Lewis didn't turn 17 until after the 2003 football season. Though he was a senior, he was behind academically because he had missed a significant portion of his sophomore season to help care for his ill mother.
Lewis had scholarship offers from several big schools during his senior year at Venice, but eventually chose to move to his grandmother's home in Franklin, Texas, and attend another year of high school in order to catch up with his studies. He wasn't allowed to play football games at Franklin High School, but practiced with the team last fall.
The following is an interview with Venice High coach Angelo Gasca:
Q: What kind of player was James Lewis for you a couple seasons ago?
Angelo Gasca: He was in incredible player. He probably played as well as anyone in all of Los Angeles (in 2003) as a senior. He's just a tremendous football player and a very good kid.
He's an explosive player on offense — the potential to score from anywhere on the field at any time. On defense he's instinctive, tough, fast and a smart football player.
He's had a tough life in some respects — not of his own doing. But that's why he didn't come out last year. But given the opportunity, he will flourish.
Q: What was he like on the football field?
AG: There came a point where he just dominated the action anywhere he was in the game. For us he could have played quarterback or running back. We played him primarily as a receiver, but one week we were preparing to play a team that was a wishbone team. We threw James in there as scout (quarterback). We got so good, when we got to the game we were running better than them.
I told Coach Barnett, maybe you guys should throw him back there and make everybody back in Colorado happy and run the wishbone – throw a Darian Hagan offense at ‘em.
Q: What position did he play on defense?
AG: On defense he played safety and corner. He was very physical. When James was a senior, he played the whole season at 16-years old. The season ended and he turned 17.
As impressive as he was as a 16-year-old senior, weighing 202 pounds, you ought to see him now. He looks like a cartoon character with one of those under-armors on. It's like they painted it on him.
He's a really good kid. We're really happy for him. James is a special guy in a lot of ways. Everybody at Venice High loves him – the principal, his teachers. He and Byron Ellis are really good friends. I know that's very important to James.
On the recruiting process
AG: We got to meet Coach Barnett and Coach Simms both times in the recruiting process (in 2003 and 2004). We feel really good about the University of Colorado and especially the fact that they would think enough of our players to take them. We all have a lot of respect for Coach Barnett.
More on Lewis as a player
AG: I think a lot of people don't realize how fast he is because he's a strider. But he's a real physical player.
It was about the middle of the year he just decided he wasn't going to get tackled anymore. We had some really good players — we had about nine guys on that team that were Division I players and none of them played better than James Lewis.
We were 13-1 and we lost in the City Championship. It's impressive that people thought enough of him to still name him the City Player of the Year. That player usually comes from the championship team. We had Phillip Fullmer and some of those guys through here recruiting him.
On Lewis' personal situation
AG: Academically, it was hard for him. James was probably riding a bus two hours a day back and forth to leave a tough part of Los Angeles and come to school here. His mother was ill. He had some tough situations that definitely impacted his ability to go to school. By the same token he was very young. As a sophomore he was 14 and we couldn't play him on the varsity. But he was already one of the best football players around.
So he went down to Frankton, Texas, to live with his grandmother and finish school. He's had an incredible turnaround academically.
U.S. Navy Seals and Venice Football
AG: Two summers ago we had the U.S. Navy Seals come in and do a hell week with our players. We turned the team over to those guys for a week. It was all about discipline and teamwork. This is the U.S. fighting elite training the Venice High football team.
They run them down to Venice Beach, which is a pretty popular area. They put them through a grueling workout on the sand. People are stopping (and watching). In Los Angeles, people don't usually stop because you can see anything out here.
But here's these kids working out on the beach, and they're going through these incredibly tough workouts, running down Washington Blvd., and back to the school.
At the end of the week, the Navy Seals turn our team back over to us. But before they do, they pick a team leader – a person who most exemplifies leadership and the qualities you'd like in maybe even a soldier, not necessarily a football player.
They named James Lewis the team leader. Not only that, they said he's probably the best individual that they've ever had in all their times running that program. They said he's a person of impeccable character, all the things we already knew about him.
I guarantee you that will show itself.
In a way it's probably a blessing that he didn't enter college last year. He will be a fully mature 18-year old kid when he gets there. That'll be good for him and (Colorado), I think.