Illinois right tackle Corey Lewis has long been a fan favorite in Champaign—a story of persistence through pain and of diligence through difficulty.
Granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA—the result of three ACL tears in his left knee during his time with the Illini—Lewis willed his way through the entire 2013 season, proving his ability to bounce back and stay healthy enough to play.
More impressive still: His ACL was apparently torn, for a fourth time, the entire campaign.
Per Steve Greenberg of the Chicago Sun-Times:
Shortly after the season finale against Northwestern, Lewis had an MRI performed on his knee and learned that his ACL had completely torn again. Lewis had suspected the knee wasn’t healthy—since training camp, it hadn’t felt quite right—but had held off throughout the season on fully sharing his concern with coaches and the team’s medical staff.
The doctor who operated on Lewis’ six weeks ago, Thomas Klootwyk, an Indianapolis Colts team physician, believes Lewis played the entire season without an ACL.
According to his school bio, Lewis saw significant playing time in 2008 and 2009, earning academic All-Big Ten honors in his second season. But he was forced to miss all of 2010 and 2011 and the first eight games of 2012 after his sequence of injuries, finally returning for the final four games two seasons ago and expecting to be healthy, for once, in 2013.
He knew something was wrong with his knee all year but refused to get off the field. "I felt that if I could play, there was no reason to MRI it and get shut down," Lewis said, per Greenberg. "I just wanted to play my last season."
Though it's miraculous (to put it lightly) that Lewis was able to play his entire final season, this news still comes at a very bad time. Lewis was preparing for the upcoming Illinois Pro Day and the 2014 NFL draft, hoping to land an unlikely spot on a professional roster next season.
Realistic or not, that's still how he feels.
"[The NFL is] his drive and his dream," said head coach Todd Beckman, per Greeneberg. "That’s what’s great about Corey Lewis."
Teammate Steve Hull said Lewis is "able to push through a lot of things normal people wouldn’t," adding that his "heart breaks" for him to have to go through this again.
This isn't the first time Lewis has endured a setback, though, and it might not be the last. If he can play a full Big Ten season on a torn ACL, who is anyone to tell him the NFL is unrealistic?
I, for one, sure won't.
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT