Most of his life, Melvin Lewis has done what he could to stay out of the spotlight and avoid attention.
As a kid growing up in a not always pleasant neighborhood, Lewis kept his head down.
"You just learn to avoid certain situations because you encounter a lot of situations," the Kentucky nose guard said of his early years living in Compton, Calif. "You just learn to walk around them, to get away from them as quick as possible."
His family made sure he stayed busy with sports, mostly basketball until his junior year of high school when he played organized football for the first time.
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Agile and athletic for a bigger guy (now 6-foot-4, 342 pounds), Lewis took to football quickly and starred at a junior college.
Once he signed with Kentucky, though, he learned just how much he didn't know about football.
"In junior college, you basically just go," explained Lewis, who was all-state and All-Southern Conference in his second season at Fullerton College. "You don't learn the different techniques and stuff like that."
Lewis arrived on Kentucky's campus later than most and was told that he needed to redshirt.
"Really was just a big kid, but not a very good player, to be honest with you," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot would explain later of the Cats' raw junior college transfer.
Waiting and watching was not how Lewis imagined his first season at Kentucky would go.
"I was down when I found out I was going to redshirt, but the older guys pulled me to the side and told me that everything was going to be fine and that my time was going to come," Lewis said this spring. "It ultimately paid off last year."
The payoff will continue this week as he becomes a central spokesman for Kentucky at Southeastern Conference Media Days in Hoover, Ala. Lewis, who already has graduated with a degree in community and leadership development, was selected as part of the league's "Beyond the Field" feature, which spotlights a player with a special story.
To Lewis, his story isn't all that special.
He just wanted to get better.
He watched hours of film, both by himself and with teammates and coaches. He became a permanent shadow on the walls of UK's weight room. Between practices, he'd coax teammates back onto the field to work on his technique.
To Kentucky coaches, Lewis's story of perseverance and patience is what makes him so special.
"Nothing was given to him, and he didn't walk in here a good player," Eliot continued. "He may be the most improved player on our team from when he came in to where he's at now."
His position coach said Lewis has made a "100 percent change.
"Now he's talking on the field, communicating, trying to get guys right, trying to get guys lined up," defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh said.
The things Lewis learned in his season sitting out he's now passing on to the younger players.
"His attitude is just more of a leader," Brumbaugh continued. "It's like, 'Guys, come on, let's go, let's get over here, don't be late, let's do this, on the field, let's go, let's run to the ball, let's do this.' Those are the things he has taken on himself."
That role hasn't always been easy for a guy who admits to spending most of his life keeping his head down.
"It's something I've had to grow into," said Lewis, who started all 12 games last season and finished with 37 tackles, including 2.5 for loss. "I'm not much of a vocal guy."
He found his voice early in the spring after the Cats had an unusually lethargic, sloppy practice that left coaches cursing and shoulders sagging.
Lewis wanted none of that. "I go out there and try to yell, just bother people to bring their spirits up. I always tell guys to keep their heads on straight and stay positive."
The center of the Cats' defense has "the good personality" for leadership, Coach Mark Stoops said.
"He's a guy that's upbeat," Stoops continued. "You've heard me talk about it a lot that if you walk in the building and you've got a good, positive attitude and you can affect people in a positive way ... For the most part when he walks in the building, he's ready to affect people in a positive way."
Sometimes Lewis doesn't have to say anything.
Sometimes he just has to stand there and serve as an example of hard work paying off.
"Sometimes coaches are gonna push you to the limit, but the player has to make the decision that he wants to be great, too," Eliot said. "And Melvin was one of those guys that made that decision."