Created:Thursday, November 3, 2011 5:30 a.m.CDT
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NIU freshman enjoys breakout performance

By ANTHONY ZILIS - sports@daily-chronicle.com
Northern Illinois kickoff returner Tommylee Lewis (80) returns the opening kickoff for a touchdown against Toledo during the Huskies’ 63-60 victory Tuesday night at the Glass Bowl in Toledo, Ohio. (Jeremy Wadsworth – The Blade)

TOLEDO, Ohio – Tommylee Lewis grinned shyly and shifted from foot to foot.

The freshman had just accomplished the spectacular. His two straight touchdowns to open Northern Illinois’ 63-60 win Tuesday at Toledo were so rare, records of whether that ever happened before weren’t readily available.

Still, no hint of arrogance exuded from the 5-foot-6, slightly built receiver, who sheepishly glanced from side-to-side with a wide grin that didn’t fade.

“I’m so excited, words can’t even describe it,” he said, so giddy he barely was able to put together a sentence, much less stand still.

In a game that may decide the Mid-American Conference West Division, Lewis’ two touchdowns set the scene for a 123-point night. He showed the play of an upperclassman, an onfield comfort with the big stage.

After it was over, his postgame excitement exposed his youth.

“You can tell he’s young. I don’t think he’s immature, but he’s young,” senior quarterback Chandler Harnish said. “He’s excited to play the game, he’s just an exciting player to watch. Who would’ve known he would have back-to-back kickoff returns to start the game? That was huge.”

Lewis’ first touchdown came after he received the ball two yards into the end zone.

With Harnish and the NIU offense ready to step onto the field for its biggest game of the season, Lewis glided through the Toledo special teams unit before diving into the end zone.

After receiver Eric Page answered with a touchdown reception from quarterback Austin Dantin, Toledo kicked the football to Lewis again. This time, he received it at the 5-yard line. The result didn’t change.

“It was like seeing your little brother do good,” receiver Nathan Palmer said. “We told Tommy, that’s your goal this year, to be a dynamic returner. It was great to see him do that.”

Of course, Lewis has a penchant for big plays.

When he was a senior at Dwyer High in Florida, he appeared on SportsCenter’s top 10 plays after making an acrobatic catch in his team’s 26-22 loss to Cleveland’s Glenville High.

But, Lewis said, that didn’t compare to Tuesday’s performance, which he called the best moment of his life.

“I’ve been waiting for it,” Doeren said. “That’s why I pulled his redshirt, to be honest with you.”

Doeren won’t see any objections from Lewis teammates. Tuesday was just a culmination of what they always thought he could do.

“He never complains. He just goes to work,” Harnish said. “That’s enough for me, to see a guy with work ethic and not having an ego and not worrying about the balls coming to him. He just does his job.

“He’s a carefree, at the same time focused player. At the same time, everything is fast. He’s got unbelievable speed. With guys like that, sometimes you get an ego, and he’s not like that at all. I can truly say that he’s thankful for his teammates setting him up for the opportunities that he’s had.”

Lewis rests assured his teammates care about him.

“They all take me in and show me what to do,” Lewis said. “They all look out for me.”

On Tuesday, Lewis was able to return the favor in sensational fashion.

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