TAMPA — Bucs cornerback LeQuan Lewis said he can't put into words what Sunday's game-sealing interception meant to him.
"It's humbling," he said.
Lewis' humble path of perseverance is what makes the play — and his role with the Bucs — more impressive. He has been cut six times this year by four teams, including Tampa Bay in late October. He has lived out of hotels and bounced around a couple of practice squads.
But for him, that beats being out of football, which is where Lewis, 23, was last season. Undrafted out of Arizona State and cut before Week 1 by the Titans, he worked odd jobs to stay afloat, including serving as a ticket runner for the California State Fair.
On Sunday, Lewis is expected to be running back kickoffs for the Bucs and running down Panthers receivers as a reserve cornerback.
"It's been a long journey," Lewis said. "I knew at some point, just waiting and being patient, I'd find somewhere, some place where I'd fit into their organization. And I finally think I may have found a home rather than keep bouncing around."
As much as Lewis has been through, he keeps it all in perspective. Growing up in Compton, Calif., he used sports as a way out, he said, playing at two junior colleges before landing a scholarship at Arizona State. That's where he met his "hero," 5-year-old Kyle Oden of Mesa, Ariz.
Kyle has a brain tumor caused by neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder that disrupts cell growth in the nervous system and causes tumors to form. The boy is almost blind in his right eye. The Sun Devils adopted him as an honorary team member in 2010, including giving him a locker with a nameplate. Lewis visited Kyle at the hospital when he was going through chemotherapy and has kept in touch with his family since.
Of the eight elastic wrist bands Lewis wears, each with an inspirational message, the green one that honors Kyle is one of the most meaningful to him.
"Every time his mom (Brittney) sees me take a picture with it, or always sees it, she cries," Lewis said. "It's something I take with me. He's a little boy, and he's survived that. I can survive everything if he can. He's my hero."
That helped Lewis keep the faith when the Raiders cut him in June. He believed he'd get another NFL call. The Jets brought him in during the preseason, waived him and re-signed him twice before placing him on their practice squad. Lewis was plucked off there by the Cowboys on Sept. 12, and he played in three games, including against the Bucs on Sept. 23.
Lewis said he has learned a lot from practicing against receivers such as Dez Bryant and Miles Austin, as well as alongside Jets cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie. "The game slowed down to me," Lewis said. "It didn't speed up at all."
Bucs defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan said instincts and straight-line speed are Lewis' signature traits. Lewis, who says he can run a 4.3-second 40-yard dash "easy," used that advantage returning kicks at Arizona State, including getting a 100-yard touchdown against Southern Cal in 2010.
"I think I'm the fastest guy out there," Lewis said. "It's not cocky or anything. It's just the confidence in me. I don't think anyone can outrun me."
Lewis, added to the Bucs' active roster last week, hopes he's done running around and can stay in one place. It helps his case when he makes plays such as his interception of Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers along the left sideline in the waning minutes of Sunday's 34-24 win.
"That was amazing," he said. "I felt like I lifted my confidence and my team's confidence in me. It was a great opportunity, and I took it."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]