CHAMPAIGN – Illini football. Bowl game.

Those are two topics that haven’t been lumped together much lately. But speaking with one of the best stories in college football, offensive tackle Corey Lewis didn’t flinch in saying that’s exactly what’s on his mind one month from the season opener.

“For the season to be successful we need at least six wins and that means a bowl game,” Lewis said. “I’ve heard guys say they had a good off-season, but bowl game…that’s what I want to hear. That’s my goal. That’s what you work so hard for.”

Few players in the country have backed up their commitment to hard work the way Lewis has. His has been one of the longest, most painful and most frustrating careers imaginable, one that has included three torn ACLs, five surgeries and a two-and-a-half period when he could not play at all while he toiled anonymously to return to the football field.

Finally last year, on Nov. 3 at Ohio State, Lewis trotted onto the Ohio Stadium turf and dropped into a three-point stance.

Few in a crowd of crowd of 105,000 probably noticed, but for Lewis it was an emotional milestone moment, a reward for never giving up when it would have been easy to do just that.

Now this season, after being granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, he heads into the Aug. 31 opener as the designated starter at right tackle.

Grateful only begins to summarize how Lewis feels.

“Of course there were times when negative thoughts get in your head,” the 6-foot-5, 315-pounder from Cresco, Pa. said. “Maybe it’s more than just creeping into your head. It was always there.

“But I just kept working because I believed I would make it back.”

That Lewis’ belief didn’t crumble is amazing.

After playing and showing the potential to be outstanding as a freshman and sophomore, his first major setback came during the spring game prior to the 2010 season. That’s when Lewis tore the ACL in his left knee. Even if that had been his only setback, recovery from a major knee surgery is serious business.

But more setbacks followed.

Lewis ended up with three separate ACL tears, a bone graft in his left knee and a patella tendon debridement of his knee, in which damaged tissue was removed to improve the chance for healthy tissue to survive.

With each surgery Lewis had to confront the possibility that his dream of playing football again was just that – a dream. His mother, Lisa Lewis, wondered if it was best for her son to give up on football.

“My mother, she was the most worried,” Lewis said.

But Lewis kept finding reasons to push on. Even now, he talks about inspirational stories like NFL running back Adrian Peterson and his rapid return from knee surgery, and about Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls and his determined struggles.

“I don’t know if it’s harder for them or for me,” he said. “Peterson is cutting on every play and guys are hitting him low. But linemen are heavier guys and we’re pounding and grinding so maybe it’s more stress for us.”

Lewis has a most optimistic view of the coming Illini football season.

“I put myself in the fans’ shoes and I think I know what they’re thinking,” he said. “They want a winner and you can’t blame them. And two wins (Illinois was 2-10 in 2012) is not acceptable.

“Coach (Tim) Beckman is a great head coach and I think we’ll see that this year. Coach (Bill) Cubit is a great offensive coordinator and I think we’ll put it all together.

“We made a list of our weaknesses from last season and we put them on the board and we’ve been working on them. There was inconsistency on the offensive line. Guys were injured and others were rotating in and out.

“This year, there are no excuses. We’ll be more consistent. Everyone has experience.”

Lewis also has a new position coach. A.J. Ricker, who spent the 2011 and 2012 seasons working for Cubit at Western Michigan, now calls the shots on the offensive line.

“He and coach Cubit are on the same page and it’s great for us up front. We’ll be better in the run game and in the passing game.”

Lewis was no where near 100 percent when he jogged onto the field late last season at Ohio State. He had been cleared medically, but he was stiff and a uncertain. After not playing for two-and-a-half years, there was rust to knock off.

Now, Lewis smiles broadly when he talks about how he feels.

“I’m as close to 100 percent as I will ever be,” he said. “It’s been over a year now since my last surgery. I can’t wait to be on the field when we start the season.”

Size and strength are not an issue for Lewis. Now he has one final college season to demonstrate he can still play with top-level skills.

“I want to get past more than just getting through this season,” Lewis said. “I want more than that. I want to get to the next level.”

(5) comments

Basketball Jones
Basketball Jones

What a great story. You just have to root for this guy. I have my doubts about Beckman like a lot of people, but I hope for the sake of guys like Cory, that Beckman and the team plays good football this year. That still might mean only a couple wins. With Lunt on board, and some better looking recievers coming, maybe in a couple years we can go from laughing stock to a respectable football team.

Red in a blue state
Red in a blue state

I'm somewhat surprised that Cory would still dream of reaching the next level with all the surgeries on his knees. But then again goals are what keep people reaching for more and doing all it takes to get there.
BBJones, I hope Scheelhause has an incredible year executing Cubits offense, setting up the arrival of Lunt and his pro-style arm and potential next season. QB's who can throw like Lunt pose a threat that keeps defenses honest and are less inclined to stack the box like they have been against us over the recent years. That should along with better play calling open up the offense, score points and at least give the defense better field position. If anything it will be a lot more exciting to watch.
I watch NW and think they really don't have that much better talent than us offensively, but what they have had and continue to have is very talented dual threat playmaking QB's (along with solid coaching of course) who I believe raise the level of play around them.
Keep up the optimism BBJ, it's nice to here it on here once in a while. Actually it's nice to here anything on here once in a while. Hope things pick up once Bball season starts.

Red in a blue state
Red in a blue state

The recent stories about how admissions standards has hurt the Illinois football program over the years may have some credibility. If so I wonder how admissions has effected the basketball program over the same years. From what I understand OSU takes anybody(state residents), what an advantage. I understand the reason for going to school is the education the degree. But hey why handcuff ourselves. The school does need the dollars that major sports like football can generate don't they?


One would like to be optimistic, but even the schedule is pretty brutal.

I am surprised that the physicians will allow him to play after all those surgeries. Seems like he could make a good coach. crk

Red in a blue state
Red in a blue state

Please excuse me, but I see I need to do a much better job checking my word usage. Funny, one would think I would see them the first time I reread my stuff instead of two hours later.

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