D.J. Lewis was close to leaving Alabama.
Stressed about the financial responsibility of paying for school and eager to be more than a practice player, the Birmingham native explored other options this past summer.
It came down to a choice: Stay with the Crimson Tide as a walk-on or transfer to Tennessee Tech, where he would’ve been on scholarship and in the mix for a significant role on defense.
Lewis went back and forth, weighing the pros and cons of each situation before making his decision to remain with the Tide.
“It was really tough for him,” said Lewis’ personal trainer, Christian Roshell. “We talked every day leading up to the decision. He wanted the opportunity to be on scholarship because it got to a point where he couldn’t afford school anymore and he was like, ‘I’m tired of pulling out loans and I’m tired of not playing.’ … It even got to a point where he sat down with Coach Saban and got his release papers. But he had a change of heart.”
It’s worked out well for both Lewis and Alabama.
Lewis was awarded a scholarship in August, is now the team’s top backup at nickel back and has become the Tide’s latest walk-on success story.
Some at Alabama believe he could end up like another former Tide walk-on defensive back, someone whom Lewis has looked up to and trained with the past few years — Levi Wallace.
“I saw a lot of improvement from him this past time that I was there this past summer training with him, and I’ve been hearing it from other players as well,” Wallace said. “They’ve been talking about how good he’s been playing and telling me, ‘D.J., he’s following in your footsteps.'”
Lewis has mentioned that as a goal to Wallace — to follow in his footsteps.
Like Wallace, Lewis grew up as an Alabama fan and hoped to one day play for the Tide.
But Lewis wasn’t even a two- or three-star recruit. He was so far off the recruiting radar coming out of Gardendale High School that he wasn’t listed on recruiting sites like Rivals or 247Sports.
Still, Lewis wanted to play for the Tide and, after not playing football as a freshman at Alabama in 2015, he made the team as a walk-on in 2016.
It took him until this past spring, though, to really start standing out on a team stacked with former four- and five-star recruits.
The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Lewis, who is built like a competitive weightlifter, had two interceptions during one of the Tide’s spring scrimmages and worked at cornerback with the second-team defense during Alabama’s spring game. The junior then moved to nickel back this fall and has gotten playing time on special teams and with the Tide’s backup defense over the last three games.
“When I first really saw the potential with him was that first year (in 2016),” said Roshell, who has trained many current and former Alabama players including Wallace and Shyheim Carter. “Him, Derrick Gore and Donnie Lee would do one on ones, and he would jam those guys like really, really hard. And it was really impressive because I had never seen guys just stopped in their tracks by a walk-on. He was already so strong that he was really just stopping people in their tracks with his jam.”
Lewis is a popular figure inside the Tide building, according to people at Alabama. He’s made a tremendous amount of progress during the last three seasons, and people inside the program have a lot of respect for plays like one Lewis made against Arkansas.
Working on Alabama’s kickoff coverage team, Lewis blew through one Razorbacks player, then got past another and tackled the Arkansas kick returner.
— Mac Hereford (@Mac_Hereford) October 5, 2018
“He’s always been working hard,” Wallace said. “And this is starting to become a trend at Alabama (for walk-ons to become contributors) and hopefully it continues. Some of the walk-ons that want to follow my path and play ask me a lot of questions about how I did things and how I went about it. Now, they have somebody else that they can look up to, and I’m just proud of him.”
For Lewis and his family, it’s funny how everything has worked out. He considered leaving because of wanting playing time and a scholarship. Now, a few months later, he’s on scholarship and contributing for his long-time favorite team.
His mom recently asked him, “What’s it like being out there and living your dream?”
“Words cannot express how happy and how fortunate I am,” he responded. “It’s a dream come true.”
“This has been unbelievable and it’s been such a joy for me because I know he’s worked hard for it,” said Lewis’ mom, Lucy. “He’s always wanted this — to not only attend Alabama but to play football at Alabama — ever since he was a little boy. And he is so happy that he stayed instead of leaving. He is so happy. And he’s said, ‘Man, I would have been crazy if I had walked away.'”
Matt Zenitz is an Alabama and Auburn reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @mzenitz.