At 6’4″, 332 lbs., Melvin Lewis is a big guy; however, as the senior nose guard stood before a group of reporters this morning, a mixture of nerves, excitement, and pure joy crossed over his face, making him look all of twelve years old again.
“I grew up in Compton, California, which is notoriously known as a rough neighborhood. I’ve been through a lot of adversity throughout my life,” Lewis said softly. “But, I’m just happy to be in the situation I am today. I’m just overwhelmed to be here in general.”
When I asked him how he was enjoying the day so far, his face broke into a huge smile.
“It’s been great, being able to enjoy it with Coach Stoops, AJ, and Swindle. Feels like a dream.”
Straight outta Compton
Lewis represented Kentucky today as part of the SEC’s “Beyond the Field” initiative, which features players whose stories off the field are just as inspiring as their performances on it. Life wasn’t easy for Lewis growing up. His father was in gangs and in and out of jail during Lewis’ childhood, leaving his mother to carry most of the burden of raising four children alone; however, Lewis is careful not to villainize his dad.
“My father, he was on drugs and stuff a lot when we were young, but he made sure that we didn’t make the same mistakes that he made,” Lewis said in an interview with The SEC Network. “Seeing my mom struggle while he was in prison and seeing all the things my father went through, I just wanted something better for my life.”
Lewis is the first male in his family to go to college, paving the path for his two younger brothers. He graduated from UK in May with a degree in community and leadership development, a moment he said eclipsed playing in his first SEC game.
“Graduation was probably the most excited I’ve ever been in my life. I’m the first male in my family to ever graduate from college, so that was huge. I have a younger brother, Chris Lewis, who has graduated from junior college who will play football down in New Mexico for the Lobos. I feel like I sort of paved the way for my younger brother and my baby brother just graduated high school and is gonna go play basketball at Washington State.”
A talk with Richard Sherman sent him down a new path
NFL star Richard Sherman visited the UK football team while in town in May, and took time to visit with Lewis, a fellow Compton native. Lewis said his words hit home.
“I was able to sit down and talk to him for about thirty minutes afterwards. He pulled me to the side and was talking about, ‘just keep fighting, just don’t ever give up because you don’t want to go back to our city and just be one of those guys who said ‘well, I was there, but this happened, so.’ That was definitely an influential talk for me.”
Sherman’s talk inspired Lewis to step up and be a leader not just in his family, but on his team. In recent months, Mark Stoops says Lewis has become a mentor to several players, specifically Matt Elam.
“If he’s not giving 100 percent, I’m the first one to get on him,” Lewis said of the offseason workouts with Elam. “I tell him, ‘Let’s go. You gotta play this year. You have to make plays. You can’t make mistakes.’ I’m the first one on him every time. And I’m always pulling him after, just doing little extra stuff. I’ll hang out with him and stuff like that to let him know I’m here for him.”
Mark Stoops says Melvin’s leadership is making a huge difference in Elam’s progress.
“I don’t know if Melvin touched on this or not, he was probably being humble, but I think Melvin has been a guy that has really tried to lead and help Matt in that area and give him that extra motivation and be the guy,” Stoops said. “Melvin has been a good leader.”
To Lewis, giving younger players guidance is just continuing the legacy of those who came before him.
“The guys did it for me when I first got here. Mike Douglas, Christian Coleman, Za’Darius, Bud, those guys they brought me along and I just thought I should do the same thing for guys that are younger than me,” Lewis said, adding that sometimes, players respond better to people closer to their age. “Coaches can only do so much.”
The cost of attendance stipend has been a popular topic at Media Days, and when asked, Lewis, who also has a job at Paul Miller Ford, told reporters that he plans to send the $3,598 to his family back home in Compton.
“To me, personally, it means I can be able to send more money home to help my family because being in that neighborhood is rough with my mom working alone,” Lewis said, pausing to stare down at the table for a minute. “We’ll figure something out.”
UK’s cost of attendance stipend is one of the lowest in the SEC, but despite his family’s situation, Lewis said that doesn’t make him regret picking Kentucky.
“The money doesn’t really matter, it’s about getting that feel around the players and coaches, getting that home right feel,” Lewis said. “Even if another school offered more money, I’d still choose Kentucky.”
Lewis says that even if professional football isn’t his path, he’s excited about his future.
“Just going back home and being impactful, just helping direct the young kids to a different path, not a path of destruction like most guys go down,” Lewis said. “I would love to teach, I would love to coach, any kind of way I can have an impact I can have on their life. It doesn’t matter to me.”
There goes Melvin, being humble again.