The NFC West boasts a daunting reputation as one of the toughest divisions in the NFL season after season. Transitioning from collegiate to professional competition is an impossible jump for many new draft picks, but LSU right guard Damien Lewis has faced impossible odds before. So far, he’s won the battle each and every time.
“Coming out of high school, I had zero offers, and I’ve been overlooked my whole life,” Lewis explained in a Zoom interview with media members. “I had to take the long route for everything.”
The long route for Lewis began during high school in small-town Canton, Mississippi, on a team with only 35 players. Lewis played offense and defense, but playing well for an overlooked team wasn’t enough to stand out to big schools. Lewis didn’t get any offers from Division I schools, but he remained undeterred. He would find a way to keep playing football.
“With me, I always thought that I was going to be big,” Lewis said. “Since day one, I always had big dreams. I felt like high school wasn’t my final destination… I don’t care how I get to D1, I had to find a way to get myself where I want to go.”
Lewis enrolled at Northwest Mississippi Community College, allowing him to build an academic and athletic resume before transferring to a university. Junior college has become a popular option for players with limited options left, as showcased in the Netflix docuseries “Last Chance U.” After a year, he had 17 offers on the table, including one from his dream school: LSU. It was an easy decision to join coach Ed Orgeron in Baton Rouge and embark on a two-year journey with a top SEC team.
In a mere three years, Lewis went from an unrecruited prospect to an undefeated champion during a historic 2019 season.
“It’s been a story ever since I touched campus,” Lewis said, commenting on his storybook ascent to the big leagues.
Rather than by chance or magic, Lewis has worked tirelessly to get noticed at the national level. The LSU offensive line, widely considered the best in college football this past season, soldiered onto the field to protect number one draft pick Joe Burrow at all costs.
“When you step in that room, you come in with a chip on your shoulder, and you’re determined and ready to win and go in the foxhole with your brother,” Lewis explained.
“Everything that you have outside of the field, drop it right there because you know what we come out here to do. We’re trying to win a national championship and an SEC championship and ball games.”
Lewis lavished praise onto his offensive line brethren, four of whom were drafted or signed as free agents: Lloyd Cushenberry III, Saahdiq Charles, Badara Traore, and Adrian Magee. LSU has described Cushenberry and Lewis as “one of the best center-guard tandems in college football," as well as being “the heart and soul of the LSU offense.”
“There were some real hard workers in that room,” Lewis said. “They’re dedicated, responsible, and they’re accountable, and they’re why we won as much as we did this 2019 season. They’re trusting in one another. They help the brother beside them. They’re my guys and I love them. I wish nothing but the best for them. We’ll always have that buy-in forever.”
Having played “a little bit of everything” on the offensive line, Lewis should be able to adapt to a run-heavy offense in need of an aggressive guard.
“We spread guys out, gap plays, true inside, some wide zone—we did pretty much everything,” Lewis said. “I’m mean, nasty and tough, that’s what I got. I don’t take it from nobody.”
Lewis considers his versatility to be a major asset, adding, “I’ve played left guard, center and right guard. I always practice at everything because you never know what a team needs. I just try to bring more value.”
Lewis may find his college division similar to his new NFL one: LSU battles against some of college football’s best teams, including Alabama, Auburn, and Ole Miss. Although LSU has maintained a competitive program for decades, this is only their third national championship in two decades. As LSU fans bitterly recall, coach Nick Saban catapulted the Tigers to a national championship in 2003, then went on to coach for their biggest rival, Alabama. Alabama has won five national championships with Saban at the helm, while LSU talent languished under former coach Les Miles. LSU’s current coach, Orgeron, is credited with recreating a winning atmosphere in Baton Rouge since 2016. When LSU recruited Lewis for the 2017 season, Lewis told Coach Orgeron he was ready to commit “right then and there.”
“I shut down my recruitment process and I gave them my all since day one when I stepped on the campus,” Lewis said.
While Alabama is a popular hot spot for SEC draft recruits, LSU has its own tradition of NFL-caliber players. Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Leonard Fournette, Devin White, and Patrick Peterson are a few notable alumni from the renowned football program. This year, LSU broke NFL draft records: with 14 draftees, they broke the SEC record and tied the all-time record for players taken in the draft.
In fact, Lewis will be joining LSU seventh-round tight end Stephen Sullivan in Seattle as a fellow Seahawk this season. With Lewis set to replace Alabama alum D.J. Fluker at right guard, the LSU-Alabama saga has taken an unprecedented twist, all the way through the draft and into the starting roster for the Seahawks.
Lewis should fit right in with Seattle, a team that embraces its role in battling NFC West rivals. For teams like the Seahawks and the Tigers, divisional wins and championships become that much more impressive. Although he was on a winning team, the wins were hard-fought, something Lewis will remember while playing in the NFL.
“Never take anything for granted,” he said. “I don’t care if you’re seven inches to the right or seven inches to the left, never take anything for granted because one mistake could cost you.”
Being in a tough division does have its benefits, as players learn immensely from playing opponents at the peak of their game.
“You want to bring your “A” game every game and I learned a lot from those other side defenders who I played against,” Lewis said. “Derrick Brown, I learned a lot from him. That was a tough game, but the game is only 60 minutes. You just have to keep on chopping down wood and keep on going at him.”
“Like my coach says, that time a man spits on his hand and they hoist the black flag and start slitting throats,” Lewis said, presumably comparing football players to ruthless pirates.
Apparently Coach O has his own brand of humorous quotes and analogies, an unusual similarity LSU shares with Seattle’s Carroll. It’s also worth noting that both Carroll and Orgeron each served as head coach at USC, another one of the nation’s top football programs.
Although personal stats speak volumes, his contributions at right guard speak to what coaches have seen in him time and time again: an underdog who exceeded humble JUCO beginnings to become a national champion.
Lewis hopes to become a national champion once again. This time, it’ll be for the Seahawks, hopefully with confetti falling to the ground and a Lombardi Trophy in hand.
“Everything that I bring to the table to Seattle, I’m going to give them my all,” he said. “I’ll put my soul on the line and come compete. Someday, hopefully we’ll win the Super Bowl.”