Melvin Lewis has never watched video of the play that probably ended his football season.
“I won’t,” he said with a quiet finality. “I refuse to watch it.”
The Kentucky senior defender remembers the play clearly. Auburn had just run the exact same one. He knew it was coming again.
But what came next he never could have predicted. It changed his life and his perspective.
He hopes it doesn’t change his future.
“I was striking a guy, I like came down to my knees — I don’t even know how — and then I just remember everybody falling on top of me and me bending back over my leg,” he recalled Tuesday.
UK’s nose guard got up and tried to walk off the numbness in his lower left leg. He assumed it was a sprain.
“When I got up and I was walking on it, I was like, ‘All right, it can’t be that bad. I’m walking on it,’” Lewis guessed as he headed for the locker room the night of Oct. 15. “When I got on the table they told me I’d broke it.”
Hearing that news broke the Kentucky defensive lineman a little bit, too. He’d worked so hard to get from a junior-college wannabe to a starter, a team leader.
Seeing Lewis — normally so positive and so strong — so down after the news of the broken fibula and subsequent surgery was difficult on his teammates and coaches, too.
“He was down definitely,” Coach Mark Stoops said of his senior leader. “It really hurt me to see his reaction, how much that affected him and not being able to be out there and play at the end of his senior year.”
The Compton, Calif., native was far away from home, far away from his parents, Vernon and Kim. His father flew in for the surgery, the first of Melvin’s life.
Just to watch them lose — or watch us lose (was hard). I know there’s a lot of things I could do to help if I was out there playing.
Watching the team play on television was hard for Lewis.
He was struggling and Kentucky was struggling, losing five in a row before beating Charlotte on Saturday to set up a win or go home game against Louisville.
“Just to watch them lose — or watch us lose” was hard, Lewis said. “I know there’s a lot of things I could do to help if I was out there playing.”
It took Lewis a bit of time to figure out how to help himself, how to feel better so he could help the team.
But Stoops said he knew the senior had turned a corner emotionally when he asked if he could travel with the team on a recent road trip. It’s not standard for injured players to travel, but Stoops made an exception for Lewis.
“It was good for him to be there,” Stoops said Tuesday. “The guys enjoy seeing him and he has his way of being a good teammate and a good leader.
“And even now, I’ve noticed him more in the background, not as much of a vocal, out front leader, more in the back, patting guys on the back, getting them motivated, so it’s been good to see.”
Getting back with the team has been good for Lewis, too. Almost six weeks since the injury, he’s been cleared to do some light treadmill work and is now wearing a hard plastic walking boot and crutches to get around.
They’re the same crutches he’ll use to walk onto the Commonwealth Stadium turf on Saturday for his Senior Day. He’ll stand there with his father and grandfather, who are making the trip.
He’ll try not to think about what could’ve been.
“It’s going to be hard because I won’t get to play in front of the home fans again,” Lewis said. “But I know I’ll be fine. I’ll still be on the sidelines.”
Stoops saw Lewis on the treadmill Monday and messed with him like it was old times.
“I was teasing him, pushing him a little bit,” Stoops laughed. “But it’s good to see him up and moving and getting going.
“He’ll come back from this and I think it will be a fast recovery now from this point forward. It’s been a hard time for him, but he’ll move forward rather quickly now.”
Lewis rehabs some days from 9 a.m. until late in the afternoon. He’s looking ahead to a possible NFL career or maybe a bowl if UK can get there.
“My main thing right now is just not quitting,” said Lewis, who had 20 tackles in six games this season, including two for loss. “I still want to play in the NFL and stuff like that, so that’s my motivation.”
His coaches believe that the 6-foot-4, 332-pound senior has a legitimate shot at a professional career.
Defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh, whom Lewis credited with helping him get through some of the initial depression, said the story of how far Lewis has come in his time at UK will help his chances. There’s still much upside.
“He’s really developed and put himself in a good position,” Brumbaugh said.
Even as recently as Tuesday, Stoops said he thinks an NFL career is within reach for Lewis.
“I definitely believe that this won’t hurt him much,” the head coach said of the injury. “It will set him back a little bit, but once he heals up and he’s able to work out for those guys, he’ll have a good chance.”
Louisville at Kentucky
Noon (SEC Network)