VANCOUVER - Nik Lewis found himself in unfamiliar territory this season.
A key cog in the Calgary Stampeders' offence for the last decade, the veteran slotback was mostly relegated to a supporting role in 2014 — one that he wasn't at all used to, but accepted for the good of the team.
"It's the first time in my life, not just professionally, it's the first time in my life that it's been like this," the 32-year-old said this week. "But growing over the years and growing up and understanding the way things are, I'm a leader of men.
"I'm a leader of those receivers in there and I owe it them to show up every day with the best attitude, with the ability to try to make them better men, better football players, better receivers, and that's what I did."
As the Stampeders continue their preparations for Sunday's Grey Cup game at B.C. Place Stadium against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Lewis said his contributions go far beyond his mediocre 37 catches for 377 yards and no touchdowns in 12 games this season.
"I think what I do is valuable. It's not just stats and yards, it's more about how I communicate with those guys," said the outspoken 11-year veteran out of Southern Arkansas University. "There's been a lot of different things this year that have allowed me to be a better person, but also to understand and relate to these guys. It's just an ultimate experience to be a leader on a team and not just be a player."
A 1,000-yard receiver in each of his first nine CFL seasons, Lewis suffered a broken fibula in August 2013 and has totalled just 69 catches for 777 yards and three TDs over the last two years.
His future with the Stampeders beyond this weekend is very much up in the air, but the native of Jacksboro, Tex., is clear he's far from finished.
"I plan on playing next year and the next year after that," he said. "I feel good, I feel confident. My body is finally getting back to the place (it needs to be). I talked to the coaches at the beginning of the year and they were just like, 'We need you to be at your best at the end of the season.'
"It's the end of the season and I'm at my best and I can do what I used to do, I promise you that. Now it's just the opportunity to go out and do it."
Lewis — who had just one catch for five yards in Calgary's West Division victory over the Edmonton Eskimos — wouldn't speculate on his next step in the CFL, but it's clear where his heart resides.
"My focus when I started my career was to play for one team my whole career," he said. "I didn't know how long my career would last. I'm blessed to be here 11 years later. I don't know what's going to happen next year. I'm not really focused on next year.
"All I can really focus on is right now and this game. I've always said, if I got out and play the way I can play I don't have to worry about anything else because it's going to take care of itself."
Lewis's teammates still look to him for guidance, with quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell pointing to Calgary's stunning 40-27 comeback win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders in October when the veteran receiver had nine catches for 98 yards.
"Nik has been in the league for a long time and for a very good reason, because he's done so many great things," said Mitchell, in his first year as Calgary's starter. "He is absolutely a leader in our locker-room."
Veteran running back Rob Cote added that the Stampeders often follow Lewis's lead on and off the field.
"He's the heart and soul of this team and you see a difference when he's up," said Cote, who has played every one of his eight professional seasons alongside Lewis. "He's a great leader, a great guy and a great teammate."
For all of Lewis's personal success with the Stampeders — 805 receptions for 11,250 yards and 65 TDs in his career — he conceded the team has often failed to meet expectations. A talented Calgary roster won the Grey Cup in 2008 but lost the big game in 2012, while falling in the West final in 2009, 2010 and again last year.
"I've said in the past I've always felt like we have been underachievers in my career here," said Lewis. "Not talking about any one individual, but just as a team I've felt like we've had the talent and ability to win more Grey Cups or at least play in more Grey Cup games."
But he added the veteran core with the Stampeders, who finished the regular season 15-3, has learned valuable lessons heading into the 102nd Grey Cup against the Tiger-Cats (9-9).
"They say you learn when you lose. Now it's time to go win it," said Lewis. "We just learned to be patient, go enjoy ourselves and not press in the playoffs. It's still the same game. We've just got to go out and execute.
"This year we're coming in saying we're going to play Hamilton the same way we played everybody else. We're not coming in expecting them to lay down and give it to us. We know it's going to be a tough game. They're a good team."
With all that in mind, a victory on Sunday will make all of Lewis's recent hurt fade away — at least for a little while.
"Once the game's over and you win it, all the wrongs, all the mistakes, everything that happened during the year, during the past years, is all corrected for at least that night," he said. "Then you just start working on doing it again."