by Michael Walsh, Associate Sports Editor
February 9, 2006
After spending three years in the minors, Kenny Lewis Jr. decided to pursue his dream of playing college football. Lewis left behind his chance at playing Major Leage Baseball to suit up in orange and maroon on the football field. This is the first part of a two part series on Kenny Lewis Jr. Check tomorrow's edition of the Collegiate Times for the second part of Michael Walsh's story.
Leaving baseball was easy for Kenny Lewis, Jr.
The heater whirrs in the background as he stands on the concourse of Cassell Coliseum, just outside of the Virginia Tech Hall of Fame hallway. He grins easily and nods to a middle-aged man and woman who pass by.
As he gestures, explaining what he’s done and what drives him, you get the sense that the gestures are coming easier these days, back with the sport that he loves, the school that he grew up admiring.
“He looks dangerous”
Lewis, a Danville native and January Virginia Tech enrollee, looks you square in the eye when he talks about his path to Blacksburg from his beginnings as a track and football star in his freshman and sophomore years at George Washington High School.
Then, in his junior campaign, he approached G.W. head baseball coach Scooter Dunn about taking his speed to the base paths.
“I always ran track, and I wanted to give baseball a shot,” Lewis said. “I played when I was little, but I never really gave it a fair chance.”
“He came up to me and said ‘I’m gonna play baseball for you,’” Dunn remarked. “I said, ‘Kenny, I’ll give you the best shot I’ve got,’ and he just turned it on. It was just remarkable to see someone who hadn’t been at a baseball field since he was a little kid to have so much God-given talent.”
It becomes clear when talking to those who knew Lewis in high school, that there is one play that they point to when describing what watching the speedy outfielder was all about on the field. Chuck Vipperman, G.W. High School play-by-play man for WBPM in Danville — speaks about the sequence of events with a tone of awe usually used to describe a natural disaster.
“(It was) his senior year in the Western Valley District Championship game against Cave Spring. It was the bottom of the seventh inning — they only play seven in high school — Kenny got on first,” recalled Vipperman, pausing for emphasis. “The second guy bunted to the pitcher, and Kenny broke on the pitch. The pitcher picked up the ball and threw to first, the ball got away from the first baseman, maybe 20 feet, and Kenny scored. From first base! In baseball, you see a play developing and you think you have an idea of where the runner ought to be, and I thought he should be halfway between second and third, and he ended up being halfway between third and home.”
“(The first baseman) took his eye off of me for a moment. I guess it was just anticipation,” Lewis said, pulling at his goatee while reminiscing. “You know how you sometimes know what someone’s going to do before they do it? They kind of relaxed, and I took that to my advantage.”
Dunn was coaching third base as Lewis ran his way into the memory of everyone in attendance — and into G.W. High School lore.
“I’ve been coaching high school for 32 years,” Dunn said, struggling to convey the run to someone who wasn’t there. “I have never, ever, ever, seen that and probably never, ever will see that in any level of any sport. That was the scariest run I have ever seen. That place was silent, man, I mean we just won a district championship but the place was stunned. And we had college scouts and coaches up there and nobody said a word. The scouts said they had never seen anything like that before — never. And that’s how dangerous he was, and that’s what coaches would say, ‘When he runs he looks dangerous.’
A Raw Burner
Lewis’ scary-fast nature wasn’t limited to just the baseball field. As a running back for G.W. in 2002, he scored 18 touchdowns — five of those coming on kick returns — and ran for 1,040 yards, averaging 7.6 yards per carry. Kenny’s father, Kenny Lewis Sr., manned the running back position in Blacksburg in the late 1970s, and held the Virginia Tech single-game rushing record with 223 yards against the Virginia Military Institute in 1978 until it was broken in 2003 by Kevin Jones.
So, naturally, his speed, coupled with his family history, led both baseball scouts and football recruiters to visit Danville. Vipperman noticed the football buzz early on in Lewis’ career.
“(Recruiters starting paying attention) very early on, probably when he was a freshman, obviously because of the bloodlines,” Vipperman said. “He dominated on both the seventh and eighth grade teams in middle school and even then had that speed that changed your perception of the game.”
But it wasn’t just big-time college football that had its collective eye on the wheels of the 5-foot-9-inch speedster. Cincinnati Reds scout Perry Smith had Lewis in his crosshairs as well.
“He was a track and football guy and didn’t steadily play baseball,” Smith said. “Therefore he was a little raw — a term we like to use — but we also like to use the word ‘tools,’ and he had tools. Obviously, his best tool was he was a plus-plus runner, what we call a ‘burner.’ He was also very athletic, a very strong kid for his size.”
The Reds weren’t the only team to express interest in Lewis, and Lewis wasn’t the only George Washington player to draw the gaze of scouts and general managers. John Fulton, G.W.’s shortstop and one of Lewis’ best friends, was also held up to the scrutiny of dozens of professional baseball people throughout their senior season — and were both weighing their options. According to Dunn, Fulton helped Lewis with his baseball development and knowledge.
“Kenny also picked up baseball through John Fulton, his best friend on the baseball team through high school,” Dunn said. “John had committed to Virginia Tech also to play baseball the same year. I think they played off of each other — they both got looks (from scouts), they would travel to showcases together, and both of them knew that they would probably get drafted, but they were trying to outdo each other.”
The Cincinnati Reds and Smith were impressed enough with Lewis’ potential on the diamond that the organization spent a fourth-round pick on him, putting Lewis in a position to make a decision that would change the next years of his life.
Bloodlines or Basepaths?
According to Dunn, a turning point in the decision came on a trip back from a road game during Fulton’s and Lewis’ senior years when the three were in the back of the bus, tossing around the topics of baseball and life. To Dunn’s surprise, the conversation turned to being on a baseball card, something that Dunn views as an inherent male desire.
“Every kid, I don’t care if you play baseball, football, basketball, track, soccer — whatever, always wanted to be on a baseball card,” Dunn said, voice nearly prophetic. “And I remember we were talking about that and I think that’s true. And I don’t even care if you played a sport or not. It’s like if you’re a man and you’re born, you wanna be on a baseball card, it’s just one of those things. I know it was when I was a kid and these two guys were talking about it on the bus. And I said, ‘Well, go pro, get drafted, and then you’ll be on a baseball card.’ And I’ll never forget when they both were on the same set of baseball cards, they came to me and said, ‘Coach, look, we finally made it onto a baseball card.’”
It was a set of Upper Deck trading cards to be exact — just ask Lewis.
“Just opening up a pack of Upper Deck trading cards and seeing my card there. That was a dream come true,” Lewis said.
While his son was making his decision, Kenny Lewis Sr., sometimes referred to as “Big Kenny” in Danville, gave his son advice on what he knew about courtesy of his career at Tech and his subsequent stint with the New York Jets. The health problems and injury concerns of big-time football. As his father served as his role model, Lewis listened.
“He talked to me about longevity, you know?” Lewis said. “And told me to just take care of my body. He knew there wasn’t as much wear and tear on the body in baseball as there was in football. But I felt like, ‘If you don’t love it then how are you going to wake up and go do your best at something you love.’”
So when he and teammate Fulton went in the fourth and third rounds, respectively, longevity, at least for Lewis won out over following his father into Hokie backfield.
“They won’t wait for you”
Lewis was assigned by the Reds to their Rookie Class team in Sarasota, Fla., the Gulf Coast League Reds in 2003. And it was there, even though he was still raw in terms of experience, that he began to place himself on the short path to the Major Leagues.
He stole 37 bases in 55 games, leading the league while only being thrown out eight times — a 67 percent success rate.
“Basically I felt like I was playing off of instincts every time,” Lewis said. “I might not get the best jumps, but I was very fast, so I could give and take there a little bit.”
Toward the end of the same 2003 season, Lewis was called up to the Reds’ Double-A team in Chattanooga, Tenn., bypassing Single-A and placing him within shouting distance of Cinergy Field, Cincinnati, and Major League Baseball.
“Kenny was on the fast track, in other words he was going to be here one year and there the next and then the next year he could be on TV,” Dunn said.
But his voice was muffled the next season, as he found himself back with the GCL Reds in Sarasota, and eight games into the schedule he tore his hamstring and missed the entire year.
“That affected me a lot,” Lewis said. “Because new guys come in every year, and they’re not going to wait for me just because I had injuries. Being healthy is the key, man. If you stay healthy, then you’ve got a bright future.”
It was then that Tech and college football started to creep into his mind. Lewis said that he would go home every year, and say he wanted to play football, but his dad would convince him to stick it out one more year. He did stick it out for two more years, playing two games with the GCL Reds, 59 games with the Rookie-Class Billings Mustangs (Montana) and 26 with Single-A Dayton (Ohio). Still, the thought of running out to a capacity crowd at Lane Stadium, donning his father’s No. 20 jersey and playing ACC football steadily grew stronger, first as an itch. Lewis would return home after every season and have a heart-to-heart with his father, Kenny Lewis, Sr.
“We talked after every baseball season and found out where his heart was at, and it was always in football to be honest,” the elder Lewis said.
The Tech itch became a full fledged fever as Lewis watched the Hokies take on North Carolina during the 2005 season.
“I saw (Tech) playing and I was like, man, I’ve gotta go back,” Lewis said with a grin and a gleam in his eye. “And then I came home, and I went to the UNC game they had here, and I was on the field and I thought, I’ve gotta be here.”
Fortunately for Lewis and for Virginia Tech, the coaching staff had left the door open for Lewis should things not work out in the minors.
“He decided out of high school that he wanted to go play baseball, but we always left the door open and told him if things didn’t work out there he could always come back,” said associate head coach and running backs coach Billy Hite. “We got a call from his mom and dad in December saying that Kenny was giving up pro baseball and wanted to come play for us.”
You might think that Lewis would have a tough time leaving the diamond, something that he had given three years of his life to, but you’d be wrong. The fan in Cassell is silent as Lewis folds his arms and looks down at the VT logo on the beige carpet in retrospect.
“Honestly, it wasn’t hard at all,” Lewis said. “I could live with coming to school, playing football and going to the NFL and never playing baseball, but I could never live with playing baseball and never playing football.”