BATON ROUGE, La. — LSU offensive lineman Damien Lewis is country strong — in equal proportions.
The strength is brute. Lewis can bench press 475 pounds and squat 635. In high school, he was a state powerlifting champion. He even offered to do 80 pushups for the assembled media members whom he met with for the first time on Tuesday afternoon.
The country? Well, that’s evident in every phrase Lewis utters in a delightfully thick accent that could only come from the middle of Mississippi.
For instance, Lewis in describing his own strength:
“I shut the weight room down. I’d get in there and lift a bull.”
A transfer from Northwest Mississippi Community College, Lewis did not garner as much attention as fellow JUCO transfer Badara Traore when he signed with LSU. But Lewis has been the talk of the spring, earning rave reviews from coaches and players on both sides of the ball.
“He’s the most physical offensive lineman we have already,” defensive end Rashard Lawrence said earlier this spring. “The way he plays. How aggressive he is.”
Lewis signed with LSU, even though he was fully aware that the Tigers were returning starting guards Ed Ingram and “Bruiser” Brumfield. Ingram started at right guard and Brumfield at left guard last season.
“I like competition,” Lewis said. “I like coming to compete. I knew I could come compete and try to get a starting job, [even though] we’ve got a good group of offensive linemen.”
The road from zero offers to LSU
It’s not hard to figure out where Lewis’ competitive streak emanates. At his high school in Canton, Miss., there were only 26 players on the varsity roster. Leaving the field wasn’t an option.
“Ain’t no getting hurt where I’m from,” Lewis said. “You can’t get hurt. There ain’t no such thing as hurt.”
That meant playing both ways through painful toe and rotator cuff injuries during his high school career. When he missed two practices this spring after rolling his ankle, Lewis was dismayed that LSU trainers made him sit out.
“I wanted to go back the same day. They wouldn’t let me,” Lewis said. “They’ve got more than 26 [players], I know that.”
Lewis didn’t get any Division I offers out of high school, in no small part because he was a 280-pound guard. But Northwest Mississippi coach Benjy Parker saw enough potential to give him a shot.
“I went to Nor’west to try and perfect my craft and get some more attention,” Lewis said.
A rapid rise
Lewis bulked up, working his way from his high school weight to his present 320 pounds.
“I’m the same player I was in high school, but I got much bigger and stronger and faster,” he said. “I picked up like 40 pounds.”
He went from no offers to 18 while at Northwest Mississippi. But in his eyes, there was only one dream school.
While eating pizza one afternoon, he received the offer he was awaiting.
“I got a call. Coach O [Ed Orgeron] offered me a full scholarship,” Lewis said. “I never met him, but I wanted to go to LSU. I see him on TV and the team on TV. That was my dream school. It was my dream come true. When I heard that voice, I knew. ‘This is Coach O right here.'”
Coming from a high school with 26 players, Lewis and his mother were blown away on their visit to Tiger Stadium.
“I’ve been out of Mississippi, but never to a big place like this,” he said. “When I brung my mama down here, she didn’t know what to think. It was a great feeling for her and me.”
The next time she pays a visit to Death Valley, there’s a chance her son will have powered his way from no scholarship offers to the LSU starting lineup.