When NFL draft analysts try to poke holes in the resume’ of LSU offensive guard Damien Lewis, the Tigers’ All-SEC second team performer takes it to heart.
What they perceive as his deficiencies – a lack of height, slow of foot in his pass blocking – strikes the same chord the 6-foot-2, 325-pound Canton, Miss. native has heard his entire football career.
“I’ve been counted out and had to get it the hard way my whole life,” said Lewis, who started all 40 games of his college career at Northwest Mississippi Community College and LSU. “It started with zero (scholarships) offers out of high school. I got some exposure in junior college, had 18 D1 offers and ran with the best offer from LSU. I made the best of it and now I’m here waiting to get my name called.”
It’s the biggest reason why he believes he’s among the top 10 rated guards and a projected third-round selection going into the three-day NFL draft that begins Thursday night.
“I don’t get caught up in the rounds, I just need a shot,” Lewis said. “I’ve been underrated. I’ve had to prove people wrong. I’m not going to change. I’m just going to go in and be me, make an impact on a team.”
There’s been nothing easy about Lewis’ journey from a challenging childhood to standing on the welcome mat of a pro career.
Until nearly 2 ½ years ago, his father was in prison for selling cocaine. For the past 14 years, his mother has been disabled after damaging her spinal cord in a Hurricane Katrina-related accident.
To understand Lewis’ path, go to his roots in Canton, a town of 12,000-plus located 20 minutes north of Mississippi’s capital city Jackson and the site of author John Grisham’s 1995 feature film “A Time to Kill.”
It’s also a place where one-third of the residents live below the poverty line, according to U.S. census figures. Lewis said he encountered a difficult childhood in a household where his mother Stacey Lewis provided for four boys.
“My hometown’s small and there’s a lot of drugs and gang members,” Lewis said. “It’s easy for people to influence you to do bad. I stayed to myself and didn’t let that get to me. I had to be the man of the house for my mom and three brothers. I couldn’t do those things and had to protect them. I had a vision when I was nine to 10 years old. I wanted to be great.”
Lewis said he was also influenced to stay on a righteous path by the misdeeds of his father Damien Dozier, who was convicted for selling cocaine. He served a 17-year prison sentence and was released in the spring of 2018.
“He did fall, he was real young and he paid the price for it,” Lewis said of his father. “I forgave him for everything he did. Everyone needs a second chance. He’s come around and really sees the big picture and believes in Christ. He’s tried to be the best father that he can be. I don’t dwell on the past. We’re looking forward to him being a better man, a better husband to our mom.”
Lewis’ mother, the family matriarch, has long tried shaping her oldest son’s life, from his stern work ethic to his devout spirituality.
Lewis recalled a harrowing incident involving his mother during Hurricane Katrina. The family lived in Biloxi and a rescue effort to pick her up nearly resulted in tragedy when she slipped and fell off the back of her father’s truck.
“We almost lost her,” Lewis said. “She broke her leg and messed up her spinal cord because of the fall and is now disabled. She’s always been hard on us. Education was a key thing and to always be respectful. And if you do something, then complete it. Go all out in everything.
“Those things played a role in my life in helping me see the big picture. I dedicated myself to keep on going, never looking back. I wanted to get something that I never had and if you want that, then you have to do something you’ve never done.”
Which is why he kept grinding, even when his career path didn’t go as planned.
Lewis played on both the offensive and defensive lines at Canton High, which fielded a team of fewer than 30 players. He also threw the shot put and discus in track and was the state’s powerlifting championship.
Daryl Jones, a former Jackson State running back who coached Lewis in his last two seasons at Canton, remembered him as an eager learner.
“When I met Damien for the first time (going into his junior season) he asked me if we were going to get a good offensive line coach,” Jones said. “I assured him that we would. I was fortunate enough to hire Joe Jefferson, a guy who had coached offensive line his entire career on the college level.
“Damien was like a sponge. He became a technician under Coach Jefferson’s tutelage. Coach Jefferson often used Damien to assist him in coaching younger players.”
Yet rumors of Lewis’ shortcomings in the classroom scared away all Division 1 scholarship offers with just slight interest from Southern Mississippi and Texas State.
“Scouts overlooked me,” Lewis said. “God doesn’t make any mistakes, and everything happens for a reason. I feel like he wanted to push me a little, to see if I would give up or not. I’m glad things played out like this. I took the long route. No one’s going to give you anything. You’ve got work for everything. Nothing in the world’s free.”
His best scholarship offer was from Northwest Mississippi, a junior college program battling in a state which now has produced the last seven of nine NJCAA national champions.
He immediately moved into the team’s lineup starting 22 straight games, was named a two-time NJCAA All-American, and was rated the nation’s No. 3 offensive guard and the No. 109 overall prospect by 247Sports.
Moreover, Lewis graduated in 18 months. He was named to the dean’s list and was a third-team member of the 2016-17 NJCAA All-Academic squad.
Kentucky was the first Division I school offering a scholarship. LSU was among a group of other SEC schools along with South Carolina and Ole Miss following UK’s lead.
“We knew one of the coaches at Northwest,” LSU head coach Ed Orgeron said of his recruitment of Lewis. “They brought us in their office and said `Coach, you’ll never coach a better young man.’ They were right. Damien has work ethic and off-the-chart character.”
It took just one conversation with Orgeron for Lewis to decide he was headed to Baton Rouge.
“Coach O gave me a chance and recruited me himself,” he said. “When he offered, I told him I was committing to him and to help bring a national championship. I had to go in and compete for a job knowing that LSU had two starting guards (Garrett Brumfield and Ed Ingram) coming back. I was thinking about all of the hard work that I had to put in. I was thinking not to let it go to waste, that this was my shot and I had to showcase myself.”
When Ingram was suspended for the 2018 season because of an off-the-field incident, Lewis stepped in. He started 28 straight games over the next two seasons culminating with January’s national championship win over Clemson.
Two years ago as a junior, he led LSU’s offensive linemen in snaps with 978. He participated in every snap in 11 of 13 games, including all 96 snaps in the Tigers’ seven-overtime loss at Texas A&M.
Last season as a senior, Lewis was considered a mainstay, alongside junior center Lloyd Cushenberry III. They blocked for Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Joe Burrow in the most prolific offense in college football history.
The Tigers scored an astounding 95 touchdowns, averaged 48.4 points and 568.4 total yards. Lewis played 802 snaps, was part of the Joe Moore Award-winning nation’s best offensive line and earned first team All-America honors from at least one national publication.
Lewis participated in the NFL scouting combine and received a late invitation to the Senior Bowl. Both afforded him needed opportunities to work out in front of NFL scouts and conduct meetings with NFL front-office personnel.
He was able to further unleash his powerful drive blocking techniques and maintain his textbook leverage. His road-grading blocking was a focal point in LSU’s rushing game which last season produced first-team All-SEC running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire (1,414 yards, 16 TDs).
Lewis, regarded as LSU’s strongest player with a 475-pound bench press and 635-pound squat, showed off his muscle at the scouting combine. He pumped out 27 bench press repetitions at 225 pounds.
“I felt like the Senior Bowl really helped me a lot,” Lewis said. “It was a great week for me. I went to compete with some of the top guys in the upcoming draft and showcased myself in front of the scouts. I wanted to show them I had what it took to play at the next level with some of the big defensive players that were there.”
Since his return to Baton Rouge where he’s had to become resourceful in his preparations for the NFL draft because of the coronavirus pandemic, Lewis said he’s conducted video interviews with Arizona, Baltimore, Buffalo, Chicago, Kansas City, Indianapolis, New England and San Francisco.
“A lot of teams felt they needed a guy who’s mean, tough and nasty,” said Lewis, who’s represented by veteran Hattiesburg-based agent Bus Cook. “They wanted someone who played with an edge, a chip on his shoulder. I’ve tried to be dominant in everything that I do. It’s either me or you and I’m going to choose me every time. I’ve been able to see the big picture in talking to coaches and to see who was really interested in me. It was a great experience overall.”
Now, Lewis is counting the final hours to the draft. He’s expected to hear his name called on the second day when he’ll be in his off-campus apartment in Baton Rouge surrounded by his parents, the three brothers he helped raise and his girlfriend.
No matter what team drafts Lewis, his family will be beaming with pride. They know how he didn’t fold when times were tough, how he beat the odds that seemed to tilt against him.
“I’m just thankful that I had to take the long route and ended on an LSU team that won a national championship,” Lewis said. “Everything really worked out in my plans. All of this magical stuff happened and now I’m going to probably end up in the draft and hear my name called.”