Just more than a decade removed from his playing career, the fire for the game still burns inside Florida tight ends coach Derek Lewis. Before the Gators’ game against LSU in October, it was nearly out of control.
Most games, Lewis will gather the players in the locker room for a pregame speech. There are no other coaches in the room. The floor is his, and he fills it. This time, however, things got a little out of hand — literally. Overflowing with emotion and energy, Lewis put his fist through a whiteboard. The aftermath wasn’t pretty.
“I ended up slicing five of my tendons,” Lewis said.
Blood was flowing from his right hand and forearm. The team doctor wanted to take Lewis to the emergency room, but Lewis wasn’t having it.
“I said, ‘Hey man, tape the doggone thing up. Stitch it up. I’ll worry about that deal on Sunday.’ ”
That’s just the kind of man Lewis is. A New Orleans native and the oldest of four siblings, the fire inside Lewis that leads to such overzealous acts was kindled at a young age growing up in the 8th Ward of New Orleans in a shotgun house and “meager livings.” They were stoked further by a rude awakening in early adulthood.
A star at St. Augustine High in the Big Easy, Lewis went on to play four years at Texas under Mack Brown, earning All-Big 12 honors after catching six touchdowns during his senior season. Lewis wasn’t drafted and ended up catching on with the St. Louis Rams as a rookie free agent, but he watched from the sidelines as the Rams won Super Bowl XXXIV. He injured his knee and was released following the 2000 season, and after the phone didn’t ring for more than a year, Lewis had to face the harsh reality that his playing career was over.
Although he played all four years at Texas, Lewis never earned his degree. Without a diploma or a chance at playing professionally, Lewis returned to New Orleans and did the only thing he knew.
“My dad came and got me and said, ‘Hey, a man doesn’t work, he doesn’t eat. You need to go get a job,’ ” Lewis said. “So I ended up working in a bus station.”
Lewis went from catching touchdowns and celebrating Super Bowl wins to driving a city bus in his hometown and having guns pointed at him. Lewis recounted Friday some of his lowest moments.
“I got held up. Couple of guys [overdosed] on the bus. It was some trying times out there,” he said, shaking his head while talking. “You just deal with it. You give them what you’ve got. You keep your head down and keep going.”
He couldn’t recall what they took, other than his pride.
“When they have a gun in your face, you don’t remember,” he said. “You just do what they tell you to do.”
The experience motivated Lewis to return to Texas to finish his degree and pursue a career in coaching. He was there in Austin working as a graduate assistant under Brown when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, devastating his neighborhood and displacing his loved ones.
“My mother-in-law, my uncles, my mom, grandma — it impacted the whole family,” Lewis said. “I was out in Austin in a one-bedroom apartment, and I had 35 people living with me. I ended up sleeping at the stadium.”
He returned a short time later for a job interview at St. Augustine High, his alma mater. Instead of hope, the trip was filled with despair as he saw the devastation for the first time up close. But that was also the start of an uprising for Lewis. He got a job coaching defensive ends at North Texas in 2007 and moved to Minnesota to coach tight ends a short time later. But when the Gophers fired head coach Tim Brewster in 2010, Lewis was without a job.
He went back to Austin to talk to Brown about a job opening, and while waiting for Brown to finish a TV interview, Lewis ran into Will Muschamp. The two talked for 15 minutes, and when Muschamp accepted the job at Florida one of the first people he called was Lewis.
“A great example of a guy who has been through a tough time and has pushed through it,” Muschamp said. “[He found out] easily some things can be taken away from you. He tried life without football and decided he needed to be a coach.”
A life of ups and downs has come full circle, with Lewis returning to his hometown for the Sugar Bowl against Louisville, again on top of the football world. He has that fire inside him to thank, and he is making sure to pass down the knowledge his hard-knock upbringing provided.
“When I got back into coaching it was like a fish to water,” he said. “It really was. I was like, I was born here, I made a life here and this is what I want to do. … But I do take it to heart. I love the game. The game has done a lot for me and my family. I just try to give it back.”