- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Big Ten hands out awards for practically everything at the end of the regular season, but the league lacks a comeback player of the year honor.
If it did, Illinois' Corey Lewis would be the obvious choice.
Most probably didn't notice Lewis trotting on the field for Illinois' third offensive series last Saturday against Ohio State. Despite being 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds, Lewis, like most offensive linemen, often goes unnoticed. But when he lined up at right tackle for the Illini, it completed one of the longest and toughest journeys back to the game field that you'll ever hear about.
"Not five," Illinois coach Tim Beckman said when asked if he had ever seen a player return from five knee surgeries.
That's how many Lewis has had to endure since tearing the ACL in his left knee for the first time in Illinois' spring game of 2010. He tore the same ACL two more times during workouts, needed another procedure when infection prevented a graft from healing in his leg, and underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee after overcompensating because of his left knee issues.
Yet all the setbacks never stopped Lewis from moving forward. And more than 1,000 days after he played his last game -- the 2009 regular-season finale at Fresno State -- he returned to the line at Ohio Stadium.
"When I did come on the field finally for my first rep in two and a half years, my heart was racing," Lewis told ESPN.com. "It was beating so fast. The adrenaline was going. It was just an exciting moment."
Lewis appeared in four games as a true freshman and played all 12 as a sophomore in 2009. Along with other talented young linemen like tackle Jeff Allen, Lewis looked to be part of the nucleus of Illinois' offensive line for years to come.
But everything changed once Lewis tore the ACL during a 2-minute drill segment in the spring game.
"I never thought I could be injured," he said. "I thought I was Superman. So it was rough for me. I always heard about people tearing their ACLs and going through stuff. I just never saw it happening to me. When it happened, it was just devastating."
The subsequent injuries proved to be even worse. Lewis' third ACL procedure, in March, was a low point.
Did he ever think about giving up the game?
"Stuff like that definitely creeps in the back of your head," Lewis said. "But I just looked at it like, I'm going to keep giving it a shot until all my years are up. What motivates me the most are my teammates.
"I didn't want football to be over for me."
He continued to attack his rehab, and by September, doctors cleared him to practice. Lewis hoped to return for Illinois' Oct. 27 game against Indiana but didn't get the final green light until last week.
The knee isn't quite 100 percent, Lewis said, but he's gaining more strength and more trust in it.
"You still have a little doubt at times because [the ligament tears have] happened multiple times, so that's in the back of your head," Lewis said. "But I think the more I keep playing, the more reps I get, the more I'll be able to trust it. That's the main thing, just knocking the rust off and being able to get back to my old ways.
"I'm only at like seven and a half months [since the last surgery], but over time, it will just continue to get better with the more I play."
Lewis intends to play a lot more at Illinois. Not just the rest of this fall, but he expects to return for a full season in 2013. He's seeking a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA.
After all he has been through, it'd be a crime if he doesn't get it.
"That's what college football is all about," Beckman said. "A lot of people don't understand what all he's been through in the last two years, through rehab, through medically, getting himself prepared to step back out there on the field after an injury. That's why I coach, so you get to see those experiences.
"The best experience I had was him running off the field [last Saturday] after that series, seeing the smile on his face."
Despite Illinois' loss to Ohio State, the congratulatory messages for Lewis streamed in after the game, many of which can be found on his Twitter page. Former teammates like Allen, now with the Kansas City Chiefs, and current teammates like Illini center Graham Pocic were among those who acknowledged Lewis.
"I just learned I'm not a quitter," Lewis said. "I'm a dedicated person. Once I signed here to play here, that was my main goal, to play again, to play for Illini Nation and to play for this team. I love football. That's why I wanted to be able to get back."