Wednesday January 2, 2013Sugar Bowl a Sweet Homecoming for Gators Assistant Derek Lewis
Gators tight ends coach Derek Lewis is back home for Florida's trip to the Sugar Bowl.
Gators tight ends coach Derek Lewis is back home for Florida's trip to the Sugar Bowl.
NEW ORLEANS -- Derek Lewis is home and in the driver's seat.
The irony isn't lost on Lewis or his passenger. It quickly becomes obvious that Lewis knows this city and it knows him.
"These streets are where I grew up and where I drove the bus,'' Lewis said at the wheel of a courtesy car Monday afternoon. "I was a downtown vagabond."
Lewis, in his second season as Florida's tight ends coach, is back home for the Gators' Sugar Bowl matchup against Louisville on Wednesday night. He brought a story full of struggle and perseverance and inspiration with him.
A graduate of St. Augustine High, the most prestigious African-American all-boys high school in the city, Lewis was a two-sport star who earned a football scholarship to the University of Texas in 1995.
He was a productive playmaker and All-Big 12 selection for the Longhorns and signed as an undrafted free agent with the St. Louis Rams. Lewis left school before earning his degree, figuring his ticket to a better life was an NFL career.
Lewis was on the sideline with a knee injury when the Rams played in Super Bowl XXXVI at the Superdome. Cruel as fate often is, that was the highlight of his NFL career.
Lewis' injured knee was never the same and NFL teams don't spent much time chasing damaged goods.
Uncertain of his next move, Lewis returned to New Orleans near his old 8th Ward neighborhood.
Time passed and Lewis struggled to open new doors after football.
"I was just trying to figure things out,'' he said. "Football doesn't last long. It's a hell of a deal -- how close you can be to awesome and to average and to done."
Lewis' father, Derek Lewis Sr., sped up the process.
A 30-year veteran bus driver in the city, Lewis Sr. pushed his son to start living.
Photo: Lewis at the bus stop in East New Orleans he trained to pick up passengers.
"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 at the bus station.”
Lewis woke at 3 a.m. most mornings and reported to the East New Orleans Regional Transit Authority bus depot. It wasn't the life he imagined, but it was a job.
A job that thrust Lewis into all kinds of situations you might expect driving a city bus around hardscrabble neighborhoods in one of the U.S.'s most unique and economically challenged cities.
He was cursed at. He was spat on. He had passengers overdose on drugs.
Once he was even held up at gunpoint.
"It was some trying times out there,” he said. “You just deal with it. When they have a gun in your face, you give them what you’ve got. You keep your head down and keep going.”
Lewis' drive around town Monday was one of reflection and redemption.
As he drove toward his old stomping grounds, Lewis stopped in front of St. Joseph Catholic Church on Tulane Avenue. The majestic structure opened in 1892 and is where Lewis and his wife, Adonis, also a New Orleans native, were married.
Next he drove toward the fenced off Lafitte Project where his father grew up.
"This is where it started,'' he said. "My parents met at a movie theatre here on Orleans Avenue. It's all right here. This is my area."
As he drives Lewis reels off the names of schools and streets and churches and parks where he spent time growing up in a tight-knit neighborhood where parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts policed the community to keep their kids out of trouble.
When it was time for Lewis' 2-year-old son Myles to receive his first communion, he brought him back to the small Catholic school on Saint Philip Street where he received his first communion.
"He needs to know this,'' Lewis said. "This is who I am and part of me and my wife's history."
Soon Lewis pulled up and stopped in front of a green house on a street of small and tightly packed homes. The address is 2016 Spain Ave. This is where Lewis lived as a kid.
He hasn't been to the house in ages and isn't sure who lives there now.
Lewis gets out of the car and looks around for a second, shaking his head at the flashbacks popping in his head. He would spend hours in a playground out back when he was young. He got in his first fight as an 8-year-old in the alley across the street.
The neighborhood seems a lot smaller than he remembers. Some lots are vacant, traces of Hurricane Katrina's devastating impact seven years ago.
"Man, it brings back a lot of memories,'' Lewis said.
Photo: Lewis greeting old neighbor Tyrone Vincent in the 8th Ward where he grew up.
Lewis notices a tall man walking toward a truck and the man, in his 50s, looks familiar.
It turns out to be Tyrone Vincent, one of the few who remained on Spain Avenue after Hurricane Katrina. The two embrace and immediately begin to flip away the years that have passed.
"I thought you were gone,'' Lewis tells Vincent.
"There are a few of us still around here,'' Vincent replied. "Most of them are gone because of Katrina. It's not the same."
Growing up Lewis spent hours in the street here playing football and anything else with Vincent's boys Craig and Gerrone.
"He used to look out for me,'' Lewis said. "There was trouble to get into around here -- as much trouble as you wanted."
Vincent doesn't know that Lewis is now a coach at Florida. They talk about the upcoming Sugar Bowl and how times have changed.
Vincent is glad to see the outgoing kid he remembered hasn't changed.
"Derek was a kid who didn't get into trouble,'' Vincent said. "He's always been that way."
After a few more minutes of talking, Lewis takes off his Gators cap and gives it to Vincent. It's time for the next stop. As Lewis drives away, Vincent prepares to get into this truck. He pulls the Gators cap on his head and waves goodbye.
More stops await, including Harold Sampson Park, where Lewis played baseball and where he heard stories about another New Orleans product -- former NFL star Marshall Faulk -- doing great things before Lewis and his friends came along.
Driving toward his mother's house, Lewis points out the bank where he opened his first checking account, the dry cleaners he used, the McDonald's he would "hit religiously," the church where Myles was baptized.
He notices some kids in the street playing basketball on a makeshift hoop.
"That's awesome to see,'' he said. "That was me 20 years ago."
Later stops include the bus depot Lewis worked at and that was under water after Katrina, St. Augustine High where he starred for the Purple Knights and opted to turn down an offer to become his alma mater's head coach in 2005, and City Park, home to Tad Gormley Stadium.
It was here that Lewis first caught the attention of college coaches from around the country, including former Gators coach Steve Spurrier.
Photo: Lewis with Tony Biagas, his coach at St. Augustine High.
On this day, it's where Lewis runs into an old friend he hasn't seen in more than a decade. When Lewis gets out of the car and starts to walk into the stadium, he instantly recognizes Tony Biagas.
Biagas was head football coach at St. Augustine High when Lewis played. The two men can hardly believe their chance meeting. Biagas is now manager of Gormley Stadium and was there to oversee the Louisville band's practice.
The man Lewis calls "Big Tony" is soft-spoken but lights up when he sees Lewis. They talk and reminisce for several minutes.
The St. Augustine program has fallen on some difficult times in recent years but Lewis remains one of Biagas' favorites during his 17-year tenure coaching the Purple Knights.
"He was a tall and skinny guy in high school,'' Biagas said. "But he was an excellent athlete. The thing that made Derek different was the size of his heart. He had the biggest heart of any player on the team."
After two years driving the bus, trying to figure things out, Lewis decided it was time to go back to school to finish his degree.
He called Texas coach Mack Brown to see if he could help. Brown welcomed him back and Lewis enrolled in school and joined the Longhorns as a graduate assistant in the weight room.
Once he finished his degree he worked as a graduate assistant on Brown's staff until taking a job as an assistant at North Texas. He moved on to Minnesota as tight ends coach for four years until Muschamp, who got to know Lewis at Texas, hired him to join his inaugural staff.
Muschamp considers the fiery Lewis a key part of his staff.
"A great example of a guy whose been through a tough time and has pushed through it,’’ Muschamp said. "He’s committed to being a football coach from the standpoint of working another profession and understanding the importance of affecting young people’s lives.
"He tried life without football and decided he needed to be a coach.’’
"When it's in your blood, it's real easy to get back into,'' Lewis said.
Lewis' tour around his city ends at the home of Adonis' parents, a short drive from where Lewis' mom and grandmother live. Lewis' father relocated to Houston after Katrina.
Photo: Lewis with his wife, Adonis, son, Myles, and Adonis' mother (left) and grandmother.
Once inside, he is quickly greeted by Myles, who has spent much of the Sugar Bowl trip at his grandparents' home. Soon, Adonis arrives and the family is reunited in their old neighborhood.
Lewis is clearly enjoying being back home. Adonis' father tells him he read the story on Lewis in Saturday's Times-Picayune newspaper. An uncle stops by and tells him the same, that he is proud of him.
"Proud of me? For what?" Lewis said. "It's just a story."
It may only be a story, but it's Lewis' story. And it's a good one -- a story that will include a bus trip to the Superdome on Wednesday night for the Sugar Bowl.
Lewis won't be driving this time. He'll be a passenger on the way to a game to coach.