NASHVILLE—Like some shady trench coat working the street corner, the kitchen worker sidled beside Taylor Lewan and whispered slyly, “Hey, if you need a catfish, I can get you a catfish.”
The timing couldn't have been better. It was Tuesday afternoon at the Titans' practice facility, where Lewan had just learned that he and four fellow offensive linemen would join quarterback Marcus Mariota as the ceremonial towel-wavers before Game 3 of the Western Conference finals between the Nashville Predators and Anaheim Ducks. For weeks the Pro Bowl left tackle had been plotting this moment in his head, wondering how best to jolt the Bridgestone Arena crowd if summoned into duty. The catfish—Music City's nod to the octopi hurled by Red Wings faithful in Detroit—was obvious. But where would he find one in a pinch?
From there, the scheme unfolded according to script. Lewan left the facility with the catfish—15 pounds, “cost $43 and some change”—wedged into a dumpy, dirty bucket. He drove home and showed it to his pregnant wife, Taylin, and their dog, who promptly started sniffing away. Then he headed to the downtown rink, where his teammates expressed the slightest signs of concern. “Everyone's like, ’How are you going to get it past security?'” Lewan said later. “I'm like, ’I'm going to tell them I have a catfish. So we go to the loading dock and I hand them the ice chest. They asked me what kind of beers I had in there. I said, ’Actually, it's a catfish.'”
The guard showed no objections, so Lewan kept walking. As the Titans reached the band stage, perched above the Zamboni tunnel between Sections 110 and 111, he quickly realized that his initial plan of hurling the catfish onto the ice was impossible, even for a 6-foot-7, 309-pound battle tank. So like any quick-thinking offense, they called an audible. Once Lewan heard the public address announcer introduce Mariota, followed by the offensive line—“his big dumb idiot friends,” as Lewan puts it—he lifted the catfish high and waited for the crowd to react.
As the roar swelled and Mariota whipped his golden towel, dutifully occupying the role of model citizen, Lewan set the catfish down, cracked Bud Light tall boys with the other linemen, and guzzled them back—“the big Stone Cold Steve Austin.” As one could've predicted, the scene promptly went viral. “We knew our GM and our head coach were going to be at the game,” Lewan says. “We're seen as model citizens, role models, we don't want to be hammered drunk, falling around, but given the circumstances and the event, what we were supposed to do is the get the crowd rowdy. I don't think it could've gone down any smoother.”
Now entering his fourth season with the Titans, Lewan, 25, considers himself a lifelong hockey fan. His father, Dave, hails from Edina, Minn. His younger brother, Bryce, played tier-III juniors for the Metro Fighting Moose and two games for the NAHL’s Corpus Christi IceRays. Growing up in Arizona, they attended Coyotes and minor-league Roadrunners games. While at the University of Michigan, Lewan lived across the street from the Wolverines’ hockey team; last summer, he was in the wedding of Chris Brown, a forward who spent last season with the Rangers' AHL affiliate.
He even played himself for a time, at least until he tried out for a travel peewee team, got smoked after a whistle and quit on the spot. “There was too much contact for me,” Lewan says, laughing at the irony. “I did the same thing with football. I played quarterback and someone tackled me and I was like, ’This is stupid. I'm out of here.'”
Still, Lewan didn't realize how much the sport had taken hold in the south until the Titans drafted him No. 11 in ’14. Now he owns season tickets. “I was honestly wondering, why is there a team in Nashville?” he says. “I didn't understand what it's is all about. This whole city is going crazy.”
And why not? After the catfish took its turn in the spotlight and the suds went down smooth, the eighth-seeded Predators won, 2-1. Never in franchise history had they ever advanced beyond the second round, and now entering Thursday night's Game 4 they sit two victories away from a berth in the Stanley Cup Final. “It's something you make movies about,” says Lewan.
If so, the catfish scene would of course receive prominent billing. Some hulking actor would get cast as Lewan, orchestrating everything in the practice facility kitchen. Another would need to play guard Quinton Spain, who followed his role by ripping off his Predators jersey to reveal 330 pounds of what Lewan calls “all back.” This was also by design; last week, when the offensive linemen and their positional coaches had held a spirited shuffleboard tournament at Buffalo Billiards on 2nd Avenue, Spain felt compelled to remove his shirt there, too. “We all have such unique personalities, each guy on the O-line,” Lewan says. “That was totally planned.”