After five knee surgeries, Illini veteran is scheduled to play his final collegiate game Saturday on Senior Day.
CHAMPAIGN — The question started in mid-April.
Can Corey Lewis make it through the spring game unscathed?
The question arose again in mid-August.
Can Corey Lewis survive Camp Rantoul?
The question popped up once more in early October.
Can Corey Lewis’ surgically repaired knees hold up against Big Ten defensive linemen?
The questions, speculation and debates will all cease once Saturday afternoon turns into Saturday evening.
Lewis will walk out onto Zuppke Field for the final time before Illinois hosts Northwestern on Saturday. Play in his final game. Listen to the national anthem standing on the sidelines for the final time. Lean forward, put his hand on the ground and wait for the snap. One more time at Illinois. His Senior Day should have happened a year ago. Or two years ago. But it didn’t.
“I’m definitely going to pursue the NFL,” the sixth-year senior and starting right tackle said. “I’m going to prepare and train. I’m not exactly sure where I’m going to train yet, but I’ve got some options and am looking forward to that process.”
The sentiment Lewis expressed earlier this week about his professional hopes would have filtered out of his mouth sooner. Except for three wretched knee injuries the genial 24-year-old Lewis has endured since the 2010 spring game. Standing 6 feet, 6 inches and weighing 315 pounds, Lewis’ knees were bound to experience a few sore moments during his college career. No one, however, anticipated three ACL tears and five knee surgeries would follow when Lewis crumpled to the Memorial Stadium turf for the first time more than three years ago.
“It kind of all went downhill from there,” Lewis said. “At that point, I was still a young buck. I was only 19 at that time. I had never really dealt with any injuries. I was never a guy that was in the training room at that point. I didn’t really know what to expect. I just always remember telling myself, ‘I hope I never tear my ACL’ because you always hear about it in the sports world. We got the MRI, and there it was.”
There it was again after a winter workout in February 2011 in the weightroom. Another torn ACL. And again during winter workouts preparing for the 2012 season. Another torn ACL.
Lewis returned to the field for the first time since 2009 last season in Illinois’ loss at Ohio State. He played in the final three games of last year after his season debut against the Buckeyes. Hasn’t missed a game this year, either. In fact, he has started all 11 and is slated for his 12th start Saturday against the Wildcats.
“We’ve really talked about limiting reps during practice, which we have, because we knew not many players have ever gone through something that he’s going through,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “I’m proud to be with him and look forward to him playing that last game in the orange.”
That last game could have transpired against UCLA in the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunter Bowl. Or the regular season finale last year in Evanston. The only remaining member of the 2008 recruiting class that has sent players like Corey Liuget, Whitney Mercilus and Mikel Leshoure, among others, to the NFL, will experience Senior Day on Saturday. In uniform. With the knowledge that he will play a critical role in whether Illinois ends Beckman’s second season with two straight Big Ten wins.
“There hasn’t been anything too drastic (this season) to where it would hold me out of a game or anything like that,” Lewis said. “I just continue to work with the training staff and continue to rehab it. I give a lot of credit to that training staff. They always continue to help me with any pain I have and make sure I’m ready on Saturday.”
Offensive line coach A.J. Ricker plays a part, too. The first-year assistant at Illinois is the man in charge of how many plays Lewis takes part in during practice. The goal is simple: get Lewis through the week healthy enough that he’s able to go full bore on Saturday.
“A.J. has done a great job in monitoring his reps during the week and then in the games not overtaxing him because we probably could have lost him early if we didn’t manage him right,” offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. “You just can’t risk it. I call him ‘Union’ out there. On Tuesday, he’ll go out there and practice, and on Wednesday he’s back there and only takes a certain amount of reps. When he’s in there, he plays hard, and we’re getting the most out of him because of what A.J. has really done.”
Ricker is the fifth offensive line coach Lewis has had since he arrived on campus for the 2008 season, but Lewis said he has formed a close bond with the former Missouri center.
“I think Coach Ricker is tired of me at this point,” Lewis said with a laugh. “I’ll be sitting in his chair in his office when he gets out of staff meetings. It’s a very comfortable chair. I’ll watch film there.”
Lewis had to take one class this semester to finish his master’s degree in sports administration. The class ended a few weeks ago, so Lewis has spent almost all of his free time inside Memorial Stadium recently. And on most days, he gets his lunch delivered there, opting for the Bootlegger Club with cheese and extra mayonnaise, potato chips and a chocolate chip cookie from Jimmy John’s.
“It’s freaky fast, man,” Lewis said with a grin.
His sense of humor has helped him get through what others might consider a grueling recovery the last three years.
“He’s such a character,” wide receiver Steve Hull said. “Every moment can turn into a hilarious one. His personality is just remarkable. He’s such a special guy. The stuff that he’s been through, a lot of people wouldn’t have even had the courage to keep playing this game, especially as physically demanding as it is. He’s such a role model.”
Lewis will walk onto the Memorial Stadium turf with his father, Steven, his mother, Lisa, and his younger brother, Steven Jr., on Saturday before the game. Soak up the sights. The atmosphere. The memory of playing one last college football game. A memory that might not have seemed likely when his third and final knee injury happened. But one that’s coming to fruition.
“After the games, I’m sitting there and want to talk to my wife and have a chat with my granddaughters, and I look over, he’s got his iPad out already watching, saying ‘Coach, this isn’t a hold.’ I go, ‘Big boy, that’s a hold. That’s why they called it a hold,’ ” Cubit said with a laugh. “The kid just loves football. He loves being out there. I think when you go through that much adversity, everything is that much better because he has fought through so much.”
It’s time to say goodbye
Corey Lewis isn’t the only Illinois player who will step onto the Memorial Stadium turf for the final time in their career Saturday. BOB ASMUSSEN was there when all of them enrolled at Illinois, and our veteran college football writer offers up his thoughts on the 15 who will be honored Saturday before the 2:30 p.m. kickoff against Northwestern:
Name POS. Comment
Jonathan Brown LB From his first day on campus, he took a leadership role with the defense. It continues Saturday.
Jake Feldmeyer C Nice to see the versatile Ohioan getting quality time on the field in his final season.
Nick Forzley DB Walk-on from Lemont saw his first action at Illinois during the 2012 game against Charleston Southern.
Spencer Harris WR With injuries at his position, Arkansas native has stepped up his play in his final season.
Steve Hull WR Recent efforts by converted defensive back should draw the attention of NFL scouts.
Brad Janitz P Here’s hoping Tim Beckman sends walk-on in Saturday and he booms a 60-yarder. Into the wind.
Tim Kynard DE Toledo product turned himself into an important factor on defense late in his career.
Ryan Lankford WR No doubt, the offense misses him after nasty injury ended his season way too early.
Corey Lewis RT Always one of the good guys on the team, school should name an award for him to honor his persistence.
Ben Mathis FS A high school standout from Springfield, walk-on provided depth in the secondary.
Miles Osei WR Former quarterback never found a job he wasn’t willing to try, including a move to receiver. Just to help out.
Daniel Quintana STAR Walk-on from Westchester St. Joseph joined the team during the spring of his junior year.
Tim Russell Holder Showed off his athletic skills by throwing for a two-point conversion and running for a two-pointer, too.
Nathan Scheelhaase QB One of top signal-callers in program history and the only one to lead the team to consecutive bowl wins.
Evan Wilson TE Atlanta-area native used his height to become a dangerous target in the red zone.