It has been a long road for New York Jets cornerback Keith Lewis, a small-college player already cut once in the NFL who was signed to the team's practice squad last week. From a rough neighborhood in Chicago to being out of football for two years to playing college football and now the NFL, Lewis can appreciate more than most of his teammates what this chance truly means.
And this background means that this chance with the Jets is something that means the world to him – and it might just change his world.
With the length the Jets like at cornerback and a good 40-yard time, Lewis has that unrefined skillset that is perfect to be developed on the practice squad. He moves well, has good hips and a team source tells Metro that “Lewis is raw but physically, you like what you see in him.” But it isn't the eyeball test that should have the Jets interested; it might be his story off the field that will see him secure an NFL contract. It is a story of hard work and resilience even when the odds were stacked against him.
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He was not an under the radar player in high school, not by any stretch of the imagination. During his prep career at Marie Sklodowska Curie Metro High School in Chicago, Lewis amassed over 30 football scholarships and was one of the top players from the region. But with low ACT scores, he didn't get through the NCAA clearinghouse so he enrolled at the College of DuPage, a nearby junior college. He would go on to become an All-American at the junior college but grades were now an issue for him to transfer to a major program. So Lewis stepped away from football for nearly two years in order to get his life in order.
At that time, his grandmother passed away, adding more difficulties and another hurdle to clear in his already complicated life.
He applied for and got into Harold Washington College, a college in Chicago without a football program. He got a full-time job at Walmart where he worked on the floor in the electronics department. He worked overtime when he could; one of four children and the only boy, he felt the burden of having to help provide for a single income family.
“I became more mature at 17 years old and that continued over the years. Mom and dad divorced then when I was 17. I had a lot going on with scholarships. My dad was the one staying on me, and then it went downhill,” Lewis told Metro.
“I felt embarrassed not going straight off to college and then having to work like that, I was. I can't lie about that. I saw everyone going to big schools, the Big Ten, the SEC, things like that. I could have been drafted in 2012. I could have. I felt like it was embarrassing.
“Watching those guys on TV everyday was a big motivation. I knew people wondered if I would ever make it, if the situation would get the better of me. If I'd ever play again. I didn't doubt my ability but yea, I thought about the future and if I would ever get where I wanted to be. Sometimes those with the most talent don't make it.”
At Harold Washington, the lack of a football program meant that Lewis had the chance to focus on the classroom. He spent more time studying and getting his grades up. But he never took his eye off the goal of eventually playing college football again.
Even away from the game, he emailed a number of colleges expressing interest in playing and sending along his highlight tape. It was sort of a shot in the dark, blindly hoping that something might land. Turns out something did as one school got back to him quickly and with an incredible offer.
Virginia University of Lynchburg, a historically black college, offered him a scholarship without even a visit. They were an independent program without a conference who would, in the words of Lewis “schedule whoever we can get.”
He popped out on his highlight film and he was offered a scholarship via email.
He made the decision to enroll in the college, a leap of faith since he never made a visit on campus and had never traveled that far from home before.
It was a 16-hour trip on the train from Chicago to Lynchburg, that summer day in 2012. It was his first ever visit to the East Coast. He had a lot of time to think as he was setting out alone, on his own. Leaving behind his family, all that he knew.
“Just being on that train ride, thinking that 'I've got to make it happen.' It was uncertain. I didn't know what was ahead of me or anything like that. It was a gamble, yea, for sure,” Lewis said.
“I knew I had to make it for them.”
The “them” is a reference to the mother and sisters he left at home, in a bad neighborhood. But Lewis stuck through it. In his final season at Lynchburg last year, he began to turn heads and caught the attention of agents and NFL scouts. All of a sudden there was a bit of buzz about this untested, extremely raw prospect.
He couldn't get into the Pro Day at nearby Liberty this past spring - they wouldn't allow him to compete with their athletes - but he instead held his own combine at his school.
If it was easy, it wouldn't be Lewis' way. His Pro Day was far from ideal but as is the case for this young man, he persevered. This latest obstacle, a few inches of snow on the field, wouldn't stop him.
It had snowed a couple inches that previous day, making the outdoor field cold, hard and wet (Lynchburg doesn't have an indoor practice facility). Despite the less than ideal conditions, he ran well in front of a number of NFL scouts and then the door opened up for him a couple weeks later to attend the Pro Day at Richmond.
Lewis wasn't drafted but instead signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after the NFL Draft and made it through most of the training camp before he was cut. A few weeks later, the Seattle Seahawks brought him in for a workout but never signed him.
He would settle in with the Omaha Mammoths of the upstart FXFL and performed well, certainly doing enough to get signed by the Jets to their practice squad this past week.
He's here now, at the Jets facility with a chance to state his case for a future's contract next year.
His motivation isn't about getting into the Pro Football Hall of Fame or making it to the Pro Bowl. His interests are back home where his mother and three sisters continue to live in one of Chicago's toughest neighborhoods.
He will go back there this offseason - “a friend got shot in the face there last weekend. I still live in the same neighborhood but I'm not a part of that. People respect me, see me doing my thing” - but he is hoping to move not just himself out but his mother and sisters.
“I want to set my mom and sisters up. I really do. This was a long way to get here, a lot of work and a lot of time when you weren't always sure how things might go for you. But I never gave up. I want to be able to get that contract and get them out of there,” Lewis said.
“I want it real bad. I'm anxious.”