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Former Panthers player died of drug overdose, autopsy shows

Former Carolina Panthers quarterback Jeff Lewis, once thought to be the team’s quarterback of the future, died in January as a result of an accidental drug overdose, according to an autopsy report obtained by the Observer.

The autopsy found morphine and zolpidem, a sedative and sleep aid more commonly known as Ambien, in Lewis’ blood.

Medication containers and handwritten documents found in Lewis’ Phoenix home indicated a possible history of prescription medication abuse, including zolpidem and the painkiller hydrocodone, Maricopa County medical examiner Kevin Horn wrote in his report.

Lewis was found unresponsive in his bed on Jan. 5 and was pronounced dead at the scene. He was 39, and would have turned 40 on Wednesday.

Horn concluded that Lewis “died as a result of mixed drug (morphine and zolpidem) intoxication,” and cited cardiovascular and obesity as contributing factors.

Lewis had recently been diagnosed with a heart condition that included blocked arteries, according to the autopsy. The 6-foot Lewis, listed at 211 pounds when he played for the Panthers from 1999-2000, was 265 pounds at the time of his death.

Lewis was an assistant coach at his alma mater of Northern Arizona before he died. Neighbors told authorities that when they last saw Lewis, he was acting in a strange fashion and described him as being “out of it,” according to the autopsy report.

Several of Lewis’ former Panthers’ teammates were saddened to learn the cause of his death.

“Everybody got along with Jeff. He was just a guy’s guy,” former Panthers offensive lineman Frank Garcia, now a WFNZ-AM sports-talk radio host said. “Guys wanted to root for Jeff.”

Lewis was charged in 2006 and 2007 in Arizona for driving under the influence of a dangerous drug, which typically refers to prescription narcotics or drugs other than marijuana. Both charges were dismissed, court records show.

After a standout college career, Lewis never found his footing in the NFL. He attempted just 54 regular-season passes in four seasons with Denver and Carolina, and finished his career without starting a game or throwing a touchdown pass.

Denver drafted Lewis in the fourth round in 1996. He was part of the Broncos’ Super Bowl team in 1997 and backed up John Elway for two seasons before blowing out his knee in a pickup basketball game.

The Panthers traded two draft picks to acquire Lewis in 1999. Two years later, George Seifert cut starting quarterback Steve Beuerlein to clear a path for Lewis as the starter.

But after Lewis struggled during the preseason, Seifert released him and made rookie Chris Weinke the starter for a team that would finish 1-15.

Garcia and former Panthers safety Mike Minter said Lewis was under a lot of pressure to perform after Beuerlein was released.

“That was pretty tough for a guy to come in with all that expectations, and not really starting before. The NFL is a rough world when you don’t live up to expectations,” said Minter, adding he had no knowledge of drug use by Lewis.

“I never knew of him doing anything like that. But I also know life after football sometimes takes people in different directions. It’s a roller coaster,” said Minter, the coach at Campbell University. “There’s a lot of things we have to deal with when we hang it up. We don’t talk about it a lot, but it’s real.”

Garcia, an assistant coach at Charlotte Catholic, said he was encouraged when he heard Lewis had gotten into coaching, first at Louisville and then Northern Arizona.

Ex-Panther Mike Rucker said while a lot of quarterbacks are extremely outgoing or private and withdrawn, Lewis struck a nice balance.

“He wasn’t arrogant. He wasn’t over-the-top. He was just laid-back,” Rucker said. “You could talk to him about anything under the sun.”

Columnist Scott Fowler and staff researcher Maria David contributed.

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