Five Knee Surgeries Can't Kill Lewis' Drive

Corey Lewis returned to game action last week at Ohio State after missing 34 consecutive games.
Corey Lewis returned to game action last week at Ohio State after missing 34 consecutive games.

Nov. 8, 2012

Read More About Lewis' Comeback: | Decatur Herald-Review | Daily Illini

By Ben Taylor, Illinois Sports Information

When was the last time you went almost three years without doing one of the things you love the most? Hugging your kids, seeing family, or maybe it's playing a sport that you love, like fifth-year senior offensive lineman Corey Lewis.

Lewis, who came to Illinois alongside six players currently in the NFL as part of the 2008 recruiting class, found the field late in his true-freshman season, logging 94 snaps in four games late in the 2008 campaign.

He played in all 12 games at tackle in 2009, including 30 snaps against No. 15 Penn State. Things were looking good for the former three-star prospect who was a first-team Class AAAA All-State selection in Pennsylvania in 2007. He even earned Academic All-Big Ten honors, as he held a GPA over 3.0 in communication.

During 2010 spring practice, Lewis was running with the first-string line as a bookend tackle to fellow junior Jeff Allen. And he was performing well, not allowing a sack all spring at strong-side tackle.

But during the spring game, he went back in a pass-blocking stance and braced his left leg to fight off the rush by a defensive end. The wet field conditions caused his leg to slip and twist awkwardly, and Lewis went down. Three days later after the swelling subsided, the diagnosis was official: Lewis had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and would miss the 2010 season.

"Things were looking promising coming into that 2010 year," Lewis said. It would have been me, Jeff (Allen), Graham (Pocic), Randall (Hunt) and Hugh (Thornton). It was a very promising line and we had stuff to look forward to."

Rather than serve a key role in Illinois' successful 2010 season that ended with a 38-14 victory over Baylor in the Texas Bowl, Lewis spent the year rehabilitating his knee. A knee injury can be especially debilatating for an offensive lineman, especially a tackle, who is required to chop his feet backward in pass blocking.

But Lewis healed well and was participating in winter workouts after the Texas Bowl. It was then that he tore his ACL a second time and, this time, there was some bone damage, as well.

"I had to do my first surgery to get a bone graft and then, I had to wait two to three months to get my ACL repaired, so, unfortunately that ended up being three surgeries total at that time. They were looking to get me back (for the 2011 season), but never felt that I could be too effective with that limited amount of time."

For the second-straight season, Lewis spent the year on the sidelines, rehabbing his knee and regaining strength. But this time, it was an internal issue that prevented his return to the field. He developed an infection in the knee after the second surgery, which both Lewis and his doctors believed they had successfully treated with antibiotics.

"The infection never let the (ligament) graft heal, so the graft was never really there," Lewis said. "It kept it from latching on and becoming my new ACL. Unfortunately, I went to spring workouts again (in 2012) and, I guess you could say, I tore it again. That was my third time. That was in March."

For many of us, that would be a career. Thanks for coming to Illinois, finish your degree and relinquish your scholarship. Go start your life after football. But not for Corey Lewis or Tim Beckman and his coaching staff, who were just getting to know Lewis.

"Corey Lewis is a great kid," Beckman said. "The players respect what he's been through. The coaching staff hasn't been here the whole time that Corey Lewis has been here, but we respect what he does."

"The new staff was very accepting of my situation," Lewis said. "Coach Beckman has been very accepting of my situation. He could have been like `This guy is injured, why not free up a scholarship?' which a new coach is rightfully reasoned to do. But he hasn't, so I'm just looking forward to making him right. That's why it's been easy for me: because I want to prove that he made the right decision to help this team go in the right direction.

"And Coach (Luke) Butkus has been a great mentor. He played here, he showed me what the university is to him. He just added to the equation of who I wanted to come back for. He is very inspiring to me and he is a workhorse both on and off the field. He gets the best out of me; I think he gets the best out of all of us.

After five total surgeries, Lewis has made his way back and looks to continue to push his way into the rotation for an Illini offensive line that is in desperate need of depth. But it wasn't easy, as Lewis spent the bulk of the season on the sidelines during practice, wearing a numberless purple or green jersey that indicates injured players.

In fact, he had worn a colored jersey so long that Butkus joked that he didn't know Lewis' number was 70. On the scouting report and game plan quizzes that the linemen take in meetings, Butkus usually writes his players' numbers on the top instead of their names. But for Lewis, he just wrote the Cresco, Pa., native's initials "CL" as part of the running gag.

"It's a great way to keep the mood up and overall just keep us proud and keep us up, and I'm very thankful for him," Lewis said of Butkus' sometimes-playful attitude with his linemen. "At any point in time you have to be ready around him, because he might throw a (verbal) jab at you that you might not be expecting.

"It would be easy for him to baby me because of my situation, but he doesn't by any means. He wants me to get back to where I once was, if not better."

Lewis was able to make an impression on the new coaching staff through his work ethic and his attitude. It would have been easy - and ultimately understandable - for Lewis to sulk through his multiple recoveries. And while he surely had his days where he felt discouraged, he's known around the locker room as a guy whose smile is hard to knock off his face.

"I keep my faith strong in God," Lewis said. "My mother raised me in a church environment and she's always told me to keep the faith and stay positive. God has a plan for me, whether it's football or not - I hope it's football because that's why I came here - but He has a plan for me. Maybe He has something else in mind or some type of return - who knows - but that's how I stay positive.

"The main way I stay motivated is for my teammates, just wanting to play with them and wanting to go through everything with them and be on that field again. Nothing inspires me more."

Lewis also said his rash of injuries has changed how he values the opportunity he has been given to play major college football.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't take it for granted (in the past). Now I know I don't because you face injuries. Now I love going to meetings, I love being in the facility, I love being here, I just love the game. They say you don't know what you have until you lose it and I lost it the last two seasons, so I'm just trying to get back."

Lewis started to do just that when he ran onto the field during Illinois' second offensive series in Columbus last week.

It had been since the Illini's season-ending game against Fresno State on Dec. 5, 2009, a span of 34 games, that Lewis had seen the field. Nine of Illinois' offensive starters and four more on defense had never seen him play in a game. So when he played 25 snaps against the Buckeyes on Nov. 3, it boosted the spirits of a team that has faced numerous trials in 2012.

"The support has been great," Lewis said of his teammates. "That's been one of the things that has helped me make this comeback and make my return. I'm very happy to have great teammates like I do."

It didn't stop with his current teammates, though, as former Illini linemen Allen and Jack Cornell both tweeted their support shortly after Lewis made his way onto the field at Ohio Stadium.