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Illini’s ‘ambassador’ Lewis fights pain to keep playing

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Updated: August 3, 2013 1:28AM



A mother and her son sat together in the trainers’ room beneath Memorial Stadium. The son’s left knee was shredded. The mother began to cry.

“Please stop,” said the son.

But that was hard to do, for she felt his pain.

“I’m going to be fine.”

So she dried her eyes and chose to believe him. This was three years ago, during Illinois’ spring game. This was three ACL tears and five knee surgeries ago. In the context of a college football career, this was damn near a lifetime ago.

You want a player to root for this season? Corey Lewis is your guy.

“He’s awesome,” said Lisa Lewis from her workplace in Brooklyn. “He has really been a role model and an inspiration to so many people.”

And the reason for that is Lewis, the Illini’s 23-year-old senior — make that sixth-year senior — offensive tackle, simply refuses to cease being fine. Or at least fine enough to plow forward.

There has been physical pain.

“Lots of it,” Lewis said.

There has been mental anguish.

“Maybe it does a little more than creep into the back of your head,” he said of a second ACL tear and then a third. “Maybe it floods into your head.”

And there has been a football dream deferred, again and again.

“He had the game taken away from him, ripped away,” Illini coach Tim Beckman said. “And for a really long time.”

For two and a half years, Lewis, who’d appeared in 16 games his first two seasons in the program, tried and failed to get back on the football field for the Illini. He finally broke through last November, playing in the team’s final four games. That would’ve closed out his career had he not decided to apply to the NCAA for a medical hardship waiver.

The NCAA approved the waiver in April — after Lewis, acting on faith and a refusal to give up the game — had gone through spring practice with no guarantees he’d be allowed to continue playing.

And now?

“I’m not going to give up until all my years are done,” he said.

Like Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed, Lewis, a 6-foot-6, 310-pound right tackle, wanted — needed — to be standing after 15 rounds of spring practices.

“I got through a whole offseason,” he said. “Finally.”

Next come the 23 practices during training camp, a number that includes two team scrimmages. After that, 12 games in which Lewis hopes to line up with the first-team offense.

“I’m as close to 100 percent as I will be,” he said. “I’m ready to go.”

Teammates marvel at his determination. Senior defensive end Tim Kynard, a close friend, went head-to-head vs. Lewis in spring ball and, at first, was afraid to turn it loose. Any concerns quickly abated.

“He was moving great, running well,” Kynard said. “Who in this country can say they’ve been through what he’s been through? It’s incredible.

“He’s doing everything right. He’s in a master’s program (in sports administration). He’s basically the ambassador of our team.”

Lewis, who’ll turn 24 in October, is still churning toward an NFL goal. Unrealistic? Perhaps, but to deny him the dignity of dreaming that big would be to fail to grasp the enormity of what he has already accomplished.

Corey Lewis has conquered the sort of frustration and fear that would drive most men far from the playing field.

“I don’t go out there with any thoughts of (getting hurt) again,” he said. “If it happens, it happens.”

His mother never even wanted him to play football. At this point, all she can do is believe in her son.

About this latest, and hopefully final, comeback: “I didn’t really have to convince her,” Lewis said. “She knew my heart was all into playing football. Especially at this point in my life.”



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