The remarkable story of former Illinois offensive lineman Corey Lewis was made even more amazing by news reported on Thursday.
Steve Greenberg, of the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote that Lewis played last season despite tearing his ACL for a fourth time. When the injury actually occurred is unknown, but a post-season MRI shortly after the Northwestern game revealed yet another tear. Lewis told Greenberg he knew something wasn't right in training camp, but he kept playing and didn't have an MRI during the season because he didn't want to get shut down again.
From my perspective.... An all around nice guy, Lewis was one of the best Illini players to speak to and interview the past two seasons. He's still chasing his NFL dreams and has earned the respect of everyone around Champaign, coaches, teammates, media members and fans, alike.
Good luck to Corey on his fulfilling his dream.
Here's a story I wrote on Lewis in late November, just before his final game.
CHAMPAIGN – Nathan Scheelhaase was answering sobering and humbling questions about his feelings days away from playing the final game of his football career.
Describing the sky as the sun is setting. The convo was heavy.
Corey Lewis, fresh off his media duty and in the same boat, figured his quarterback might need a slice of pie.
Cutting in on the interview, Lewis offered a healthy chunk of pumpkin with whipped cream optional.
Scheelhaase and a group of reporters broke out into laughter as the 6-6, 315-pound hulking lineman ambled on his way to enjoy the treat for himself.
This is Lewis. This is the grown man who has been through so much, six years of college football and five knee surgeries. This is the guy who could have quit, could’ve given up many times, but he’s still around throwing positivity and timely jokes out every chance he gets.
“There’s no need to be too serious all the time,” he says.
ACL tears are serious. Lewis experienced his first as a rising junior in the spring game of 2010.
“It kind of all went downhill from there,” he said.
His knees failed him two more times. One of the more major sports injuries that can strike an athlete happened to Lewis three times in the span of 23 months. Additional procedures were required due to infection and longterm outlook.
Never once did Lewis consider an alternate path. It was find out what’s going on, hit the operating table and rehab like crazy. Times five.
His end goal was to get back on the football field. He didn’t waver, but that’s not to say there weren’t worries.
“You just wonder if you can return to the type of player you were,” he said. “It’s not fun if you’re hurting the whole time.”
He missed all of two seasons before making his comeback officially complete late last year. He logged some reps in games Illinois had no chance of winning. He was a feel-good story for a struggling team wallowing in losses and dejection.
It could have ended there. He proved he could still play. But that wasn’t the point, not to Lewis. He wanted to regain his form, fulfill the potential he showed as the high school senior that scored 27 touchdowns and the college freshman that logged 94 snaps.
So he applied and was granted a sixth year of eligibility (perhaps no player in college football has been more deserving). And he kept working to strengthen his knees, body and, perhaps most importantly, his mind.
“I just continued to battle back with positive thoughts,” Lewis said.
Lewis entered spring practice with the goal of starting at right tackle. Bill Cubit, recently hired as offensive coordinator, felt an immediate connection with Lewis, a fellow Pennsylvania native with a fighter’s mentality like Joe Frazier.
Cubit loved Lewis’ will. He liked what he brought to the meeting room, a 23-year old with plenty of answers for younger players who had questions.
But he wasn’t sure what Lewis could do on the field.
“You’re sitting there going, is he going to get enough reps, how do you manage the reps, is he going to be able to last. You go get the trainer’s report all the time, you better be careful because you don’t know,” Cubit said.
Concerns be damned, Lewis made it through spring. Then summer. And he thrived in yet another August camp. The staff limited his reps, especially during the rigorous schedule of Camp Rantoul. All the while it was clear – if Lewis could go, he would start.
“I’ve never heard the kid complain about any of it,” Cubit said. It’s been 11 games and Lewis is still going. Sure, there’s always ice on his knees. And he has a specific gate, not quite a shuffle but definitely not a normal stride. He won’t say it on the record but even walking is painful at times. Still, he treks into the football office earlier than most every weekday. To make the football office his home, that was his goal.
He made football essentially his only priority because he could. He earned his undergrad degree in communications way back in 2011. He finished up a master’s in November. So he set up camp in Memorial Stadium. He had lunch delivered – usually the Bootlegger’s Club from Jimmy John’s, add cheese, extra mayo with regular chips and a chocolate chip cookie.
“They’re freaky fast,” he said.
Line coach A.J. Ricker found Lewis behind his desk after every staff meeting, watching film from Ricker’s big, comfy chair on a daily basis.
“He might be tired of me but I know he loves me,” Lewis said. The last couple months have meant a great deal for Lewis, who has exceeded expectations and is eying a long-shot bid at the NFL. He’s still collecting information and forming a training strategy for the future.
Lewis achieved. He worked to regain his status as a Big Ten starter. Illinois beat Purdue last week. A win against Northwestern would be the way to go out.
“Definitely worth it,” he says of it all.
This whole journey has been great for everybody else who’s come in contact with Lewis. The young players, those who see the struggle, see the rehab, see the preparation.
You think those guys have learned from Lewis?
“If they don’t then they’re not being real smart,” Cubit said.
Lewis’ mother Lisa, father and brother, both named Steven, will be on hand Saturday as Lewis goes through the senior day ceremonies.
They supported him through it all. They’ll support him as an Illini one more time, as will everybody else with a pulse. Lewis says he’ll be emotional. He’s spent this week thinking about the good times and the bad.
“I have no regrets throughout my time here,” he said. “Obviously you regret the injuries, but they happen. There’s nothing I could have done about that. You know, I really enjoyed my time here.”
Lewis’ path was anything but easy. His legacy – well, that’s no joke, either.