Long ago and far away from his present employment in Chicago, Marcedes Lewis shined amid a deep and talented UCLA freshman class, a massive tight end from nearby Long Beach Poly High with adroit receiving skills and the blocking ability of a blindside tackle.

Nobody, however, could have predicted that 21 years later, he'd still be playing football.

Lewis, 39, signed with the Bears, and if he breaks camp with them he'll be the longest-tenured tight end in NFL history, snapping a tie of 17 years set by Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez and former Cowboys great Jason Witten.

The man nicknamed "Big Dog" rattled off the reasons he remains relevant, including relishing his role as a locker-room leader, drawing inspiration from LeBron James, learning about a collaborative work environment while interning at Google, and perhaps most importantly, never having had a major surgery in 30 years of playing football.

"Part of it is showing people that it can be done," Lewis said of his longevity. "Being able to have the singular focus to go out there and be your personal best every single day.

"For me, that is part of my purpose. I was born to do this. I'm not going to disrespect the gift of still being able to do it and not be here."

Needless to say, no one else from the 2002 UCLA team that finished 8-5 is still doing it. Everyone except backup quarterback Matt Moore, who lasted in the NFL through 2019, retired more than a decade ago.

Punter Chris Kluwe played in the NFL through 2012, defensive back Jarrad Page through 2011 while linebackers Brandon Chillar and Spencer Havner along with defensive back Matt Ware made it to 2010. Another handful of former 2002 Bruins were NFL short-timers. Lewis was a consensus All-American and winner of the Mackey Award as a senior in 2005, and none of those Bruins teammates remains active either.

Lewis went on to log 12 seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars after being a first-round draft pick in 2006 and another five with the Green Bay Packers, proving a Big Dog can learn new tricks by morphing from a receiving threat to a blocking stalwart. He has 432 receptions for 5,084 yards and 39 touchdowns.

Now he's literally the last man standing: No one else from the 255 players selected in the 2006 NFL draft is active.

"When you're in Year 17 sometimes I wake up like, 'Damn, I'm still doing this,'" Lewis said near the end of last season. "Obviously, a little longer in the tooth, but I love what I do."

These days, one can almost hear Lewis' deep baritone when reading his tweets that exude the wisdom and inspiration of an elder who has logged 10,000 NFL snaps in 251 games.

Most recent: "There is nothing more beautiful than the chase. No abstraction of the future, just a laser focused task with the only option being success."

On dealing with June gloom when it became clear the Packers weren't going to re-sign him: "You'll never know who you truly are until there is something to overcome .. some type of resistance. When you're met with adversity and then are still able to handle it, now you're on a path. Stay true."

After a workout June 1: "More than DNA .. It's about your mind .. Do you want it or not? Ain't no 50/50."

Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio quickly recognized Lewis' leadership capacity, pulling him aside and saying that one way for him to take the next step was to bring a teammate along with him.

"I still want to learn and that's what keeps me hungry," Lewis said. "When you see young guys who feel the same way, you want to pour into them."

Five years ago Lewis had an internship with Google — he said he's interested in "venture capital, private equity, tech, all that stuff" — and came away impressed.

"One thing I took away is that it isn't a top-down mentality, everybody had a voice," he said. "They'd host these pow-wows with an open mic. Anybody with concerns or suggestions could talk and everybody listened and took notes to make the company better."

He said a similar culture exists with the Bears and with the rival Packers.

Lewis developed a strong bond with Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, although it's not exactly a mentoring relationship because they are the same age. His chances of returning to Green Bay evaporated when Rodgers was traded to the New York Jets in April and the Packers drafted tight ends in the second and third rounds.

Several former Packers were signed by the Jets but the team's depth chart at tight end was overflowing. Never, though, did Lewis imagine his career was over.

"If you just look at my film from the last three years, there's no decline in what I'm able to do," Lewis said. "I'm the best blocking tight end out there."

Lewis, who lives in Los Angeles, continued his offseason workouts that include elements of mixed martial arts. He also watched James on video.

"To think this dude is about to go into his 21st year playing basketball is ridiculous," he said. "His workouts look like he's getting ready to be on his first NBA team. It's just inspiring."

Lewis reflected on being raised by his mother, who gave birth to her eventual 6-foot-6, 270-pound son at age 15.

"To watch her struggle, that's what gets me up in the morning," he said. "Nothing I could ever go through will be tougher than what she had to go through raising me."

Chicago soon gave him a call. Recently signed Bears tight end Robert Tonyan spent the last five years in Green Bay and Bears offensive coordinator Luke Getsy spent 2019-2021 with the Packers. Both were instrumental in Lewis landing in Chicago.

"Coming into the league I thought 10 [years] would be great," Lewis said. "Once I hit 10, I thought, my body feels good. Let's see if we can get 12, then 14 and 15.

"I thought, dang, this is crazy. Then after a while, I just stopped questioning it at all."

©2023 Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.