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Long, long road back for Illini lineman

(MCT) — CHAMPAIGN — When he woke up last Saturday morning in a Columbus, Ohio hotel, it had been 1,076 days since Corey Lewis played in a college football game.

That’s 1,076 days, five knee surgeries and more lonely hours running, lifting, worrying and wondering than anyone will ever calculate.

Then part-way through the first quarter of last Saturday’s University of Illinois football game at Ohio State, Lewis trotted onto the field.

Only a handful of people in a crowd of more than 105,000 knew the significance of Lewis’ arrival into the Illini huddle. And only he knew the odds he had overcome to get there.

“It was just a great moment for me,” he said Monday. “It’s something I had been working hard for over the last two-and-a-half years, because it was pretty devastating what happened to me in the 2010 spring game.”

Corey Lewis arrived at Illinois in the summer of 2008, a Ron Zook recruit out of Cresco, Pa. He was joined in that recruiting class by another freshman offensive tackle, Jeff Allen of Chicago, and speculation was that Lewis and Allen (now a rookie with the Kansas City Chiefs) could be standout bookend tackles on the Illini offensive line.

Lewis played in four games as a true freshman, then played in all 12 games in 2009, finishing that season with a game against Fresno State on Nov. 22. He was on his way to being that star.

But little did Lewis know that could have been his final college game.

That next spring, while practicing a two-minute drive in the annual spring game, Lewis tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

That’s a serious injury for any athlete, especially for a 6-foot-6, 310-pound lineman who puts great strain on his knee.

Surgery followed and what happened next ended up being a nightmare of setbacks that threatened to end Lewis’ career.

Two more times he tore his ACL — both in off-season workouts — and another setback occurred when an infection prevented a graft from healing.

While overcompensating for his weakened left knee, Lewis injured his right knee and had to have it repaired with arthroscopic surgery.

All the while, the goal of returning to the playing field seemed to be slipping further and further away.

“I just wanted to get back out there so bad,” Lewis said. “I didn’t want my last game to be Fresno State in my sophomore year.”

At an Illini football practice, the rest of the team would go through drills and scrimmages, running plays. But over in a corner of the practice field would be the hulking figure of Lewis and a trainer, sweating alone to build strength in his left knee.

“Going into my third surgery was my lowest moment,” Lewis said. “I was looking forward to coming back for a full season this year and then I hurt it lifting weights.”

His final surgery was in March of this year and by September, Lewis had made enough progress that coach Tim Beckman sent him to New York to see orthopedic surgeon Dr. David Altchek, who had done the reconstructive knee surgery on Purdue basketball star Robbie Hummel.

Altchek told Lewis he could return to practice and could play again once the Illini training and medical staffs determined that the strength of his left knee was back on par with his right knee. And going into the Ohio State game, Beckman told Lewis to be ready.

Teammates already could see him rounding back into form.

“In practice, he’s dominating, looking like the same old Corey,” defensive tackle Glenn Foster said. “He’s had a lot of heart, desire and passion to get back and to become the great tackle he was when he got here.”

Beckman — who Lewis credits for sticking with him — said the lineman is an inspiration.

“People don’t understand the rigors that guy went through even to have a chance to play again,” Beckman said. “What he has done — not just physically, but mentally — I’m very happy for him.”

Beckman admits that Lewis was “a little rusty” for the 25 plays he was on the field against Ohio State. And Lewis agrees.

“The knee felt good,” he said. “I would say I was somewhere between 80 and 90 percent, just from being rusty. And I went against some pretty good defensive ends my first game.

“When I went out there, my heart was racing 100 miles a minute. That first play, it was a great feeling, one of the greatest feelings of my life.”

Although he’s in his fifth season, Beckman and the Illini staff will file documentation with the NCAA, appealing to have Lewis granted a sixth season — and one final year of eligibility. The NCAA does this in cases of serious injury and both Beckman and Lewis are confident the NCAA will approve the request.

If so, Lewis has two hopes.

One, he hopes to stay healthy. “That’s always in the back of your mind,” he said.

Two, he wants to help this team get back on a winning track.

“We just have to keep believing, keep buying into what (Beckman) is saying,” Lewis said. “He’s been around the game. He’s won where he’s been and he’s been around coaches who have won. He knows what it takes. We just have to continue to believe and trust.”

Believe and trust.

There were times when Lewis had a hard time believing he could make it all the way back, trusting that his tireless rehabilitation would take him there.

After Saturday’s game, Lewis had to compose himself while talking about the experience.

“It was a very emotional moment for me,” he said.

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