Kentucky football: Melvin Lewis finds self at UK after Compton upbringing
Tears streamed down Kim Lewis' face as she watched her son in his bright blue cap and gown cross the Rupp Arena stage to receive his college diploma.
As the name "Melvin Lewis" was announced, Kim smiled and looked over at her husband Vernon next to her in their bedroom some 2,100 miles away from Lexington.
The Kentucky defensive end was too far away to hug, so his family had to settle for watching him make a bit of history on a live stream.
"Graduation, that was probably the most excited I've ever been in my life," Lewis said. "I'm the first male in my family to graduate college, so that was huge."
Even though costs prohibited them from coming all the way from Compton, California, to Lexington for the ceremony, Kim hopes her son knows how proud his family is of him.
"I can't say it enough," she said. "I tell him all the time. In high school he kind of struggled. When he got to junior college, he kind of struggled a little ...
"So when he announced he was not only graduating, but graduating early, I could've jumped through the roof."
There have been many struggles in Melvin Lewis' life, growing up the second of four boys in a volatile city, much of the time without a father, who spent some of Melvin's childhood in prison on drug-related charges.
But Vernon Lewis, who has been out of prison for more than 15 years now, did what he could to guide his boys from afar.
Above all else, he knew he didn't want them to follow in his footsteps.
"The environment we come from is very violent and the streets can take your kids just like that," Vernon Lewis said this week. "I saw over the years what it did to me and I didn't want that for my sons."
Vernon asked his friends on the streets to look out for his sons, to make sure they stayed out of the gangs that crowded the neighborhood, to send them home if they were in the wrong place or with the wrong people.
"It was just important that we stayed a family unit and that's what happened," Vernon said. "We worked hard to keep it that way."
Melvin credits his family for keeping him involved in sports -- mostly basketball -- and making sure he was surrounded by as many positive role models as possible.
"It's just so easy to mess up when you're around so much negative stuff," Lewis said. "It's very easy to mess up and just get taken off track with what you want to accomplish."
When Melvin Lewis left junior college in California and declared that he was going to move to Kentucky and play nose guard for the Wildcats, his mother worried.
"It was very hard for me because I was like, 'That's soooo far away,'" she recalled.
But not Vernon -- who said his knowledge of Kentucky included Muhammad Ali being from Louisville, horse racing and the Turtle Man -- he was happy his son was getting away.
"I was relieved because I knew that family and friends wouldn't have so much access to him, and I wanted him to focus," Vernon said.
'A perfect example'
Melvin Lewis had big plans when he left Fullerton College and headed to the Bluegrass State, where he experienced more than a bit of culture shock both on and off the field.
"He left home thinking that he was just going to go to Kentucky and show them how football goes," Vernon Lewis recalled.
His son learned quickly that he still had much to figure out about football. UK's coaches loved his potential (his speed and explosiveness for a guy his 6-foot-4, 342-pound size), but they redshirted him so he could learn more about the game.
When he would call home that first semester, Lewis didn't discuss football much.
"I would just talk to them and tell them everything was fine," he said. "But I didn't tell them I was having troubles ... on the field. I never told them nothing bad, finally told them when I went home for Christmas that the coaches were on me a lot, that I had a lot to learn."
When she heard that over break, Kim Lewis was glad her son was close enough to hug and encourage. "His whole thing was he didn't want to disappoint nobody and so he just kept it to himself."
Lewis went back to Kentucky and kept following his coaches' and teammates' advice.
He did everything they asked him to do. He got bigger and stronger, he watched film and asked thousands of questions.
He found himself at Kentucky.
He's become UK Coach Mark Stoops' most visible illustration of how hard work and dedication can lead to good things on the football field.
"Melvin's a perfect example," Stoops said of his senior, the only returning starter on the UK defensive line. "You've heard me say it before, but he came in his first year and he was -- he was bad. And he got a lot better that second year and he can be a dominant player this year."
When other players struggle, coaches point them in Lewis' direction for guidance.
"He's become such a team leader on and off the field for us," defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh said of Lewis, who finished with 37 tackles, including 2.5 for loss last season.
Lewis doesn't tell his parents about that part either.
"He's a humble guy," said Kim, who noted that they know only about his leadership of the team from what they read on the Internet.
"We tried to raise our boys to be a leader and not a follower, especially coming up in the neighborhood we lived in, we didn't want him falling into the wrong crowd," she continued. "We're happy he's leading."
Even though her son is so far away from home and they've missed some big milestones, Kim and Vernon Lewis are happy that he's found a place to grow.
Melvin hopes that even far away he's helping to lead his younger brothers down the right path as well. One brother is getting ready to play college football at New Mexico. The youngest is playing basketball at one of the nation's top junior colleges.
"Sometimes I get a little emotional when I talk about stuff like that, because we've been through so much," Melvin said. "I'm just very happy for my younger brothers who continue to follow their dreams."
As for the Kentucky defensive star, he has another season ahead of him before he chases his own NFL dreams.
Home is far away, but never far from Lewis' mind. Home is what drives him on the field.
"Before the game I kind of go to myself and just think about everything that I've been through," he said. "Once I step on the field I just let it all out."
Back problems probably will keep Kim from being able to come to Lexington to see the place where Melvin has grown so much in the past two years, but Vernon and Kim's father both are making plans to be at his Senior Day game against Louisville on Nov. 28.
His mom will watch the game on television, cheering wildly through her tears.
Just like she did on his graduation day.
This article was written by Jennifer Smith from The Lexington Herald-Leader and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.