Offensive tackle Corey Lewis returns to field Saturday after knee injuries

It had been nearly three years since Corey Lewis played a snap of game action.

Five knee surgeries, three ACL tears and 34 games later, the senior offensive tackle returned to the field Saturday. Lewis checked in during the first quarter against Ohio State.

“My heart was racing 100 miles per minute,” Lewis said. “It was great. My nerves were going that first play. It was a great feeling. One of the greatest feelings of my life to be able to get back out there.”

After a grueling rehab process that began when he first tore the ACL in his left knee in the 2010 spring game, Lewis was relieved to be back on the field with his teammates. His last game action came against Fresno State on Dec. 5, 2009, in a 53-52 loss for Illinois.

“People don’t understand the rigors that guy went through to get himself prepared to even get a chance to play again,” head coach Tim Beckman said. “That’s what the college game is all about. It’s not about anybody but the players.”

Lewis listed himself at around 80 to 90 percent, saying he’s rusty after missing so much time.

“Just from not being out there,” he said. “For the most part, I think I’m good to go. I just got to continue to get better with my technique and just being out there.”

Lewis’ return to the field hasn’t been easy or without setbacks. He said the thought of tearing the ligament again still creeps back into his head.

After all, it did happen again for Lewis. And then again.

He re-tore his ACL doing a hang-clean during offseason workouts in 2011. An infection prevented the graft from healing, and the ligament tore for a third time. He had to essentially start his rehabilitation from scratch again. Because of that, he missed the 2010 and 2011 seasons and the first nine games of this season. On top of all that, he needed arthroscopic surgery to clean out his right knee, which he injured while overcompensating for his injured left knee.

“You ask why, you ask if football is for you,” Lewis said. “But with hard work and dedication, I just really wanted to get back. I just had so many setbacks that it just came to a point that it was going to get through everything and do everything I could to get back.”

Lewis is listed as a redshirt senior, but because of his multi-year injury, he’s been active for just two seasons. He said he expects the NCAA to grant him a sixth year of eligibility at the end of the season.

“From what I’m hearing, it’s a slam dunk,” he said.

The Illini certainly hope to have Lewis back to anchor the offensive line next season. He was once considered a building block at tackle alongside Jeff Allen, who is now with the Kansas City Chiefs, but the injuries derailed his development and he never became a full-time starter.

“We were supposed to be bookend tackles for the future,” he said.

The current offensive line is lacking depth, and when seniors Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton graduate, it will also be lacking experience.

If he returns in 2013, Lewis and junior Jake Feldmeyer will be the only two seniors on the Illini offensive line, and Lewis hopes to provide a veteran presence for the younger players.

“I’ve been here for a long time,” he said. “Hopefully, I can get back to my old form, if not better, and just continue to help the O-line to grow and get better.”

If nothing else, Lewis’ story can be a motivating example for an Illinois squad struggling during a six-game losing streak.

“If I didn’t quit, nobody should quit,” Lewis said.

Chad can be reached at thornbu1@dailyillini.com and @cthornburg10.