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.”