Athletics

Sealing the Deal

By Ben Badua

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He was praying for another chance. Lining up across from Trinity standout wide receiver A.J. Jones, cornerback Landrus Lewis ’13 had some plays he needed to atone for. The blocked punt that kick-started the Bantam comeback was his fault. He thought they’d drawn Trinity offside, but when the whistle never came, his man busted through the line.

Seeing the Jeffs’ 35-7 third-quarter lead whittling away, he was caught out of position for another score that cut the margin to just seven with 5:16 to go in the fourth. Suddenly, Amherst’s pursuit of an undefeated season seemed in jeopardy. With Trinity once again moving the ball in the waning moments of regulation, he knew they’d eventually take a shot downfield.

“I was just thinking, ‘stay deep no matter what,’” says Lewis. “Coach Mills always says, ‘deeper to shorter’. You’d rather give up a 5-yard hitch than a touchdown.”

Peeking into the backfield, he saw quarterback Ryan Burgess’ shoulders lean. “I’m in great position,” he thought. Then, Burgess threw it. Lewis couldn’t believe it.

“I jumped up and snagged it,” recalls Lewis. “There was no way I wasn’t coming down with that ball.”

Hauling in his fourth interception of 2011, he gave the Jeffs the ball back on their own 19-yardline. As Lewis celebrated with his teammates, he reveled in his friends’ excitement. The following week, Amherst put the wraps on its second undefeated season in three years with a 31-18 win over Williams. Talk about sealing the deal.

One of Lewis’ first memories playing the game came when he was just four years old. His dad held out a football and asked him to kick it. The toddler obliged and booted it over the fence into the neighbors’ backyard. It wasn’t long after that he put on his first set of pads. Playing throughout his childhood and adolescence, he eventually blossomed into a gifted athlete, but football wasn’t necessarily his focus.

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“Basketball was my main sport in high school,” says Lewis. “I played varsity and started as a freshman. I did the AAU thing. Rarely did I go to camps for football.”

A chance encounter with E.J. Mills at one of the few camps he did attend changed everything. Lewis initially ran into the Jeffs’ head coach as a sophomore and he remembers his first impression: This guy is a big talker. Staying in touch with Mills until his senior year, Lewis had a decision to make: Amherst was interested. Was he?

“I was looking at playing basketball in college,” Lewis says, “But my role models at school were my advisor and my head football coach. When I told them about Amherst, they both thought it’d be a dumb move not to pursue it.”

Upon gaining acceptance, he heeded their advice and packed his bags for the Pioneer Valley, eager to make a name for himself. Stepping onto the field as a first-year, Lewis wanted to make an impact as soon as possible. He knew he could play man coverage. It’s the main thing he worked and prided himself on in high school.

He sought out the team’s best receivers during one-on-one drills. Being a cornerback, Lewis knew he was always on an island. He knew that that all eyes were on him and that everyone could and would see his mistakes. But he didn’t shy away from the pressure. Instead, he embraced it, with all intention of locking everyone down. That’s why, when it came to handing out numbers, Mills gave Lewis No. 1, despite being a first-year. Lewis wanted it and Mills knew he knew he could handle it.

“From the first practice, he’s just been a phenomenal player,” Mills recalls. “He’s a shutdown-type corner and he’s one of the most talented guys we’ve had in a long time.”

But talent only takes you so far. While he certainly had the physical tools to compete as a rookie, he lacked the knowledge and experience necessary for Mills to fully trust him in a game (a point not lost on Lewis). His solution? Work harder. Learn the playbook inside and out and in the meantime, make an impact on special teams.

“It’s a mental game,” says Lewis. “Film is definitely something I focused on over the years. If you prepare right all week, that’s when you can let your instincts take over because you know you’ve put in the work and mastered the details.”

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What’s his best release move? How fast does he come off the line? How slow? What are his indicators? While those questions come to Lewis’ mind as he stands over a receiver, there is one factor he almost always tries to dictate: physicality.

“It’s a one-on-one battle all day,” says Lewis. “There’s nothing like the feeling of dominating a guy and locking down an area. Whatever he does, you counter it. Whenever he tries to catch it, you’re knocking it out. You want to make sure you let your presence be known on the first play. I usually tell Coach [Mills], ‘Let me press him. Let’s see what happens.’”

Lewis’ dedication to his craft paid off. As a first-year he was mostly relegated to a special teams role as a kick returner. By his sophomore campaign he was starting, nabbing three interceptions, and last season he earned recognition as a first-team All-NESCAC defender. By the time he was a senior, there was really just one thing left on his checklist: a captaincy.

Not surprisingly, his development as a leader mirrored his progression on the field. An affable personality, it’s hard not to like Lewis. An equally hard worker and consummate team player, it’s impossible to not respect him. One of two first-years elected to the team’s leadership council, he uncharacteristically garnered all but one of his class’ votes (and he probably didn’t even vote for himself).

During his sophomore year, he represented Amherst at the NCAA Division III Leadership Conference, spending three days in his native New Jersey, interacting and learning from student-athletes across the nation (many of whom he’s stayed in touch with). Becoming a captain was just the next logical step and it’s a responsibility he hasn’t taken lightly.

“It’s something I really wanted,” says Lewis. “Knowing that I have my teammates’ and coaches’ respect means a lot. It’s an awesome feeling to be able to lead a team.”

Lewis’ resolve was tested midway through the season after suffering a knee injury while returning the game’s opening kick-off against Colby. Making his way to the sideline, he was in pain, but didn’t hear anything “pop.” Trying to give it a go on the defense’s first series, he quickly noticed something was wrong. Back-pedaling and running, his knee wasn’t quite “catching.” He knew he had to come out. In the coming weeks, Lewis got the news he was dreading. He had a torn ACL and his season was over.

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Seriously hurt for the first time in his career, Lewis responded the only way he knew how: positively. Ask anyone that knows him and they’re not the least bit surprised.

“He has a great attitude,” says Mills. “He’s never been hurt a day, never missed a practice for four years, but it’s like he didn’t miss a beat. We always talk about it’s not what happens, but how you respond - and from a mentoring standpoint, he’s still being really positive and motivational.”

Taking the team’s younger players under his wing, he’s continued to embrace his role as a captain as tightly as he would’ve covered opposing pass-catchers. At every meeting, every practice, every game, his message remains the same: I’m still here for you guys, whatever you need.

“It’s been tough, but also a blessing in disguise,” says Lewis. “Instead of sulking, I’ve tried to help out the guys by giving them some of my knowledge. When they apply it on the field and it works for them, it’s great to see.”

Putting team over individual disappointment, Lewis has remained an invaluable asset during the Jeffs’ 2012 season, bringing energy, enthusiasm and intensity from the sideline. The competitor in him used to lead by example. These days, its: Lead without playing. Be a vocal leader.

While his interception against Trinity may have helped seal a win and an undefeated season, his continued support through personal adversity has sealed his legacy as a leader - whether or not he’s in uniform.