More Than Just Talk: Keith Lewis Had a Mouth (and Motor) That Couldn’t Be Stopped
I want it more than you do, I’m going to show your coach that you don’t really want to block me, you’re just out there posing. I’d just run through them, and there was a stretch where I went three straight games blocking a punt.
-Keith Lewis, on his knack for blocking punts
Few players throughout history have been capable of bringing the complete package to a team; leading in tackles, pass coverage, interceptions, special teams play, as well as being the verbal and emotional leader. From 2000-03, Oregon had a truly motivated athlete roaming the secondary who was never afraid to talk the talk while backing it up with his ability to walk the walk.
Oregon Ducks legend Keith Lewis arrived on the scene in 2000. After seeing limited playing time as a true freshman, “K-Lew” (as best known by his teammates) became a three-year starting safety, as well as a very successful special teams stalwart. His ability to cover the entire field and wreak havoc on punts earned him multiple Pac-10 Special Teams Player of the Week awards (as early as a true freshman against California), as well as second team All-Pac-10 as a junior and First-Team All-Pac-10 as a senior. Selected in the sixth round by the San Francisco 49ers, he spent five years back home in Northern California becoming one of the most feared special team players in the pros (named to the 2005 USA Today All-Joe’s Team) during his seven-year NFL career.
Now retired and enjoying life as a proud father, I caught up with “K-Lew” to find out more about his favorite memories as a Duck.
I was hungry, I wanted your head, and was like ‘let’s both get concussions’ it’s all good!’
-Keith Lewis, on his style of play
What made you want to come to Oregon?
“The private jet! [Note: Oregon used to fly recruits on a charter before the NCAA prohibited it.] Originally, I committed to Cal, my junior year of high school. After I committed to Cal I thought, ‘Man, I really need to take a trip.’ I never really got to travel or take a trip, so I said, ‘Hey Oregon contacted me, so I’m going to take a trip there.’ My parents were so against it, they didn’t even go on the trip with me because they figured it was too far. I took one more trip to visit Arizona; but after my trip to Oregon, the warm welcome that I got convinced me. The facilities, the people; everything was up and coming, and everybody here’s a Duck! The private jet was my first time flying, so the big difference was my flight. To make a long story short, Oregon was a definite go.”
How long did it take to adjust to life as a Duck?
“It was awkward to begin, especially the rain! But I got used to it, to this day I still walk around in the rain in California in flip flops and they’re like ‘what’s up with you?! OH, you went to Oregon!‘ It took a while. It was different at first, but obviously the culture was good. Being an African-American and growing up where there’s gangs; then coming up to Eugene where it’s so peaceful made me think I could see myself living there. If you notice all the people that came from California, Phoenix, etc. who came to Oregon and did the math on how many people stayed, it would be a lot. You’d be amazed with all the people trying to get away from all the B.S.
There was no doubt in my mind when I set foot in the Oregon Locker Room for the first time, I was going to start. I told everybody I was going to play. I ran into Marshaun Tucker and he said ‘Man, you are the cockiest freshman ever to come into the University of Oregon!‘ I was very confident, so I was like, ‘I can do this.’ He also knew I always backed it up. It pushes you up when you come in with that type of confidence, and it makes you want to make everybody a believer. And you know, I had a great time just going out there and getting it done.
Everybody heard about me in the Holiday Bowl, but before that you saw how hungry I was on the kickoffs as a true freshman out on the field. Did I know what I was doing? NO! But, did I make the play? YES! That’s all it’s about – once you start making plays, the more playing time you get. Do you think they wanted to put me into the Holiday Bowl? NOPE! But, we had Rashad Bauman (who cramped up,) Ryan Mitchell cramped up, etc. They needed me on the field. The first time I go on the field in that game, I get an interception…DING, I win! I had no idea what I was doing on that play. But, I’ll tell you the play was named Sally, and Sally fell right into my hands. The next thing I knew I had my own billboard.”
[NOTE: In the 2000 Holiday Bowl, Oregon led 14-0 at one point until Texas scored 21 straight to lead 21-14 at halftime. Oregon tied it up late in the third quarter, when a failed drive gave Texas the ball heading into the fourth quarter. Deep in Oregon territory, Texas appeared to be on the verge of scoring to take the lead; when Lewis made his first career interception in the red zone to shift the momentum. Joey Harrington and company drove the field to take the lead, and never relinquished it, the defense hanging on to preserve a 35-30 victory.]
You were one of the hardest-hitting and versatile safeties to ever play at Oregon, where did that mentality/ability come from?
“My mentality comes from the philosophy ‘if I didn’t get a penalty, I didn’t hit you hard enough!‘ That’s my mentality, everything I played for was straight attitude. Now that we’re talking about this, that was one of the main reasons I walked away from the NFL. I didn’t have the same passion for the pro game that I had playing before in college. I was hungry, I wanted your head, and was like ‘let’s both get concussions’ it’s all good!’
A lot of my swag came from Rashad Bauman. I’ve always been a trash-talker, but having him was a huge influence. Just the way we met was huge; we were doing a walk-through on the football field, and apparently freshmen aren’t supposed to sit down on the bench. Well, this freshman did! (pointing to himself)
He tried to make me get up, and I said ‘make me get out of my seat!’ A couple words came out, but that was that. Ever since then, we had each other’s respect and have been best friends ever since. It’s crazy how things work; but like I said, if I didn’t get a penalty, I didn’t hit you hard enough! I would say the biggest thing was, when I tackle you, I want you to feel it. I want you to feel everything I’m bringing, and I want to bounce you off the ground.”
Most remember you for having one of the biggest mouths in the history of the University of Oregon. Was your reputation for trash-talking to get under your opponent’s skin or keeping yourself motivated?
“I get that a lot, but when it’s all said and done everything is all self-motivation. When I talk trash to you, I’m picking myself up because I want to show you that what I said is going to happen. That’s all it is; though I like to get into people’s heads, it’s little things like that which give you the extra drive and mentality that you need to go and do what you need to do.
I felt like I was always the cause of the half-time conversation. At the half, coach always went into something that I did, I couldn’t get a break. I just thought, if that’s the case, fine they can bench me…but they didn’t bench me. Bellotti was a great motivator. I really believe that pumping a team up and motivating a team, he’s a better motivator than Mike Singletary. He could get a lot of people to jump through the door; but Bellotti could get you to jump through the building! When you listen to Mike Bellotti talk, it almost brings tears to your eyes because you’re so excited and amped up to go play the game and make him proud. Seemed like I was always the half-time conversation, me and Bellotti we bumped heads often; but it was one of those things where I respected him, he respected me, and everything is a mind game–about who you are, who you know, and what have you done for me lately.
If teammates talked trash, I would take it personally and go out to see whatever he said happens. Opponents were a different story. Specific to the (2003) UW game…I talked all that trash, we got smashed. But that’s what I did week-in week-out throughout my career, not just that game. Yet they blew it up on the news and it blew up to this and blew up to that. After the Washington game, it was like I had a target on my back, and opponents would think ‘we need to beat THIS guy.’ I’m not talking to just you, I’m talking to your whole team. I would talk, but it never was about physical cheap shots. A lot of things go on in the pile, but to blatantly do something so cheap is just not part of the game.
Bellotti would be on me all the time, it was like talking to your brother, and was like ‘okay, yell at me!’ It can be disappointing, but, you get back on track, and at the same time it makes you want to do something extra special for him.
For instance, the (2003) Cal game. I got a penalty for the throat-slash. When I got to the sidelines, Bellotti grabbed me by the collar and screamed at me, ‘You’re so immature!‘ The rule had just gone into effect a few weeks before. It wasn’t a throat slash, I was just indicating ‘that’s a wrap,’ but the referees saw it differently. Bellotti grabbed me and talked about how immature I was, we heard in the locker room how immature I was, we come back on the field and he tells the news reporters how immature I am…But, he never benched me. Then, at the end of the game, what did I do? I forced a punt by making a key stop, leading to the winning drive, then I intercepted a pass when they were driving for the win.”
[Note: Oregon was looking to end a mid-season slump in 2003. They were unable against Washington, who made things difficult for Oregon, in a game where a cheap-shot at Keith Lewis caused a huge reaction. The following week against California, Oregon trailed 17-7, and was on the verge of a loss. Lewis was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, giving California a first down and leading to a score. In the fourth quarter, the newly expanded Autzen Stadium had a malfunction as the lights went out on that dark rainy night. The glitch caused a lengthy delay, giving Oregon a chance to regroup. Lewis and co. did just that. Lewis made two big defensive stands, and the offense added two late touchdowns to secure a miraculous comeback victory, 21-17. So began a three game winning streak to end the season on a high and send Lewis out a winner in his final game at Autzen in a Civil War Victory.]
Joey Harrington was always known for leading the comebacks in 2001, but a lot of those comebacks were because of the defense making a stop to give Joey the ball. More often than not, it was #16 making THE play. For someone who played all out every snap to begin with, how did you knock it up even more in the final minutes when you know everyone is looking at you to lead and be the guy who makes the big play?
“That’s how you get your respect. Day in and day out, if they can depend on you; that’s what it comes down to. I could look you in the eye and tell you I was going to make that play. A lot of confidence came from Rashad (Bauman). Think of how rarely he got beat. Rashad is a little guy that held his own on his island, ‘The Island of Bauman!‘ Once you made up your mind it’s not going to happen and you’re not going to be the guy they talk about in the meeting tomorrow, you’re going to go out there and make that play. ESPECIALLY when talking as much as I did, you gotta go out and hold your own. Yeah I got a lot of penalties, but I also made a lot of plays.
Me and Aliotti bumped heads a lot. He’d be up above in the games, so I’d talk to him on the phone, and I even hung up on him a few times. He wouldn’t bench me, though; as he knew really what’s in my heart and that I didn’t try to make the mistake I did; but I’m going to do whatever I can to make the team feel the energy.”
Many players have one single iconic moment that fans will forever remember them for…
(Quickly cutting me off before I could complete the question) “The 2003 Michigan game punt block for a touchdown!!! The funny thing is, it all comes from practice. I was going against the first team at practice and I’m always full throttle. That’s how I fought, I don’t take a day off, I’m going full throttle whether it is practice or a game. Once you put on your shoulder pads, it’s time to play ball.
As a true freshman, I kept blocking kicks at practice and they wondered how. Coach Osborne started playing me on the edge as a true freshman. Against Cal, I tackled the punter before he got the ball, that was funny. But, I would say definitely the Michigan game was one of my most memorable games, as they were so highly touted. Jordan Carey (true freshman) jumped on the ball in the endzone, and that definitely was the turning point of the game. Blocking kicks is more mind over matter. I just ran through the defender, to the wing man, and blocked the punt with my helmet. I almost had a concussion, but I got it! It was more about determination than anything.”
[FishDuck.com co-owner Kurt Liedtke was sitting in on the interview and interjected the following: “When coaches say ‘Get your head in the game,’ that’s not exactly what they mean, Keith. ‘Get your head in the game…’ ‘Okay coach, I got my head in the game, literally!'”]
You were so renowned for kick blocking, there has never been a player in Oregon history who blocked as many kicks as you did. You were probably the most feared man in the Pac-10 on special teams, punters couldn’t sleep the night before a game thinking ‘Keith Lewis is coming after me!’ How did you manage to be able to split blocking schemes and get to the punter so often?
“It’s called hunger. There are so many people I talk to now that I played against who said their coaches would say ‘do not let him block a punt!’ All the clips showed me blocking the punt. Like I said, it’s more about determination than anything. I want it more than you do, I’m going to show your coach that you don’t really want to block me, you’re just out there posing. I’d just run through them, and there was a stretch where I went three straight games blocking a punt. The streak came to an end against Utah in 03, and we lost that game, but Dallas Smith told me when we both played for the 49ers that their coach was very insistent ‘do not let him block a punt!’ But, it’s just hunger and determination to find your way back. If you’re not hungry, you can’t feed the kids.”
As good as you were on defense, you seemed extra fired up on special teams with more hunger there. Was there anything that gave ‘special teams’ a special meaning to you?
“Absolutely. Special Teams is where I got my first opportunity to play in college. If that’s going to be my first opportunity to play in college, I’m going to make sure that I give it my all. What comes after that comes after, but Coach (Tom) Osborne gave me the opportunity to play the game. Maybe it was only eight plays a game, but I want to give you everything I have, making it eight plays of hell! That’s pretty much what it was.”
Was there a particular methodology as to whether you were going to go outside or inside on the punt block?
“It depends on the punt scheme. So in the punt return scheme if I knew somebody had your outside – you could go up and under. If everybody knows you as a bulldozer, they’re protecting themselves, so it makes it that much easier to go up and under. A lot of times I tried to bulldoze, then they took that extra step back and were too far away this time when I went under. I spent a lot of time watching film on special teams.”
You played for seven season in the pros, how much of a different atmosphere is it playing in the NFL vs. college?
“It’s night and day!! I would rather play 16 college games rather than an NFL season. The only thing that’s better in the NFL is you get paid for it. In college, the atmosphere and tradition gets your adrenaline going. Don’t get me wrong, there’s politics in everything, but in college the best man wins. In the NFL, the highest paid man wins. I had a great season with the 49ers in 2007, then they signed me to a new deal and then Michael Lewis to a higher deal a few days later. Who do you think played? That’s the politics, and little things like that make you lose love for the game.
I was out there for a while and I had a blast. I still stay in contact with a lot of the boys from the 49ers, like Dashon Goldson, a UW graduate. I taught him the big plays and he eventually ended up taking my spot, but it’s all good. May the best man win.”
I’m sure the college atmosphere rolls over to the pros. Did you encounter any former college teammates, or Beavers/Huskies? Do you have any favorite memories of playing in the NFL where you ran into former teammates or opponents?
“The most uncomfortable situation of my entire life was when my roommate at the NFL Rookie Symposium was Cody Pickett (Washington Huskies QB in 2003)! We were in San Diego, and I had just got done talking trash about him in the papers the year before. Now, suddenly we’re roommates. We were in the room together, and there’s this long silence…Nobody reached for the remote control, no one says a thing, just a long awkward silence. We must have watch the preview channel for hours because nobody wanted to be the first to reach for the remote. Eventually I said screw it, I’m taking a bath. So I come out and he’s still just sitting there, so I offer him a drink. He firmly says, ‘NO!’ That was our first communication! Craziest thing, we eventually became good friends and did everything together. But when you say awkward, that was about as awkward as it gets.
Then later Richard Siegler becomes a teammate with me! (Oregon State Linebacker, 1999-2003.) I couldn’t catch a break at all. It was funny, me and Rich became roommates throughout training camp too, and eventually we became best of friends too!
One time I lined up against George (Wrighster) when he was with Jacksonville and I was with the Niners. That was interesting, and a lot of fun. We were both Ducks and had that in common, but me and George fought twice. But then when we were back in the team hotel, I get a call that someone was waiting for me downstairs, and it was George. We went out to dinner, went to his house and hung out. If things don’t go right at practice, trouble would happen in the moment. Crazy how things change, everything is for the heat of the moment.”
If you were advising a player on how to block kicks, what would you tell him?
“I would simply say, ‘you need to figure out your strong points, and figure out a way to dominate your opponent. You need to figure out what you have that you know you’re better than everybody else at and utilize it through hard work.‘ I couldn’t bench-press, but I knew my legs were strong. So, I could push the opponent into the kicker. Sometimes you have to put extra time into the film room and discover your strong-points and weaknesses. Work on improving weaknesses.
As for techniques on kick blocking – pad level is everything. When I’d take off the first thing I’m trying to do is get lower than my opponent. Once I get lower than him, I’m on him. Get lower than him, keep your head up, grab a little, and then you can throw him where you want to. It’s like when they teach you to run the 100-meter dash, crouching and running low, they always tell you to stay low when you take off around the starting blocks. Stay low, on the snap, and gradually rise up. That’s exactly the key to blocking the punt, you come off the block right when the center hikes that ball, BAM! You’re gone, staying low the whole time; and once you start to make contact with that defender, you gradually start to rise up and you control him. You’ve gotta grab and throw to whatever side meets the ball. But, coming from the outside leverage, you’ve always got to maintain leverage and roll around to the proper side. No matter what, if you own your opponent and put that in your head to drive through – it can happen.”
From your perspective, why should fans remember Keith Lewis? What was it that you brought to the program?
“I would say fans should remember me by one thing–I always brought up everybody’s play around me. The enthusiasm and the way they thought of the game and carried themselves and the way they tracked their opponent had to do with me being in the area, talking crazy to them, saying whatever I needed to say to get it off my chest and push them in the right direction. I love playing the game, and I played the game with passion. It brought others on my team to play the game with passion as well. There’s never been a time I wouldn’t go all out for my coaches or teammates. I’d be the first one to go all out, and if you asked Coach Radcliffe, he’d tell you – did I want to work hard in the weight room? No. But did I? Yes. I did it because I wanted to be the example of what it’s like to be an NFL player and a role model and leader. I wasn’t the fastest player in the world, but I ran fast enough to keep up with you.
Keith Lewis Today
Keith Lewis retired from the NFL in 2009 choosing to lead a more relaxed life as a family man. He travels often between his hometown of Sacramento and Eugene, where his two kids reside and attend school. Lewis and his girlfriend have two daughters, 17 and 10.
He has considered going into coaching in the future, but has chosen the family life first. K-Lew remains active in alumni events and Eugene Community Events. Keith Lewis hosts an internet radio show every Tuesday at 12pm, Lockdown Coverage with Keith Lewis.