Sept. 29, 2007
By Benton Strong
Talking to a senior in the Washington football program can be one of the most genuine and inspirational conversations you have ever had. It doesn't sound like they just received talking points on the program's message or like a politician with a perma-smile and endless optimism. They sound like they've been through something long and trying, and are just maybe starting to break from it.
And they sound like that because they have.
The senior class has 28 players who were part of the 2004 team that went 1-10, the worst record in the history of the program. The constant reminder of how far down the program was obviously stings, but it also serves notice of how far this team has come and the players who have resurrected it.
"That was probably the worst point in Husky football history," says senior cornerback Roy Lewis.
Lewis had just transferred to Washington from San Jose State where he spent his freshman season. He watched teammates struggle and has seen the vast differences between then and today.
"I've seen the transformation of this program," he said. "When I got here there was no unity, no sense of team. We had hit rock bottom as a group and no one liked it one bit. The only good thing about it was that there was only one way to go - up."
Lewis, through his own experiences and knowledge, has been one of the leaders of an attitude change, one spearheaded by a coach and finally trusted by the current group. For the native of Los Angeles, the whole idea of working harder and choosing to do better was an easy goal.
Though it may seem like they are always on campus, football players do make occasional trips home to see family and old friends. Lewis makes them as well, sometimes reluctantly, and is always reminded of why he left in the first place.
"There is nothing there for me," he says, "and even though I have family and a bed there, it doesn't feel like home."
Not forgetting where he came from is important to him, but so is recognizing that he has bigger plans.
"The environment you grow up in shapes you, of course," he said. "I know I, and I'm sure a lot of guys on the team, have buddies at home that they are really close to, high school friends that they love to death, but at a certain point you start to get things going for you in your life that forces you to put that aside.
"You don't disown them or anything, you just have to distance yourself. They understand that you are trying to make a better life."
Choosing to focus on football and winning was how Lewis planned to make that better life. But it was the part about not forgetting where he came from that made him understand how to excel in his life.
"You can never lose sight of, or forget where you came from," he said. "The things that happened to me when I was younger shaped who I am. I hope that people at home appreciate that I was able to open up some doors and create opportunities for myself. Some may envy it, but I hope they don't because the opportunity is out there for everyone."
Lewis took the experiences he had when he was younger, and the choices he made, and brought the winning attitude to Washington, where he has excelled on the field. In his first two seasons he racked up 113 tackles and an interception return for a touchdown. So far in 2007, as the leader of the secondary, he already has 31 tackles, an interception and four pass breakups.
Football didn't save Lewis' life. Instead it was one of the options that he knew he had and that he took advantage of to better himself. He is a focused student that once played the tenor saxophone. He came from an area where many people never leave, spending their lives doing less than they are capable of, something that Lewis has transcended.
"There are things out there that I think a lot of guys don't see," he said. "As much as people might say that they are stuck, in reality they don't really put much energy into getting out. Guys don't take the time to seek things out. No one is patient anymore; everyone wants a quick-fix and if they can't find it they give up and say nothing was there in the first place."
The attitude in just the preceding comment alone is one of the reasons why Lewis was so perfect for the Washington programat the specific time when he arrived. He would be one of the players that Willingham could use to show others that a turnaround was possible, but it would take work and it would take time.
"Coach Willingham saw the opportunity to come in here, bring in some talented players and get everyone motivated to play the type of football they should be playing," he says. "We needed that guidance. We were like a lost herd of sheep and he became our shepherd, pulling us together."
Willingham uttered things like "hard work" and "accountability," two things lacking in recent history. He wanted the attitude to be about what his players were doing, not what opponents were doing to them.
"The attitude is that we are not going to get beat," Lewis says. "If we ever do lose, or get beat on a specific play, it isn't because the opponent is better than us, it is because we didn't do everything we could and that isn't happening anymore.
"Even last year we only showed flashes of what we were becoming, but we weren't able to finish. We were out there just to see if maybe we could compete, but we didn't really believe we were destined for great things. At this point when we set our minds to something we are going to do it because we know we are that good and we work that hard."
As for Lewis himself, he walked onto campus with that type of mentality and the hard work is in his nature. Building a better life is not easy, but he is moving in the right direction.
"I think I've grown," he says. "I think everyday you have to get better, because if you aren't doing that then you are getting worse. It's a constant uphill battle, but the payoff is worth it.
"I'm happy to be a part of this turnaround. The sky is the limit with this program and this is just the beginning. We know that the program will return to being a national power, and that it will come with time. This is a process."
The people that are a part of this process, with Lewis as one of their leaders (he and Mesphin Forrester are the only starters in the secondary remaining from the 2004 team), are being rewarded for the time and work they put into "turning the ship around."
"I feel bad for the guys who don't have the chance to be a part of the feeling in this program right now," Lewis said. "It is a very powerful feeling that we have with this group right now. We will be remembered as the guys who turned it around.
"People said it couldn't be done. It's been done."