Sunday, February 18, 2018

Disease doesn't define Seffner Christian football coach


The story, set mainly on a Christian school campus lodged in the corner of a bustling Seffner intersection, is bereft of gray area. A 62-year-old patriarch stands on one side, Parkinson's on the other. • No antiheroes, no deeply flawed protagonists, just straight-up good vs. bad. Or more specifically, Steve Lewis vs. his central nervous system. As the narrative unfolds, so does a series of virtuous elements: faith, family, resolve and fortitude. They're all there. • But first, the irony, which can't be ignored. • It smacks you straight on, leaves you gasping, like a helmet to the solar plexus: A degenerative disease noted for tremors has befallen one of the steadiest forces you'll find on a local high school sideline.

An upright man, by all accounts, walks with a mild slouch.

"In the 21 years that I have known him, I have never heard anyone question or criticize his character. … I mean, no one," Seffner Christian Academy school administrator Roger Duncan said. "People that have competed against him, people that have coached with him — I have never, ever heard anyone question his character as a man, as a Christian man."

Well, one person did. A couple of years back, when his knee was killing him and he struggled to sleep for an hour each night and he couldn't understand why his walking stride had become abbreviated, Lewis questioned himself.

The questions grew when the Parkinson's diagnosis was confirmed. Could he continue teaching a full day? Would he be able to fulfill his goal of coaching football at Seffner Christian until age 70? Would he live to age 70?

These days, the self-doubt has subsided. Lewis and his wife of nearly 38 years, Deborah, have educated themselves at length on the illness. Steady doses of prayer and prescription medications have fortified him.

"Right now, he's doing very, very well," Deborah Lewis said. "I want him to stay healthy. He's happiest when he's coaching football, planning football. … He just has so much to offer young men, that's what I feel like."

On Aug. 23, in a preseason game at Northside Christian, Lewis, dad of six and granddad of three, embarked on his 41st year of coaching.

"I don't want to be defined as a guy that has Parkinson's disease coaching football," he said. "I want it to be, 'I'm a football coach who happens to have Parkinson's disease.' "

Devastating diagnosis but not career-ending

Back in the day, John Kelly says, Lewis' energy level ranked somewhere between Ron Zook and a caffeinated ant colony.

Kelly, currently Strawberry Crest's coach, was a junior high student at now-defunct Temple Heights Christian School when Lewis was hired from Lynchburg, Va., to coach in 1992.

Not content to wait for a face-to-face with his new players, Lewis filmed his introduction and mailed the video cassette to the East Tampa school.

"I still remember it to this day, and my (future) brother-in-law was in the same meeting. We still kind of joke around about it," Kelly said. "His intensity and just the thought of, 'Here's someone who's not even here yet' … It came right through the TV screen."

On game nights, he could pace 10 miles in four quarters. Deborah likened his demeanor to that of Lou Holtz — never still, rarely silent. In especially lean years, when bodies were few and help was minimal, Lewis would serve as his own offensive and defensive coordinator.

Former players recall him being more old-school than pompoms. His receivers may have been the last in Florida to line up in three-point stances. Hands-on? Lewis would have been a helmets-on coach had they let him. He loved getting in a stance and demonstrating.

His main mantra: keep it simple.

"He didn't always have a lot of plays," Kelly said. "But his players always knew what they were supposed to do and they were going to do it to the best of their ability."

When Temple Heights' high school closed in the spring of 2006, Lewis moved to Cambridge Christian before helping start the Strawberry Crest program in 2009. The next year, Duncan invited him to launch the Seffner Christian program.

"When I came in I told him, 'Roger, if you'll have me for 10 years until I'm 70 years old, I'll give you all I've got,' " Lewis said.

He had only begun laying the figurative footers in at SCA when his erratic sleeping habits regressed to the point of virtual insomnia. Never one to routinely visit a doctor, he broke down and went after spring practices concluded in 2011.

"I knew something was difficult because my walking stride shortened up," Lewis said. "I started getting a little hunched over in my shoulders, and those are classic signs of early onset (Parkinson's)."

Deborah called the diagnosis devastating.

The initial question: Could he keep molding lives while modifying his own? For Lewis, 136-154-6 in his career, coaching always had been more of a calling than a vocation. His routes and patterns always seemed designed more for the end game than the end zone.

"He firmly believes football teaches life lessons that no other activity can teach," said Lewis' oldest son, Benjamin, owner of a landscape company in Belle Haven, Va. "No class, no other sport, no other job."

But he found himself saddled with an incurable, progressive disorder of the nervous system that can cause tremors, stiffness and slowing of movement, and afflict 60,000 Americans annually.

Lewis needed answers. He got assurances instead.

Duncan's dad, Roger, had been diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1992. Only a couple of Septembers ago did he step down as pastor at First Free Will Baptist Church. Even after a leukemia diagnosis, Roger Duncan Sr. still travels around the country preaching at age 65.

"We're people of faith, and I just believe the Lord puts people in your life," Roger Duncan Jr. said. "Obviously, if my dad had not had it … and I had not seen the things that he went through, then who knows? Maybe you're not as supportive as you would be."

No rush to stop coaching

If the encouragement of his boss didn't revitalize Lewis, left knee replacement surgery in November did.

Today, he takes a couple of pills daily for the Parkinson's, avoids sweets and caffeine, hydrates regularly and does balancing exercises in the weight room.

His voice has weakened mildly, and he often has to slow down and think before responding. His face mostly betrays a stoic expression — a telltale Parkinson's signal — that belies an irrepressible vigor.

His 12-hour days during football season include teaching three sections of Bible 9 and supervising two study halls during the school day. On Sundays, he still leads the music at Temple Heights Baptist Church, doing an occasional duet with Deborah.

As a coach, he's delegating more than ever — he's effusive in his praise of coordinators Stu Weiss and Travis Puleo — but remains far more than a figurehead at practice.

"If he sees a play that's not clicking with the QB exchange, or receivers not running a route, he'll go out and do that himself," said son Nathan, a fellow SCA teacher who shares an office with his dad. "And he can do that now because he had knee surgery. … He couldn't do that before."

How much the Parkinson's will progress remains a mystery. He is encouraged by actor Michael J. Fox — diagnosed more than 20 years ago — as well as his doctor, whose mother lived with Parkinson's until age 86.

"People ask me how I'm doing, I say, 'Well, I'm doing a pretty good job of putting one foot in front of the other,' " said Lewis, whose team trounced Cornerstone Charter 57-7 in Friday's season opener.

"I don't see any end to (coaching), but who knows what the year's going to bring. Just keep my eyes open, be sharp, go on as if I didn't have it, teach and do my job."

Joey Knight can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @JoeyHomeTeam.

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