SCOTTSDALE, AZ — Reggie Lewis ponders the question for a moment, then offers the one-word answer “stability.” The Florida cornerback is answering questions about the difference in 2006 and the roller coaster ride that was his first four years in Gainesville. He shakes his head when he considers what might have been if he hadn’t taken the time to talk to Chuck Heater and Urban Meyer.
“I don’t want to think about it,” he said. “I was out the door. I was gone.”
Lewis was a big deal recruit for Ron Zook five years ago. A high school quarterback, he wanted to play wide receiver at Florida State, where his older brother Ronald is one of the great pass catchers in school history. The only problem was that FSU wanted him to play cornerback, a position he not only didn’t want to play but had never played in his life.
“Coach Zook recruited me as a wide receiver,” said Lewis, who says the advice he got from Ronald was to go to Florida. “I chose Florida.”
When he signed with the Gators, Lewis figured he would probably redshirt as a freshman, catch a few passes as second year freshman and then blossom as a sophomore. By the time the third year arrived, his career totals read five catches for 27 yards, not exactly blossom numbers.
His issues were complicated by a coaching change. Zook was fired, replaced by Urban Meyer, a no-nonsense kind of coach with a totally different approach to football.
“I’m thinking, maybe it’s time to leave … maybe get a fresh start somewhere else,” said Lewis.
Before he could walk, he had two conversations that changed his life completely. The first was with Chuck Heater, Florida’s cornerback coach, known for taking obscure, off the radar players and transforming them into big time stars. The second conversation was with Urban Meyer.
“Coach Heater asked me if I would switch over to cornerback,” said Lewis. “At first I didn’t want to do it but at least I was thinking about it.”
Then came the conversation with Meyer.
“He told me that he thought I could succeed on defense,” said Lewis. “He said he had a lot of confidence in Coach Heater and he had confidence that if I gave him a chance, I could play the position.”
If Heater and Meyer had spent all their time talking football, there is no question that Reggie Lewis would have walked. What grabbed him by the lapels and made him think about staying was the interest the two coaches took in his personal life. Rather than spend all their time and energy convincing Lewis he could succeed as a cornerback, the bulk of their conversation was directed at personal issues, in particular his academic standing at the University of Florida.
“I’d never heard a coach talk to me like they did about academics,” he said. “They told me that I could get a college degree. They told me it was important to get a college degree no matter what. That made me think about staying a lot because they cared so much about me to talk to me like that.
“I knew what I was doing wasn’t working so I needed to change and the more I thought about it, the more I thought here I am with a new chance and a clean slate with new coaches that will only judge what they see me do from right now. I decided that it’s worth it to stay at Florida.”
So he made the switch to corner, the position he didn’t want to play out of high school even if it had meant a scholarship to FSU, the only school he could ever remember cheering for. The transition wasn’t an easy one, either. There was so much to learn and there were days when he didn’t think he could do anything right.
“Sometimes I thought about quitting but then I called my mom each and every night and she told me to stick in there, don’t give up and that’s what I did,” he said.
He stuck with it, kept listening to Heater and gradually he saw tangible results. He was getting better, earning the confidence of the Florida coaches.
In Reggie Lewis’ first season as a defensive player he broke up six passes, sealed Florida’s win over Vanderbilt with an interception of a Jay Cutler pass in overtime and then he set the tone for a dramatic, 34-7, stomping of FSU when he ran back a blocked field goal for a touchdown.
The on-the-field success of 2005 spilled over into the spring of 2006 where Lewis earned a starting position with tremendous effort and determination. Thought to be a potential liability due to his inexperience when the season began, Lewis turned doubts into props with a solid season. He intercepted three passes and broke up 10 for Florida’s top ten-rated defense.
There was also spillover into his personal life. Lewis transformed himself from a borderline college student into a hard worker that earned his degree in December. He’s gone from a follower his first three years at UF to a senior leader who leads vocally and by example.
“Stability,” he says. “I got stability in my life now. I know what’s important and that makes the difference.”
He’s proud that he’s done his share in helping the Gators get to the national championship game but he considers the degree from Florida his greatest accomplishment.
“That degree is what I’m proudest of,” he said. “It just goes to show you that if you have people who believe in you and you listen to people that care about you, you can make good changes. I’m changed. I’m not who I was two years ago.”
Five years ago, he was a high school quarterback that would have been a Florida State Seminole if they would have only recruited him as a wide receiver. Five years later, he’s starting at cornerback on college football’s grandest stage as a cornerback for the Florida Gators when he goes toe to toe with Ohio State’s outstanding receivers in the Tostitos National Championship Game.
“It’s funny how all those things work out, isn’t it?” he asked. “I’ve got a college degree, I’m a starting cornerback for the Gators and we’re playing for the national championship. There’s a lot of people that never get chances like that in life. I’ve been blessed and I just give all the credit to my Lord Jesus and coaches like Coach Heater and Coach Meyer because they believed in me.”
He’s confident that he can do a good job Monday night. Ted Ginn and Antonio Gonzalez of Ohio State have a reputation for coming up big in big games and there is no college game bigger than this one. Lewis knows their reputations but he won’t back down from the challenge.
“I feel good that I can do the job,” he said. “I trust myself and I trust my teammates. I got Reggie Nelson behind me so I can play them as tight as I can and if I have to take a chance, I’ve got ‘The Eraser’ behind me.”
And when he takes the field Monday night, he’ll look in the stands to find his brother Ronald. Ronald Lewis is as Seminole as they come but Monday night he’ll be cheering for the Gators and his baby brother.
“This is one night when you’re going to have a big time Seminole cheering for the Florida Gators hard as he can,” said Reggie. “I talk to him every day and I tell him I want to bring home that championship ring just for him on January 8. He never got one at FSU and if I get one it’s for him.”