By early last season, most Illinois football fans were familiar with Corey Lewis’ story. The hulking right tackle — having been granted a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA — was making one last go at the college game, trying to stay upright despite having suffered three torn ACLs in his left knee during his time in Champaign.

For this, Lewis was beloved by his teammates and deeply admired by his coaches. His optimism and drive to finish what he’d started — and even to play in the NFL — were inspirational, to say the least.

“He’s a warrior,” senior quarterback Reilly O’Toole said of Lewis this week. “He’s someone to learn from.”

By late last season, when it became apparent that Lewis would finish what he’d started, all involved with Illinois football were happy for him. And who wasn’t impressed by his toughness and resiliency?

What he’d done was pretty amazing. Far more amazing, in fact, than anyone — even Lewis himself — realized.

Shortly after the season finale against Northwestern, Lewis had an MRI performed on his knee and learned that his ACL had completely torn again. Lewis had suspected the knee wasn’t healthy — since training camp, it hadn’t felt quite right — but had held off throughout the season on fully sharing his concern with coaches and the medical staff.

The doctor who operated on Lewis six weeks ago, Thomas Klootwyk, an Indianapolis Colts team physician, believes Lewis played the entire season without an ACL.

“I felt that if I could play, there was no reason to MRI it and get shut down if something came out of the MRI,” Lewis told the Sun-Times this week. “I just wanted to play my last season.”

Lewis, who turned 23 in October, figured he’d earned the right to make that call himself. Besides, he didn’t actually believe his ACL was torn again.

“I was hoping to just have to get a cleanup,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting there to be no ACL there.”

Before the start of the season,
Illini coaches already were planning to limit Lewis’ practice time when they could. Most weeks, Lewis wound up skipping Tuesdays but practicing on Wednesdays. Coach Tim Beckman has a rule that players who miss both days don’t play in games.

“I was able to play on Saturdays, and that’s all that mattered,” Lewis said. “I was able to get through all the games and played fairly well.”

Coaches and teammates were stunned when Lewis shared his bad news.

“You’re crushed. You look at him and you’re crushed for him, because he’s like your son,” Beckman said Thursday morning, while on a recruiting trip in Chicago.

“And it kind of astonishes you, because he did play well.”

Wideout Steve Hull, who’s in Chicago training in advance of Illinois’ Pro Day in March, said teammates were “sad and shocked” to learn of Lewis’ fourth ACL tear.

“He’s able to push through a lot of things normal people wouldn’t,” Hull said. “But my heart breaks for the guy.”

Yet Lewis — and this should surprise no one who knows him — isn’t heartbroken, nor has his determination wavered. Realistic or not, wise or not, he’s still aiming for the NFL.

“That’s his drive and his dream,” Beckman said. “That’s what’s great about Corey Lewis.”