Corey Lewis overcomes injuries to find success in sixth season

“I wanted to ask you about Corey Lewis and what stands out to you most about him and his comeback ordeal.”

Frank Bodani, a reporter in Pennsylvania, had called into Illinois football head coach Tim Beckman’s weekly press conference asking about right tackle Corey Lewis. This week the opponent was Penn State, and Lewis’ hometown of Cresco, Pa., is less than three hours from State College. 

“Well Frank, I hope you’ve got some time because I could talk about Corey Lewis forever,” Beckman said. “And I have. These guys in front of me are going, ‘Oh, another Corey Lewis story.’”

All of the reporters laugh. Most of them have already asked Beckman and those around the Illinois football team similar questions.

The story borders on legend at this point around Champaign. Corey Lewis: the comeback kid.

An offensive lineman whose body failed him for two-and-a-half years before finally returning to the field as a sixth-year senior as the Illini’s starting right tackle.

Lewis had a promising start to his Illini career as he played in four games as a true freshman and all 12 the season after. In the spring of his junior season, things went awry.

During spring practice, Lewis tore the ACL in his left knee — an injury that sidelines players for a whole year at a time. It was just the beginning of the trials that he would face.

 

“If God is with me, then nothing can be against me.”

Lewis based his comeback on a variation of the Bible verse Romans 8:31, which reads: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” The scripture is tattooed on the 23-year-old’s hulking right bicep, a constant reminder of Lewis’ close connection with God that helped him through the grueling rehab process.

“He definitely lives the life that he believes his Christian faith follows,” freshman offensive tackle Austin Schmidt said. “He’s a great mentor.”

Spring 2010 was Lewis’ first knee surgery, but it wouldn’t be his last. Over the next two-and-a-half years, Lewis would have four more operations on his knees. He tore his same ACL twice more and fought off an infection from surgery, which forced him to go under the knife once again and caused him to miss all of the 2011 season and most of 2012.

“The hardest part for me was sitting back and watching and seeing that we went to back-to-back bowl games and knowing that I could have been a part of that,” Lewis said. The Illini made the Texas Bowl in 2010 and the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl the year after — winning both contests.

Watching his teammates on the field while being stuck in rehab over and over and over again wore on Lewis; although, the thought of giving up never crossed his mind.

He couldn’t quit.

“I couldn’t let 2009 be my last year, my last game,” Lewis said. “I just wanted the opportunity to come back even if it was for one play. I just continued to fight for that one play.”

So Lewis kept at it, day after day, month after month, year after year. With his family, teammates and faith in God, Lewis made the climb back toward the field despite so many setbacks. It paid off. Late in the 2012 season, Lewis finally made it back to the field.

Facing Ohio State on the road, Lewis trotted onto the field in pads for the first time in over two years. He was back.

 

“I’m going to continue to play football until they say that I can’t anymore.”

Going into this season, the oldest guy on the offensive line was the least experienced.

The 23-year-old Lewis had never made a start in an Illini uniform before 2013, unlike the other four starters on the line. He had played in the final four games of the 2012 season in a reserve role — low reps, not trying to push things too much. Those could have been the last plays as a collegiate athlete, but the NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility, only reserved for those who suffer “an incapacitating injury over the course of a season,” according to NCAA rules.

With another year in Champaign guaranteed, the start of the new season was different. His name was in bold on the depth chart.

No. 70, Corey Lewis. 6-foot-6, 315 pounds. Starting right tackle.

It’s what made all of the grueling rehab necessary, all of the years spent watching helplessly as his teammates succeeded and failed, it was finally here.

Trotting out of the tunnel for the 2013 season opener against Southern Illinois was a rush of emotions for Lewis.

“It was an emotional moment for me,” Lewis said. “It was a great opportunity for me to finally display all the hard work that I put in behind closed doors for so long.”

The first start went off without a hitch, no setbacks, no doubts in the knee that had held back his football career. After finally getting his first start, Lewis has started all nine Illini games and remained healthy.

“Just as he said in my office yesterday, he could have easily said, ‘No, I’m done,’” Beckman said. “He could have easily said at the end of last year: ‘No I’m done.’ But he wanted to be a part of this.”

One of the highlights of the season for Lewis, for any offensive lineman, came against Indiana last Saturday.

With the Illini down 35-28 to the Hoosiers, running back Josh Ferguson took a handoff from the 2-yard line and dove over the pile looking for the touchdown. As he extended the ball near the goal line, a Hoosiers defender knocked it free into the end zone putting a live ball up for grabs.

A scrum formed over the loose ball, but it was No. 70 in white who left the pile with the ball in the end zone. It was Lewis’ first touchdown since high school.

“I waited six years for that,” Lewis said. “I don’t know if you watched Monday Night Football but tackle eligible Donald Penn dunked on the goalpost, so I thought about that, but I didn’t quite get to that. I didn’t want any flags or anything.”

“I was really happy for him especially in his last year, his senior year,” Schmidt added. “He was able to score a touchdown, something every single lineman always wants to do.”

As for the lack of a touchdown celebration, Schmidt cited poor planning.

“You always got to be ready for something like that,” he said with a laugh.

 

“He’s a great kid, well not a kid anymore, a great guy.”

In his sixth year at Illinois, Lewis has made Champaign his second home. He’s no longer the 17-year-old kid that walked onto campus. 

“It still feels like yesterday for me,” Lewis said of his arrival in Champaign. “Time flies, man. You think six years from now, where are you going to be? You have no idea and six years ago, I had no idea that I would still be here six years later, but I am, and I’m happy about it.”

In the interim, he earned a Bachelor’s degree in communications and a Master’s in sports administration. His goal is to someday be an athletic director. His leadership has already been on display, being one of just 12 scholarship seniors on a young football team. Off the field, Lewis is the president of the Illinois chapter of Uplifting Athletes — a program that organized the team’s “Lift for Life” event over the summer to raise money for the fight against rare diseases.

But right now, Lewis isn’t satisfied with only playing out the final games of his senior season. He wants to continue his dream of playing professionally and will give the NFL a shot in the spring.

His mentality of not quitting goes all the way back to 2010, when Lewis refused to give up on his dream of playing football, just as he won’t right now.

Stephen can be reached at sbourbo2@dailyillini.com and @steve_bourbon.