February 10th, 2006
by Michael Walsh, Associate Sports Editor
This is part two of a feature about Kenny Lewis and his transition from minor league baseball to Virginia Tech football. In the second part, the Collegiate Times looks at Kenny's relationship with his family and former Hokie father.
The interview is over, but Kenny Lewis Jr. has a favor to ask.
“Could you make sure that coach Beamer, coach Hite and a friend of my family’s, Ben Davenport, get mentioned in the story?” says Lewis, clad in a sweater and with a stocking cap pulled down tight over his ears. “Without them, I wouldn’t be here, and it’s just a dream come true.”
With that request, the interview concludes, and Lewis Jr. shoots a subtle glance at his wristwatch. 2:05 p.m. — 25 minutes till weightlifting.
“They’ll pitch a fit if I’m late,” says Lewis as he delivers a firm handshake, a nod and disappears down the Virginia Tech Hall of Fame hallway.
It took him three years to get to that hallway, but far be it for him to be late for anything.
"Let’s see you get a record"
Now that Lewis is roaming the halls his father once did during the late 1970s, the question turns to where he will fit in the coming years both on the football field and as a member of the Tech community as a 21-year-old freshman.
“He’s older, and what I really like is that he’s been on his own for a couple of years, he’s mature,” Hite said. “And I don’t think there’s anybody more excited about playing here than he is. I think it’s been a dream of his (for) his whole life.”
With that dream comes the urge to live up to the expectations attached to being the son of a school record-holding running back. Something that “Big Kenny” likes to remind his protege of.
“He always wanted to be a running back,” Lewis Sr. said “He started saying, ‘Dad I’m gonna be better than you,’ and I would say, ‘Man I’ve got some records that are going be hard to break,’ and he said, ‘Dad I’m going shatter those records,’ and I said, ‘we’ll see.’ And I’d love to see him break those records.”
“We always play around,” Lewis Jr. said. “He had a record that Kevin Jones broke and he says ‘Let’s see you get a record that lasts for 15 years’ and we just always play around like that. But regardless, he’s always going to be the best. If I make it to the NFL and play 15 years, he’s still going to be the best.”
Being out of football for three years will have an effect on anyone. The younger Lewis, because of his professional baseball career and the resulting maturity, probably won’t have as many problems adjusting as other potential players. But assistant coach Hite says that in spite of the pluses that being on your own gives, there are fundamental differences between football and baseball that Lewis will have to make up for.
“One drawback (from playing baseball) is that Kenny hasn’t been in the weight room much the last couple of years,” Hite said. “He kind of has to play catch up and work at getting bigger, faster and stronger. No question (he’ll be able to pick up the weight room stuff). He’s mature enough. He’s just a great person, both on and off the field.”
Lewis says that he feels he’s already where he needs to be in the weight room.
“If you go in there and watch us, I feel like I was caught up,” Lewis said. “I’ve always worked out playing baseball, but I was doing football workouts, because that’s all I knew. I would lift a lot on my own — during the season they don’t want you to be too bulky — but on my own I was always in the weight room. I feel like I’m ready.”
As for immediate playing time, Lewis will have to contend with a full backfield to earn a chance to sport his father’s No. 20 in the endzone.
“It’s going to be interesting, you know?” said Tech head coach Frank Beamer in a teleconference. “You know the kid has some speed, you know his dad was a good back here and got a lot of records, and I think he’s going to be a good back. So between him and Elan Lewis and George Bell and Branden Ore I think we’ve got some good tailbacks.”
One person that thinks he can offer something to Tech football on the field right away is Chuck Vipperman — play-by-play man for WBPM in Danville and creator of a website that sports all things George Washington football related.
“It’s all about the speed,” Vipperman said. “In high school, as good a running back as he was, I always thought he was a better kick-returner. And I’ll say this today, I think he can step in tomorrow and do as good a job as anybody Tech has ... He has faced the pressures of a professional athlete and I don’t think that there are many college players that can say that. He’s played with Ken Griffey, Jr. he’s worked with Hall of Famers. He’s certainly not going to be star-struck, having been going to Tech games since he was knee-high to a grasshopper, so to a certain degree he knows what to expect.”
Lewis tolerates the kick-return-specialist talk, but makes no bones about his desire to be a 15-20 touch per game weapon.
“I’ve gotta be a running back,” Lewis said. “I mean I want to return punts and kicks but my main goal is I wanna go in there and play running back. You know like Reggie Bush: wide receiver, running back, return man. That’s what I want to do.”
Every person you talk to about Lewis, after the normal questions of his athletic ability are through, immediately jumps to talk about him as a person and about his family as a stalwart of strength and support. It is almost as if his athletic prowess, while impressive, rides backseat to his family and the way he conducts himself.
“Just a very close-knit family,” Hite said. “It’s the kind of family you wish everyone could have.”
Religiousness and spirituality are two things that helped keep the family close and have helped the younger Lewis through the tough times and injuries. Just ask Perry Smith, the Cincinnati Reds scout who tried to get in touch with him, occasionally unsuccessfully, during Lewis’ time at G.W.
“There were nights were I would call and couldn’t talk to him because he was in his room doing Bible study,” Smith said. “An hour every night. Regardless.”
“My mom and dad always kept me in church regardless when I was little,” Lewis said. “No little kid wants to sit through church — they wanna fall asleep. But now, I can’t even sleep past when it’s time to go to church.”
It wasn’t just church, according to his high school coach at G.W., Scooter Dunn. Kenny’s parents were always around, knowing where he was and who he was with, making sure that he was headed the right way.
I really value the family and staying together as a family and being there for my kids,” said Lewis Sr., who now serves as the co-principal at his alma mater, G.W. “My passion was to help kids, because a lot of them don’t have a father figure, and I see what happens to them and I certainly didn’t want that for my son. And I made up my mind that I was going to be there for him. My mother died when I was young and my father died when I was in high school and I had those Christian values that kept me on the straight and narrow and I tried to instill those values in Kenny. We really believed in showing (our kids) the right way.”
Kenny also had a way with the other kids forming relationships with those who were around him — especially Dunn’s son Hunter, who suffers from cerebral palsy.
“He’s very close to my son, they’re like brothers,” Dunn said. “Kenny would call him and talk to him and even though he’s non-verbal he knew that Hunter was listening. We’ve got pictures here of Kenny and Hunter in our den and in his room, and they’re just very, very close.”
Lewis echoes that close relationship and his admiration for Hunter.
“If everyone had as much heart at Hunter this would be a scary world,” Lewis said. “He’s always smiling. I don’t know if anyone ever said so much without saying anything. He wrote his own book and stuff like that. No chance I could do that. I mean I’m having trouble in freshman English and he’s writing books in high school.”
After answering the question about Hunter, he checks his watch, trying not to be rude, but apparently anxious to get to the weight room and get started with his second career.
As he takes a left and heads out of sight, you can’t help but wonder where he’s headed. 1,000 yards? That school record? Kick return duty? The NFL?
Wherever it is, it doesn’t matter. He’s right on time.