Sunday, April 04, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Lewis is back and defying odds

BLACKSBURG -- Nobody thought he'd be out here for this.

Not his position coach, who tried to talk him out of it before realizing he had no shot.

Not his trainer, who knows how surgeries eat away at tissue and desire.

Kenny Lewis Jr. is the only one who really thought it was possible -- or prudent -- to come back for a fifth year of Virginia Tech football.

And that's why it's such a pleasure to see him do it.

Spring football means different things to different people. For Lewis, a 25-year-old running back who is back on the practice field for the first time in a year and a half, it's impossible to explain how much this means.

"I just got chills when you asked me that question," Lewis said after practice Saturday.

He pointed down to his heavily muscled arms.

Sure enough, goose flesh.

"I don't know, man," he said. "Honestly, it's just ... it's just something you love to do. I just love being out here."

We've all known that for a while. Lewis gave up a professional baseball career to play football at his father's alma mater, after all.

But that was before he tore his left Achilles tendon against Western Kentucky on Oct. 4, 2008, and had it surgically repaired on Oct. 14. Then, a week later, he tore the same tendon when he slipped in the shower, requiring a repeat of the same procedure.

That'll test anybody's love -- not to mention their physiological limits.

"He's running out of tissue," Tech trainer Mike Goforth said. "Just like a person who gets a new hip or a new knee. You usually only get one more after that and you're done, because you run out of bone or you run out of tissue to repair. The Achilles is a really tiny tendon to begin with, and all of a sudden you've worked on it twice? It's tough."

What made it tougher is that Lewis couldn't start rehab right away. He had to wear a boot for several months. Lewis remembers fighting what he calls "negative energy" from the outside, even though he understood that people weren't trying to be negative. Those doctors, coaches and friends were just being honest.

Running backs coach Billy Hite encouraged Lewis to hang it up, reminding the running back that his long-term health is at stake.

"He looked at me like I had two heads," Hite said. "And I know what he said to me under his breath -- and he doesn't talk that way."

He doesn't. Lewis is in church in his hometown of Danville every Sunday he can be. He plans to be there today, a day off for the team. His pastor once told him something that Lewis never forgot through all the rehab.

"She said you're going to get two reports: A doctor's report and God's report," Lewis said. "God's report says he died for our sins and we're healed in Jesus' name. So while the doctor's report says you aren't going to come back, the other report says you're already healed. The thing is, which report are you going to believe?"

He smiled.

"You know which report I took."

But the heavens couldn't pick him up and haul him to the gym every day. Lewis did that on his own. He, Goforth and Hite got together after Christmas and came up with a position-specific rehab plan to augment the team workouts. He followed it ... well, religiously.

"If anybody could do it and get himself ready, Kenny Lewis could," said Hite, who's often called Lewis the hardest worker he's ever coached. "That's the way that family is. No matter what happens, they're going to find a way to do what they have to do. And he surely has."

The turning point came in January, as Lewis was working out with fellow running back Darren Evans on the turf field.

"Wait a minute," Lewis remembers thinking, "there's still some bounce in this thing!"

His left foot now feels stronger than his right. And on Saturday, the first day of full-pad workouts, Lewis passed a major test by getting through all the contact drills unscathed.

Lewis doesn't need to look at the depth chart -- he's listed fourth among the loaded corps of tailbacks -- to know that his chances of ever starting again are slim. But he plans to compete. And he plans to contribute, even if it's just on special teams.

Whatever happens, he'll be ready for life after football. He's on track to earn a master's degree in instructional technology this summer.

If doubts ever creep in, Lewis will keep the story of Samson in mind. He particularly likes the part when Samson prays to God for the strength to crush a temple where he's being held captive by the Philistines. The strength is granted; the temple is crushed.

"Not that I want to destroy Lane Stadium or anything," he said with a smile. "But please just give me the strength for one more go 'round in college ball."

I'll second that request.



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