SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) -Michael Lewis will never have to drive a beer truck again. That doesn't mean he's done making deliveries in his new neighborhood on the West Coast.
Most football fans know about Lewis, the famously late-blooming kick returner who delivered suds in his native New Orleans before landing a job with the Saints at 29. ``Beer Man'' made the Pro Bowl and set franchise records while becoming a folk hero for anybody with a dream deferred.
But when the Saints cut him in June, Lewis decided that ending wasn't good enough for a storybook. The NFL's self-proclaimed youngest 36-year-old is excelling with the San Francisco 49ers, who picked him up as a punt returner last month to boost their already strong special teams just in time for Sunday's visit from the Saints.
``I had a great time in New Orleans, some great years,'' said Lewis, who spent six seasons with his hometown team. ``I can't get mad at them, but I didn't want to just give up on football. I think I have a lot of football left in me. You're going to have to take me out of the game. You're not going to just push me out the door.''
But Lewis has a perspective on this dangerous, fleeting sport that his younger teammates can't yet grasp. He has real estate investments and a cell phone business that keep him busy all year long back home, even if the 49ers hadn't called.
``I always made sure to prepare myself for my life after football, if it had been this year, five years from now, or whatever,'' Lewis said. ``Football, I don't look at it as a career. This is a part-time job. You can't do it forever, 40 or 50 years. I'll have something to fall back on. I won't be going out there looking for a job. I've managed my money.''
But Lewis won't be leaving any time soon, if his recent play is any indication. He's averaging 7.4 yards on 13 punt returns for the 49ers, making just one fair catch in 14 kicks. He's a marked improvement on Brandon Williams, whose mistakes and tentative play forced him out of San Francisco after the season's first three games.
``(Lewis) is good for the football team,'' coach Mike Nolan said. ``He's a pro, and he prepares well. He's got experience, he's good with the other players on the team, and he adds chemistry. Along with all that stuff, he's quality. He's doing the job he's got.''
It's been nearly a decade since Lewis was making keg deliveries in the French Quarter when the possibility of a pro career stirred in him. He would stand behind the Budweiser distributorship in Metairie, La., watching the footballs flying behind the green fence separating the yard from the Saints' training complex just a few doors down.
``There's a lot of people out there in the regular work world that look (up to) me,'' Lewis said. ``Here's a guy who was working a normal 9-to-5, and he never gave up on his dream. Not only did he make it to the NFL and the Pro Bowl, he's doing things outside of football.''
Lewis' football experience consisted of one high-school season and some Arena ball before he landed with the Saints in 2001. He injured his knee in September 2005 and didn't get back until late October last season, but Reggie Bush had taken over much of the Saints' punt-returning duties.
``There isn't a guy in this locker room, this organization, or community that is more popular than Michael Lewis,'' Saints coach Sean Payton said this week. ``I just want to have some rights to his movie some day, because it is going to be a special story. He's a special guy.''
Lewis returned kickoffs with his usual flair during New Orleans' run to the NFC championship game, though he fumbled in that meeting with the Chicago Bears. He went into offseason workouts thinking he still had a job in New Orleans - and then the Saints cut him in June after minicamps, hindering his chances of landing with another team.
``It was hard, being from there and doing as much as I do in the city and in the community,'' Lewis said. ``You always have that feeling that you want to retire playing for the home team, but when it happened, I couldn't really get mad, because if it wasn't for that organization, I wouldn't have been in the league. They took the chance on me.''
Lewis' future seems bright with the 49ers, but he's prepared for any eventuality. When he's finally done, he'll be back in New Orleans, ready for real life again - just not too soon.
``My wife was saying, 'Jerry Rice is playing until he's 40, why can't you?''' Lewis said. ``'You're not even playing that much. You're only out there on punt returns.' I don't have a lot of wear and tear. My age says one thing, but my body's not that age.''

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