CHAMPAIGN - Through surgeries and setbacks, Corey Lewis was motivated by an overriding thought that kept looping in his mind.
"I didn't want my last game to be Fresno State my sophomore year," he said.
At that point, in November of 2009, Lewis was a promising young offensive lineman at Illinois, an Academic All-Big Ten selection that appeared in every game that season.
Big and strong, the former high school running back and basketball player from Cresco, Penn., had the quickness and footwork that leads to special things for a lineman. With everything to look forward to, Lewis tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the 2010 spring game.
"It was pretty devastating what happened to me," he said.
That was the beginning of a long struggle, full of hard times and doubts, to return to the playing field.
Lewis' first time under the knife went as planned and rehab went accordingly. He sat out the 2010 season, using his redshirt season to get back to full health.
On schedule to return for 2011, Lewis was in the weight room with teammates one day in the offseason, performing hand clings as he remembers it.
"Something didn't feel right," he said. He'd torn the ACL again.
Same knee, same injury, same rehab, new fears.
This meant Lewis would spend another year on the sideline, another season away from playing to cheers from the crowd and being able to help his teammates win games. It also meant his knee was increasingly becoming more of a liability.
Still, he remained determined to overcome the challenge.
"With hard work and dedication I just really wanted to get back," he said.
Recovery from the second surgery didn't go as smoothly as the first. Infection set in, preventing the tissue graft from healing properly. Technically speaking, Lewis had torn his ACL again.
He had to undergo a third major reconstructive surgery in March.
Counting two scopes, one each on his left and right knee, Lewis endured five surgeries in the span of 23 months.
After all that, Lewis wondered if he was meant to play football.
"Oh yeah, that always creeps into the back of your head," he admitted. "It's hard not to, but like I said, just wanted to get back out there so bad."
So he set out to play in 2012. His senior year, the plan was to try to come back at some point in the later half of the season and apply for a sixth year of eligibility.
There was no guarantee on either front, but there was also no quit in Lewis' thought process either.
"I just had so many setbacks that it just came to a point where I wanted to get through everything and do everything I could to get back," he said.
He spent all of August Camp away from the rest of the offensive linemen. He ran sprints, lifted weights and did everything required to strengthen the knee. Slowly, as the season moved along, Lewis began working with his peers again in practice.
He was cleared to play prior to the Indiana game at the end of October, but never heard his name called. The following week against Ohio State, nearly three years after walking off Zuppke Field in Memorial Stadium after that Fresno State loss, Lewis got back into a game.
"My heart was racing 100 miles a minutes," he said. "It was great. My nerves was going. That first play, it was a great feeling, one of the greatest feelings of my life just being able to get back out there."
He had to wait until the second half, when the game was out of reach, but he logged over 20 plays, providing resounding answers for the questions and doubts he faced.
"People don't understand the rigors that guy went through to get himself prepared to even get a chance to play again," Beckman said. "What he's done to improve his body, not just physically but mentally to step out there on the football field and play."
Lewis looks forward to playing in the next four games. He says he feels between 80 and 90 percent effective.
"The 10 percent would probably be rusty, just being rusty from not being out there," he said.
After the season he'll be in wait-and-hope mode. The NCAA doesn't rule on those who apply for a sixth year of eligibility until January or February at the earliest. The wait won't be fun, but optimism for his request to be granted is high.
"From what I'm hearing it's a slam dunk for the most part with all my injuries," he said. "I don't see why the NCAA wouldn't grant it to me."
If he is permitted to play next season, Lewis says he's a player who can contribute on and off the field. He might not have the game experience, but he's been around for a long time, which gives him leadership credibility. Teammates like defensive tackle Glenn Foster agree, saying Lewis can fulfill the potential he showed as a young player.
"To be honest, in practice he's out there dominating, looking like the same Corey before he got hurt," Foster said. "All he needs to do is continue to develop his confidence and just go out there and just play with the strength and technique that he's been practicing for the past two years. He's going to be that guy sooner than you think."
If nothing else, he stands as motivation for everyone in and around the football program.
"I think I can help in that aspect and show that if I didn't quit, nobody should quit," he said. "I think that will be something to help the team."