High school freshman Julian Lewis has already made a Georgia state title game as a starting quarterback, has Ohio State, USC and Georgia among his 35 scholarship offers and has gone viral by wowing NFL stars with his skills.
The 15-year-old profiles as the precocious prodigy in nearly every way, even carrying the memorable nickname “JuJu.” Lewis has the same high school football coach as Trevor Lawrence and the same trainer who oversaw Lawrence and Justin Fields in their formative years in Georgia. None are holding back on what’s possible for Lewis.
“I’ve had the privilege of coaching Trevor Lawrence,” said Carrollton High School coach Joey King. “He’s in the same category as Trevor. The skill set and arm talent he has are definitely advanced for his age.”
Adds noted Atlanta-area trainer Ron Veal: “He’s right there with [Fields and Lawrence]. As far as ability-wise, he’s right on par with them.”
But after throwing 48 touchdown passes as a freshman and amassing 113,000 Instagram followers, Lewis is a new-age recruit with an age-old high school problem — he can’t make money off his popularity.
While more than half of the states in the country have legalized Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) deals in some form for high school athletes, the state of Georgia sits at a compelling crossroads. It is home to one of the richest recruiting bases in the country, the back-to-back national champions of college football and a generational prospect in Lewis, who could command well over a million dollars on the open market over the next three seasons.
Georgia is also the setting of perhaps the most notable high school cautionary tale in the NIL era, as a defensive lineman named TA Cunningham left the state to seek out NIL money in California last year and ended up ensnared in a thicket of broken promises and eligibility issues that required a court fight to be resolved.
That leaves Georgia as a fascinating test of figuring out a way to navigate amateurism’s new realities, in part to be sure to retain top talent. This all happens as Lewis’ father, TC, watches his son’s games sold for local television and sponsors line up for award ceremonies honoring him.
“It’s all part of the football revenue-generating machine,” TC Lewis told ESPN. “The entire football machine is making money, not the players. It’s real.”
The reality for Lewis is he’ll be the face of the case for NIL in the state of Georgia. He said he doesn’t think about it much, but if NIL were made legal he’d find ways to procure deals that would also benefit his teammates. He said the conversations mostly happen with his dad, but occasionally with his friends.
He calls the lack of the ability to profit off his own NIL “definitely a little saddening,” and sums up the reality succinctly: “It’s not fair, to be honest.”
For now, the Lewis family looks unlikely to follow Cunningham’s path and flee Georgia for greener pastures. TC Lewis said his son’s long-term growth is the priority, which is why they have no plans to look out of state for a different high school. They aren’t naïve to the opportunities, but are happy to keep developing.
“As the season evolved and with the success that Julian had and where he and Coach King are and how he uses him, Julian and I have had extended discussions, and we’re willing to sacrifice short-term money for long-term development, TC Lewis said. “At this point in time, we wouldn’t leave Georgia. We’re used to what we’re leaving on the table.”
Just how high that number would be is ambiguous, but it would only escalate if Lewis continues on his current trajectory. The top QB recruit in the Class of 2023, California native Malachi Nelson, was slated to sign close to a million dollars in NIL deals by the time he enrolled at USC. TC Lewis also mentions California prep basketball stars like Bronny James — who has been able to ink deals with Nike and Beats by Dre — and Mikey Williams, who signed a multiyear deal with Puma.
TC Lewis is a tech entrepreneur, so when Julian had the idea to start a company for slide sandals, they launched it when he was in seventh grade. They quickly shut it down, however, out of fear of risking eligibility. Lewis and his family are being followed around for a docuseries, including during his state-title-winning season. But they can’t profit off that, either. (Not even with payments deferred to after he’s done as an amateur.)
“At the end of the day, if your popularity comes from football, you can’t use that popularity to make money,” TC Lewis said. “There’s huge opportunities for Julian coming up. We have great relationships here locally and nationally. We’ve turned down so much already.”
Attorney Donald Woodard is advising the Lewis family, having become familiar with NIL through his work for USA Track and Field. He’d met TC Lewis years before in connection to one of Lewis’ business projects, and has been advising the family on what they can and can’t do in the NIL space for nearly two years.
Woodard sees the same arguments that for years were made at the NCAA level for athletes getting some type of compensation simply trickling down to the high-school level. He sees a similar “ecosystem” generating money in high school that existed in college.
TC Lewis estimates “on the low end,” his son could make $500,000 while in high school. He estimates the high-end at $1.5 million and pointed out that they recently turned down a $60,000 opportunity.
“We’re hopeful that Georgia will come on board soon,” Woodard said. “Not just for Julian, but for all athletes in Georgia. The market will dictate which athletes are deserving.”
Georgia High School Association executive director Robin Hines declined to comment on Lewis, saying they don’t discuss individual athletes. He said the GHSA is in the process of researching what other states are doing and consulting with their own attorneys to find the best way forward for something in Georgia.
(Officials at the University of Georgia didn’t return calls seeking comment, but it stands to reason they’d want the best local high school talent staying in-state.)
While the GHSA is “way at the beginning” of the process, Hines said there’s a “possibility” a proposal could be moved forward in April. But first, they need to figure out an approach that makes sense, as he acknowledges there’s “only a small percentage of athletes” who would benefit.
He did say the prospect of losing top athletes like Cunningham to states with NIL isn’t looming over the decision-making.
“We certainly don’t want to be left behind, but we also want to do what’s in the best interest of our student athletes while maintaining our credibility as an amateur association,” Hines told ESPN in a phone interview. “That’s a tightrope to walk.”
Meanwhile, Julian Lewis will continue walking the tightrope of regular teenager and teenage star. After his Christmas money started to run out last month, he told his father that he wanted to get a job for spending cash. TC Lewis said he didn’t think that was a good idea.
His dad told him he doesn’t have time to hold a job and jokes he will pay him to train. TC Lewis admits that the bills are real, from coaches to traveling the country for training and events.
In recent weeks, Lewis has gone to both USC and LSU. He has traveled to Alabama multiple times to see games because of its proximity to home. It’s too early to project any favorites, but TC Lewis said he has already raised his son not to be a fan of any team. He doesn’t want the emotion of fandom getting in the way of business.
“We keep the main thing the main thing,” he said. “NIL is going to play a huge part, but it’s not going to be the deciding factor. At the end of the day, if some school says we’re going to give you $5 million, if you can’t develop him or get him to where he wants to go, it doesn’t matter.”
The uptick in hype and attention hasn’t really fazed Julian Lewis. There are videos of him at age 9 with Justin Fields snapping him the balls for drills. Lewis didn’t know him as a top prospect, just a big-brother figure he trained with. That’s why the steps toward stardom — high school phenom, college prospect, eventual college starter and beyond — feel attainable for Lewis.
The Lewis’ are hopeful the GHSA passes some type of rule that will allow him to profit off his talents, but they haven’t done any direct lobbying. For now, Julian Lewis is seeking a typical teen experience, knowing that it might be fleeting.
“Of course, I like being noticed and called out on certain things,” he said of his burgeoning fame. “But at some points, I want to walk around and be normal. We’re at the point where there’s no time to be normal. No one thinks of me as normal. I’m still 15. I want to be a kid. I want to go out and have fun and be chill.”