Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis was a boy growing up on New Orleans’ West Bank when, at local camps run by some of his community’s football standouts, he began mastering some of the skills that led him to careers in college and the NFL.
Lewis, raised in the Cutoff section of Algiers, had counselors there the likes of quarterback Kordell Stewart (John Ehret High School), safety Ryan Clark (Archbishop Shaw), tight end Robert Royal (Edna Karr) and wide receiver Reggie Wayne (Ehret).
All had NFL careers after high school on the West Bank. All were among those to teach Lewis proper ball-carrying and catching techniques; how defensive backs should stay low and drive out their feet while backpedaling; how to depend on and be depended upon by teammates.
“They basically put us in situations where you have to rely on the team,” Lewis said about the camps. “That’s (what) stood out to me.”
Now gearing up for a sixth season in the NFL and second in New Orleans, Lewis is ready to take over counseling duties as the next generation of his hometown’s football hopefuls comes up.
Lewis and his foundation are hosting a free football camp for 500 student athletes from low-income families from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, July 12, at Behrman Memorial Park. That’s where Lewis played his home football games at his alma mater, O. Perry Walker.
He’ll have help running what he intends to be an annual camp from fellow West Bankers and NFL pros, including his friend and former teammate at Walker, Miami wide receiver Mike Wallace; Indianapolis offensive lineman Lance Louis (L.B. Landry); and Houston safety Kendrick Lewis (also from O. Perry Walker), whose cousin is married to Keenan Lewis.
The message they’ll preach: “We were ... right where y’all are,” said Keenan Lewis, who entered the NFL as a third-round draft selection for Pittsburgh out of Oregon State in 2009. “If you ... live ... the way you should live, your dream could come true.”
“And one day,” Lewis added, “hopefully one of them could take over and run the camps.”
There’s plenty of on-field knowledge Lewis can dispense to aspiring cornerbacks. He’s coming off a year in which he had a career-high four interceptions and was second on his team with nine passes defended as the Saints made it to the divisional playoffs.
Lewis and his teammates subsequently welcomed two of the biggest names in free agency: cornerback Champ Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowler; and safety Jairus Byrd, a three-time Pro Bowler. The impact Lewis wants to have on his campers is one that’s similar to what Bailey and Byrd have had on him since their arrival in New Orleans, he said.
Bailey has taught him how to better anticipate plays before they happen, Lewis said. Lewis said Byrd’s impressed him with the subtle yet crucial things he identifies in film study.
Lewis realizes many of his campers will have already been under the tutelage of knowledgeable school and playground coaches. He said he and his colleagues want to supplement what they’ve learned with drills from more advanced levels.
“It’s a bonus,” Lewis said. “You’re talking to guys who are doing it (in the NFL) ... day-to-day.”
Lewis, however, also wants to be realistic with his campers: Not all of them will have the opportunity to play at an elite college program or the NFL. That’s why, after the on-field instruction, the Keenan Lewis Foundation has scheduled an event to give out school bags packed with educational supplies from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, July 13, at Behrman Park.
At the “Back to School Extravaganza,” there will be — aside from food and games — free uniform vouchers, dental and medical screenings, even haircuts for students. Lewis has invited speakers to talk about the importance of getting an education and staying open to nonfootball careers.
“I’m just trying to emphasize, even if you don’t play football, you still have the opportunity to be successful,” Lewis said.
Registration for the football camp and educational event is at www.TheKeenanLewisFoundation.org.