New Lewan puts team first

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Heading into the Allstate Sugar Bowl, redshirt sophomore offensive tackle Taylor Lewan looks nearly the same as he did a year ago. But the 2011 Lewan isn't the same player.

Last season it was his tattoos and personality that got him his reputation. And by season's end, he was known more for his funny-man persona than for what he had done for the Michigan offense.

If his play was brought up, it was about how he had been a liability on the offensive line, how his play before and after the whistle outshone everything else.

As a redshirt freshman, he had played selfishly. He has no problem admitting that now. He let down his team. He let down the Michigan football program. He feels like he let down Ann Arbor.

But he grew up.

In 2011, he took a backseat to the team. He still makes jokes. His wit is still quick. The tattoos are still there.

But it's not the same Lewan.

Seated, his 6-foot-8, 302-pound body seems less imposing than it has been on the field, though his shoulders and arms appear to overflow from his black T-shirt.

Lewan rotates his right arm, pointing out one of his most recent tattoos: The Tree of Life. It stretches from his right hand up to near his elbow. He says it represents everything he wants to be as both a person and player -- sturdy and grounded, tough yet transitional.

"Gosh, I sound like such a hippie right now," he says as he laughs at himself.

"But really," he continues, "you have things in your life that will happen to you, but if you keep moving on, keep growing, that's the biggest thing. Keep turning yourself into who you want to become."

And it's exactly what he has done this season -- turned himself from the brash, in-your-face liability on the offensive line into one of the top tackles in the country.

His first interviews with the media during his redshirt freshman year included stories of how he had pushed players all the way off the field during high school games because he didn't know it was a penalty. He jested with his teammates and joked with writers, admitted that he loved the attention.

During one interview he held his right index finger, adorned with a curled mustache tattoo and said, "It's the best icebreaker in the world. ... 'Miss, let's be serious, I just want to dance.' "

Before anyone had seen him play a snap, everyone knew he was funny.

By the fourth game, "that kid with the tattoos and the sense of humor," as most people saw him, was starting at left tackle.

Not long after, he got his first personal foul -- 15 yards.

A few games later there was another personal foul and two false starts -- 23 yards.

Against Illinois -- a false start and holding. Against Purdue -- 15 yards for clipping.

The funnyman was becoming not so funny. His play was becoming a liability.

Some people saw it differently. His mother, Kelly, would sit in the crowds and hear fans talk about how passionate and in-the-moment her son played. She could see the passion, but she also saw the hits he took during and after plays. She saw the hits junior quarterback Denard Robinson took when Lewan or the offensive line let someone slip through.

She would wince as the helmets crashed and want to know after the games how each player was doing.

"If moms were coaches, they'd never win games," Kelly Lewan joked. "But I saw that he needed to curb it."

She wasn't the only one.

When Michigan coach Brady Hoke arrived on campus, he had meetings with each player. Most lasted about 15 minutes. Lewan's lasted more than an hour. The first week Hoke was on the job, Lewan was in his office at least once every day.

Hoke laid it out: If Lewan played like he had the season before ... he wouldn't play.

"Taylor's mindset was all about Taylor. How quickly could Taylor start? How quickly could Taylor be an All-American?" his father, Dave, said. "Coach Hoke was letting Taylor know, 'There have been great players that have worn No. 77, and there are going to many more great player that wear No. 77 again. Michigan football is big, the tradition is big, the legacy is important.' "

Jake Long, Jon Jansen -- former Michigan left tackles -- those guys had played for their teams.

The first time Lewan met Long, Long told him, "You better do something with that number." Lewan knew he hadn't.

He knew he had played selfishly. He described his own play as a mix between blazing guns and irresponsible intensity. Lewan had let his team down and promised Hoke he wouldn't let that happen again.

"I want this team to be successful," Lewan said. "I want all the offensive linemen who've ever worn No. 77, all the linemen that have ever played here to look at Michigan now and say, 'That left tackle is doing his job and I'm proud.' "

It was a gradual process. Lewan made it through the first seven games of the 2011 season without any personal fouls or penalties. He was so impressive after the Northwestern game that defensive coordinator Greg Mattison pulled his parents aside after the game to talk about Lewan's football future.

A year ago he was amusing. Now, he was promising. People saw Lewan as having a possible future in the NFL.

"At the end of the day, it's about being a smarter player," Lewan said. "I can throw out any cliché answer, but really, I got better and smarter for my team."

This season, Lewan saw the team as his family. He worked to protect Robinson from opponents. He took pride in the fact that on the rare occasions when someone did get past him in practices and touch Robinson's back that the junior would turn and say, "Taylor, what was that?"

Lewan had 100-plus brothers to take care of, and it was something he loved. His parents had always joked that he must have been an Italian child in another life because of his love for big families. Kelly and Dave's families were small, and holiday celebrations were never as large as Taylor would've wanted.

And then when he was 14, his parents divorced, changing their family dynamic. And this summer, before the season started, his family got even smaller, when both of his grandmothers passed away.

He was in Arizona with his mom on break when Kelly got a call that Dave's mom was in a hospital in Phoenix. She wasn't doing well. Kelly and Taylor drove the 20 miles to the hospital, not knowing exactly what to expect.

When they walked into the room, they both realized this would be one of the last times they'd be able to see her. Kelly took one side of the bed and immediately began sobbing. Taylor slowly walked over to the other side and kissed his grandmother before slipping his hand under hers and putting his other on top of hers.

"To watch Taylor, this big guy holding this frail woman, and the way he was talking to her," Kelly remembered. "I saw this man and this deep ability to nurture while knowing this woman is going to die. To be strong yet vulnerable at that moment, it was such a tender balance."

His grandmother was buried in Chicago less than a week before kickoff of the 2011 Michigan football season. Hoke had told Lewan that he didn't need to rush back to Ann Arbor for practice, that he should be with his family.

Lewan told Hoke that he would be with his family during the day, but by that night, he would be back to Ann Arbor with his other family -- the Michigan football team.

They drove from Chicago to Ann Arbor the night of the funeral. Dave drove and Taylor sat in the front seat reading a book with a highlighter in hand.

Taylor told Dave about the book, how it drew parallels between the armed forces and football, how it talked about leadership. Hoke had given Lewan the book just a day before and Lewan had already torn through 70 pages.

This past summer, Lewan got a tattoo across his right forearm. It reads: No Bad Days. It's what he calls his "life philosophy."

"No matter what, it's all about how you take what comes your way," Lewan said. "All these bad things can happen, but if you have a positive attitude then positive things will happen."

It's what he tells the patients at Motts Children's Hospital when he visits every Wednesday. He often stays after the team leaves to talk to the kids about his tattoos or football or life. Lewan notices the patients who are too shy to leave their rooms and seeks them out, entering their space.

He'll crouch on one knee to be the same height as the children and put his massive arms around their tiny, sick bodies.

It's what he tells himself before games. He can't have a bad day. If he has a bad day Robinson gets hit. Lewan's family gets hurt.

And it's a big reason why the Michigan football team is 10-2 and playing in a BCS bowl game -- because its left tackle's attitude is vastly different from a season ago.

"You can dice it anyway you want, but being a selfish player just isn't going to work," Lewan said. "Last year, I was getting attention but it was the wrong attention. Now, I might not be getting as much attention, but the team is doing much better. That's what's really important."

Chantel Jennings covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. She can be reached at jenningsespn@gmail.com or or on Twitter @chanteljennings.