TRACK : One-track mind: Lewis escapes tough upbringing, graduates from SU to achieve lifelong goal
The timetable attached to Shamel Lewis was five months – or less.
People from his hometown of Riverhead, Long Island, questioned if he’d last even that long at Syracuse. With every heart-wrenching experience Lewis went through growing up and his troubles as a teenager, lasting even a semester at SU would be a miracle.
‘It was a timeline. It was like a time capsule. They all had times on me when I would fail,’ Lewis said. ‘… And I knew people had expectations and said, ‘You would never succeed, you’re incompetent, you’re not adequate, you will just fail.”
Those people were wrong. Lewis has been at Syracuse for five years and will graduate with a degree in sociology Sunday.
It’s a day many in his situation never see. Lewis lived in multiple homes and endured a childhood surrounded by violence and drugs. Stability is rarely a word Lewis uses to describe his life. Survival is one he’d find more appropriate.
Survival got him to this point: running for the Syracuse track and field team. With sports and a strong pillar of support backing him along the way, Lewis has defied the odds, which were overwhelmingly stacked against him.
His journey is one his hometown thought would never unfold. Lewis had every reason to fail, but ultimately, he triumphed.
‘You could talk to my former teachers and they would be like, ‘How the hell did you get to Syracuse University? When did you change?” Lewis said. ‘That’s all I heard. When did this happen? How? It was just like a mystery man. It’s so crazy.’
Jill Tapper was in her first year teaching in a contained classroom for kids with emotionally disturbed classifications in 1999. A 10-year-old Lewis was among her first students.
Tapper remembers the school psychologist warning her that the students in her classroom would go nowhere in life.
‘You know five years down the road all these kids would be in jail,’ Tapper recalls being told. ‘That’s where this is going.’
‘No, no. That’ll never happen,’ Tapper responded. ‘They’ll see the light.’
But Lewis did little to back up his teacher’s claim. By third grade, he had a probation officer.
When Lewis played football in seventh grade, the coach kicked him off the team for behavioral problems.
No one wanted to deal with him.
‘Thinking back now I have no idea why I did that,’ Lewis said. ‘…Why was that me? What made me do all of that?’
One answer to Lewis’ inability to control himself was the place he went home to every day. Some days, it would be different from the last.
His father was absent his entire life. His mother, Patricia, battled demons that derailed her life. When he was 8, he witnessed her getting high off crack cocaine. Addicted to drugs and alcohol, she wasn’t capable of caring for Lewis and his two older siblings.
By age 5, he was living with foster parent Betty Trent. It was a new home, but still unstable.
He once witnessed a shooting within the Trent household because of a family conflict. The victim lived, but Lewis never forgot the blood spattered on the floor.
‘It’s a rusty smell,’ Lewis said. ‘Even to today, I can still remember it.’
And the violence was even imposed on Lewis at times. When he misbehaved, he was beaten with a belt or a switch.
‘From age 5 up,’ Lewis said, ‘it was a long struggle there.’
The struggle carried over to school, where Tapper endured tough times with Lewis. Still, he was one of the only ones in his class to go on to do better things.
‘I’d have to probably say the only one who came out of there unscathed is him,’ Tapper said.
Lewis survived with the help of his ‘peeps’ – his support system of people who kept an eye out for him.
Tapper was one of those people. So were his football and track coaches, Sal Loverde and Steve Gevinski. And the families of Michelle Nadue and Cindy Reiter, who took him in during high school.
By high school, Lewis was fed up with his living situation with the Trents, so he packed up the little he had and moved in with a friend’s family, the Reiters. Throughout the next four years, Lewis lived in about three or four different homes.
‘It was like jumping all around,’ Lewis said.
Lewis would go over to the Reiters’ for dinner a couple of days a week. Then a few more, and before Cindy Reiter knew it, Lewis was like one of her three other sons.
Coinciding with his steadier lifestyle, Lewis excelled in athletics.
Loverde, who coached and taught him in high school, urged him to play football. Loverde knew he’d succeed and hoped it would keep him out of trouble.
‘I used to use this term with him: ‘Shamel, remember you can be a different branch. You don’t have to be on the same tree,” Loverde said. ”You can start planting your own tree and grow a branch.”
Lewis started competing in track his junior year and dominated immediately. He was the Suffolk County champion in the 100- and 200-meter events in both the winter and spring seasons his junior and senior years.
Lewis finally stayed off the streets.
‘I could be home selling drugs right now, staying wherever they accept me,’ Lewis said. ‘Just getting by, and is that the life I wanted?’ Lewis said. ‘That’s a life I feared.’
It was a life his older brother, Alexander Diaz, embraced.
Diaz has spent the last six years at Upstate Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Franklin County, N.Y. He was convicted of second-degree burglary, a Class C felony.
Lewis had a different mindset. Before he reached high school, he knew he wanted to go college. Loverde said Lewis could have succumbed to negative influences around him, but he chose to fight through the adversity.
‘That’s one of the things that makes him so special,’ Loverde said.
After one semester at Syracuse, Lewis almost blew it. For the first time, Lewis was forced to do work on his own without the special accommodations he received in high school.
‘It was a culture shock,’ Lewis said. ‘All the kids around me are brilliant. They’re all smart, 3.0, 4.0 in high school, dean’s list. That wasn’t really me.’
It showed in Lewis’ low GPA, which got him kicked out of SU after his first semester. His only shot at returning was an appeal letter detailing his life story.
That emotionally charged letter got him readmitted to SU and gave him another chance. He hasn’t disappointed since.
There have been frustrations along the way in his track career, where he has struggled to find his form. He once considered quitting and trying out for the SU lacrosse team.
Lewis stayed the course, though, and while he never quite reached his full potential, his contributions go beyond the starting blocks and finish line.
‘He’s certainly someone who’s helped us build our program and our group,’ SU assistant coach Dave Hegland said. ‘Any sprinters or hurdlers younger than Shamel, he’s had a hand recruiting them.’
Lewis doesn’t hesitate to answer when asked a simple question: With every obstacle he has encountered, if he could, would he change anything?
‘I wouldn’t take even a second back,’ Lewis said. ‘Even the worst moments because I believe by taking one thing back, I wouldn’t be the person I’d be right now.’
The person Lewis will be Sunday is a graduate of Syracuse University. He’ll be a five-year track athlete with plenty to be proud of.
For an athlete who came from despair, the opportunities for the future are endless. But Lewis still knows doubters will probably remain.
He has come to take it in stride. The timestamp for his failure and the tags attached to him have long expired.
His story is still unfolding, but he knows he has already defied the odds.
‘Who would have thought Shamel Lewis going to Syracuse University would be graduating?’ Lewis said. ‘No one.
‘And it’s just a story for the people back home because no one would have thought.’
Published on May 8, 2012 at 12:00 pm