wasn't enough discretionary income to spend on a Sunday afternoon at what was then called Joe Robbie Stadium.
"I think I went to one Dolphins game growing up. When you're a kid and your parents can't afford to take you to a Dolphins game, it's on TV every week so you don't miss it," said Lewis who, when he wasn't watching Marino on TV, spent countless hours of his youth imitating him on the fields of Sherbondy Park.
Lewis never played in the palatial home of the Dolphins as a high school quarterback for Hialeah-Miami Lakes, but he did so a couple times for Duke University when the Blue Devils ventured down to take on Atlantic Coast Conference rival Miami.
He was 0-2 in those contests against the Hurricanes, so Sunday when he takes the field near his old neighborhood to lead the Bills against the Dolphins, the team he once rooted for, he'll be in search for his first victory there - and in the NFL.
"It's awesome to be able to come back," said Lewis, who is 0-2 as an NFL starter. "They always say the quarterback position is one that leads, so you just want to show everyone that you belong in this league. It means a lot playing in the NFL, period. It's just extra to get to go home and play in front of people you know and people that know you. It is a great opportunity."
Lewis can recall some of the great games between the Bills and Dolphins, when Marino squared off against Jim Kelly. When Lewis was young, the Buffalo-Miami rivalry was one of the NFL's best, but as both teams have struggled in recent years - the Bills more than the Dolphins - the games have lost some of their appeal.
So wouldn't it be fascinating if Lewis were able to inject some new life into a once-magnificent rivalry by coming back to his hometown and helping the Bills beat Miami?
No one would have dared to dream that was possible a little over a week ago, but after seeing Lewis nearly rally the Bills to victory last Sunday against Cincinnati, there is a sense that this undersized quarterback - who is simply holding down the fort until EJ Manuel returns - can get it done.
"As far as the team, they feel like they can win with Thad Lewis," coach Doug Marrone said. "That's the most important thing. That's what I look for."
Lewis has been with the Bills less than two months, but he worked diligently in practice leading up to getting his shot against Cincinnati, and when the time came, he was ready. He threw for 216 yards and two touchdowns, including a game-tying 40-yard strike to rookie Marquise Goodwin that forced overtime.
"It's not like he just came out of nowhere," said Goodwin, who returned after missing the previous four games with a broken hand. "Thad has been throwing with us, he's been practicing with us even before he got moved up from the practice squad. The timing was there; all it took was for him to get an opportunity to get out there with us."
Now there's another chance, and it comes against an AFC East rival that has shown a tendency to give up some big plays in the passing game.
The Bills, as they always do, will try to establish C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson on the ground, but don't be surprised if Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett let Lewis poke and prod the Miami secondary - especially now that he'll have Stevie Johnson back.
"He's always prepared himself for something like this to happen," Marrone said. "I think that's what you have to do and that's what it means to be a pro. He's done a great job. I think a lot of people were surprised maybe by that performance. I don't think anyone on the team was really surprised about the way he went out there, the way he went about his business."
Lewis knows the Bills are Manuel's team. When the rookie comes back from his knee injury, he's going to be the starter. So for now, Lewis is going to enjoy the moment, and never more will he enjoy it than Sunday when he's running around in South Florida playing the game he loves, just like he did when he was a kid.
"I don't know what the future holds with the Bills; I just know I'm going to give it my best shot while I'm out there," Lewis said.