Lewis learns key life lesson

August 27, 2009 

It's all about perspective, and Chris Lewis could lecture on the subject.

In the spring of 2006, he was a big deal. A huge deal. He was the No. 1 heavyweight wrestler in the state and one of the best in the nation. On the football field, he was one of the best defensive ends in the country.

He accepted a scholarship offer to play football for the Miami Hurricanes.

It was not unusual then to walk into the Clovis West High School weight room and see Lewis flexing in front of a mirror.

"I was 17," he says, "and I was like, 'I'm going to the NFL.' "

A lot has happened since the spring of 2006, of course. Lewis went to Miami for the summer, enrolled in school and started working out with his new teammates. That July, a Miami safety was shot in his front yard. His roommate and teammate pulled a gun and fired back.

That season, the Hurricanes got in a massive on-field brawl with Florida International, the fight where announcer and former Hurricane Lamar Thomas got fired for practically cheering on-air and saying he wanted to join the fight.

And later that season, defensive lineman Bryan Pata was shot and killed during a robbery at his apartment. Pata was a senior who had worked with Chris Lewis on his technique that summer.

Lewis wasn't there for the season or to mourn Pata's death. He transferred back to Fresno State that summer, before his college career even began.

At the time, Lewis said he was leaving Miami because of "family issues and health issues," and now we see what he meant.

"I didn't consider it the best football environment for me," Lewis says now.

He had to sit out the 2006 season for transferring, but not everything went well in the Fresno environment, either. He was charged with shoplifting at a grocery store. He and his girlfriend got into some heated arguments, one that made headlines because he threw something that dented her truck's hood. Lewis was charged with vandalism.

"It was just one of those moments that young kids go through," says Fresno State coach Pat Hill. "Adults go through it. But Chris is a very good young man. I think they've grown stronger through this."

The charges were eventually dropped. Lewis and the girlfriend, former Fresno State softball player Kori Sherman, told the judge they wanted to pursue a life and family together. And they did. They had a daughter and are now engaged.

Hill asked Lewis to sit out the 2007 season, get his life together and keep going to school.

"I was hanging out with people who weren't doing the same things I was doing, as far as football and school," Lewis says. "And some of my friends weren't the best people to be around, and sometimes you fall into those traps. I made a mistake. I made a few mistakes.

"Sitting out a season was a big eye-opener because I lost a season of eligibility. Coach Hill and Coach [Dan] Brown, they worked with me a lot. It was a blessing to have them here to keep me around, because if they would have kicked me out, who knows what I'd be doing."

The investment has worked out for the Bulldogs as well. Lewis played a part-time role last season as a 250-pound defensive end. This fall, he is up to 270 pounds and has moved to defensive tackle. He was told this week by defensive line coach Will Plemons that he will start in the season-opener against UC Davis.

Says Plemons: "[Lewis] was never made a leader of this team. He's worked for it."

In three years, Lewis' perspective has changed a lot. He once knew he was going to be a star, and now he admits he has no idea.

"Miami had the most guys in the NFL," he says. "I thought you had to go to Miami if you wanted to go to the NFL. As I've gotten older, [I've learned] it's more about education. The NFL -- that's not for everybody. It's a goal, but as long as I have my degree, it can be a goal. It's just not the No. 1 priority."

With two years of eligibility left, he needs four more classes to get a communications degree. He'll play next year as a graduate student.

Hill takes criticism, about his play-calling and scheduling, and everything else Division I coaches take abuse about. But if you were a kid like Chris Lewis, at one of those intersections in life, you'd want to be a Bulldog.

Hill is an impressive teacher of perspective. This year, his team is dealing with the school's financial issues, class scheduling conflicts that mandate 6 a.m. meetings, and Friday flights for Saturday morning games, and not staying at hotels the night before home contests.

Hill told them, "There's a lot of people out there losing their jobs, losing their homes, losing their retirement accounts."

It's all about perspective.

Having already worked on Lewis' life issues, coaches now hope Lewis and a healthy group of young defensive lineman can fix the team issues, change the seemingly open-door policy of last season's line.

That result remains to be seen, but what is decidedly known is that Chris Lewis believes anything positive in football from this season forward will be an addition to his college success, not the essence of it.

The columnist can be reached at mjames@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6217. Read his blog at www.fresnobeehive.com

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