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Ronnell Lewis: the pride of Dewar, Okla.

DEWAR, Okla. -- Oklahoma junior defensive end Ronnell Lewis went down in the second quarter of the Sooners' 45-38 loss at Baylor on Saturday night, clutching his left knee.

As OU trainers attended to Lewis, the mood changed a little more than 300 miles away at the house of his high school football coach. Another night of celebration turned to concern for the hometown hero.

For some, the bond between student-athlete and high school coach ends the minute the player graduates. But in the eastern Oklahoma town of Dewar, population 919, there is no stronger bond than the one between Lewis and Dewar head football coach Josh Been.

And it has spread throughout the entire community.

Been, 36, has watch parties for all Oklahoma road games he can't attend, and the Baylor game was no different.

His door is always open for anyone who wants to stop by. On this night, it was some of Been's family, Lewis' younger sister Traci and former Dewar football players.

Been and Traci were quickly trying to find out Lewis' status moments after the injury. They were able to breathe a sigh of relief. Even though he suffered a sprained left MCL and most likely will miss the final two games of the regular season, it's not an injury that will derail Lewis in the long run.

It's just another one of several obstacles Lewis has had to overcome. And his former coaches have no doubt Lewis will overcome this one, too.

"When I think about Ronnell, I think about goals," said Dewar defensive coordinator Josh Kilhoffer. "He'll always set goals and do whatever he can to attain them.

"You hear about those success stories, and that's why they're success stories, because they do those things that others won't do. Whatever he puts his mind to, he's going to be able to do."

'It's Been A Ride Since Day One'

Been knew immediately he had something special when Lewis was a freshman at Dewar. Even though the Dragons played eight-man football, Been never doubted that Lewis was going to be a star.

"He possessed some physical abilities and skills sets that you just cannot teach," Been said. "With his strength and speed, he would have made an impact at any high school in America.

"He's the hardest worker I've ever coached."

Lewis had his choice of any of the area high schools. He began his elementary days in Okmulgee before his family moved to Morris. Both towns are considerably bigger than Dewar.

With his mother not in the picture, his father, Norvell, has played an instrumental role in Lewis' life. Traci said their father always has been supportive and allowed them to make their own choices. And when it came to deciding where to attend school, Ronnell and Traci both wanted to go to Dewar. Norvell agreed.

Lewis didn't move to Dewar for athletic reasons, but it's where his athletic prowess first got noticed.

"I played against him in little league," said Jake Stapp, a former Dewar football player who graduated with Lewis. "Summer before freshman year, he comes in the weight room with us. You knew right then. We don't see people that big too often. You knew he was going to be something special."

No one could have predicted how special. But Kilhoffer said nothing could deter Lewis from his goal of playing big-time college football. Lewis was ranked No. 83 in the ESPNU 150 for the class of 2009 after word spread of his ability.

He lived up to the billing with 156 tackles as a senior. Lewis also rushed for 2,219 yards and 33 touchdowns.

One of the biggest influences in getting Lewis to Oklahoma was former Sooners player Wayne Chambers, a graduate assistant in 2008 and 2009.

Chambers, who is in his second season as an assistant coach at Missouri State, told the Dewar coaching staff about the junior day that was being held at Oklahoma, and that's when then-quarterbacks coach Josh Heupel first got to see Lewis.

Lewis made an impact on the coaches that weekend. In the past, schools were not knocking down the Dewar doors to recruit him.

"We took a recruiting visit to Iowa State," Kilhoffer said. "We had video tapes and everything. Now you would think somebody 6-foot-2, 225 pounds that looks sculpted up like 'Ro,' that somebody would pay attention to him.

"Nobody said anything to us."

The recruiting process wasn't drawn out for Lewis. He attended OU's junior day on a Saturday in February during his junior year of high school. By Tuesday, he was on a conference call with Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops, who offered him a scholarship.

"That was unbelievable," Stapp said. "I've been playing with this guy for so long, and now he's going to OU? It was a great feeling."

Lewis committed on the spot, and became the Sooners' first commitment in the class of 2009.

'That's My Brother Right There'

Traci Lewis loves her older brother regardless of his athletic ability. It's not his football skills that impress her the most.

"Not everybody is able to make it out of high school in Dewar," said Traci, who is a year younger than Ronnell. "I was speechless when I learned OU really wanted him to play football. I never would have thought this opportunity would come to anybody in our family."

As word spread about Lewis committing to play at OU, the town of Dewar was pushed into the unfamiliar spotlight. Its football team, meanwhile, was about to return to playing 11-man football, after years of playing with 8.

Lewis was under the biggest microscope. How would he fare in the spotlight? Could he make the transition from safety to linebacker?

"We were making that move, and I remember the first camp at Warner (Okla.), and he's playing (middle linebacker) on the first play," Kilhoffer said. "There's a tackle, about 6-foot-4, comes at him, and Ro just picks him up, shucks him away and makes the tackle. First play on offense, he runs over their (middle linebacker) and scores.

"We knew he'd be OK."

Dominating opponents in front of hundreds of fans in high school is one thing, but Lewis has shown no signs of being in over his head in front of thousands of fans in college.

According to those who know him best, Lewis has remained humble and level-headed. His family and friends have helped him stay grounded, but they admit the pride they felt in attending Lewis' first game.

"I couldn't believe it," Traci said. "It was really weird. I was just trying to take it in. That's my brother right there. He's made it."

'Even Through The Hard Times, He Has Remained True To Himself'

Lewis' journey at Oklahoma has seen its fair share of bumps in the road. On the field, Lewis has switched back and forth between linebacker and defensive end before finally getting comfortable at end this season.

Natural talent carried him throughout high school. But to succeed in college off the field, Lewis was going to have to push like he had never been pushed before.

"He had to study a lot. I would look at his workout books, and they were like encyclopedias. And he had about five of them," said Kenny Hill, a former Dewar football player who graduated a year before Lewis. "He would tell me he couldn't do anything until he studied up and took care of business."

Lewis had no problem studying game film. But his academic eligibility was in question.

Entering this season, rumors of Lewis' academic problems spread like wildfire. It was easily one of the biggest concerns for the Oklahoma defense, and Stoops was constantly asked about Lewis' status.

It was revealed the week of the season opener that Lewis was eligible, and he has been a force all season for the Sooners at defensive end.

"Watching him grow as a man and stay true to himself is something I'm incredibly proud of Ronnell for," Been said. "Even through the hard times, he has remained true to himself."

That lingering period was one of the most trying times for Lewis, said Traci. But he didn't have to go through the process alone. He had his family and friends. And the entire Dewar community would do anything for him.

And Lewis knows he can always turn to Been. He has coached at Dewar since 2005, but he's more than just a coach. Been has become like a second father to Lewis. Been admitted he was worried initially how Lewis would handle being at Oklahoma. Anytime Lewis or his family has needed anything, Been and his family has been there to help out.

"He's one of a kind," Traci said. "They've been there since Day One. They've been there for everything and have made a major impact in our lives.

"When Ronnell was going through what he was going through, I could look into his eyes and see how hard it was for him. It had him depressed, but Coach Been and his friends and family helped him get through it."

'He's Leaving His Mark'

It never gets old for Lewis' family and friends to hear television commentators point out that Lewis comes from Dewar. For a school rich with football tradition, Lewis is the poster child of the program.

"It gives all the little kids going to small schools like Dewar someone to look up to," Hill said. "Everybody thinks you have to go to a big school to go some place in college. Ro shows if you work hard, you can do it."

What the Dewar coaching staff is learning now is that Lewis' impact goes far beyond their town. Attending OU would have been enough, but Lewis' success on the football field has not gone unnoticed.

"It has meant a lot to our community, and from places a lot further from our school," Kilhoffer said. "He's leaving his mark. Hopefully he's not done leaving that mark.

"We get people randomly calling us to tell us they believe things can happen because of what's happened with Ro."

Part of the reason Lewis has remained so loved in Dewar is because he hasn't forgotten where he comes from, Been said.

Lewis is a country boy at heart, Traci said. He likes to ride horses and four-wheelers, and catch fish. He still comes back to Dewar whenever he is able to and helps out. Kilhoffer said his visits make a huge impact on the younger kids.

Even though it means a lot to the young kids now, Kilhoffer said he believes the impact will be even stronger when the kids get older.

"He grew up here and has been around here -- sometimes they don't understand because they always see him," Kilhoffer said. "When they get older, it will make an impact on them about how hard he's worked to get where he is at."

'It's Going To Mean A Lot After All He's Been Through'

It's possible Lewis has played his final home game at OU. He won't suit up Saturday against Iowa State, and the allure of the NFL draft might be too much for the draft-eligible junior to pass up.

At 6-foot-2 and 244 pounds, he is listed as the No. 17 overall player on Mel Kiper's "Big Board" for the 2012 draft.

"As much as we rotate these guys, he's not even out there all the time," defensive ends coach Bobby Jack Wright said. "He's only playing 50-to-60 percent of the snaps and making a large number of plays."

Lewis has 59 tackles with 13 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks for the season.

Wright said the biggest change with Lewis has come from his maturity. Wright said Lewis has grown more comfortable in the position and has much better technique.

And now Lewis has the potential to go from eight-man football at Dewar to the NFL.

"It's going to mean a lot after all he's been through," Stapp said. "All those doubters who said he wasn't going to make it at OU. It would be a special moment."

Of all the big hits and special moments Lewis has had on the field, Kilhoffer said a last-minute weightlifting video is one of the things he'll always remember about Lewis.

"I talked about him setting goals. And as a senior in high school, he said he wanted to bench 400 pounds," Kilhoffer said. "This is the last day before he went to OU, mid-senior year, and Ro still wanted to do 400.

"We got it on film, him bench pressing 405. He never forgot about it. We're right there spotting him."

Soon, it will be time for Lewis to set new goals. Along the way, Dewar still will be there to spot its hometown hero.

Bob Przybylo covers football and basketball recruiting for SoonerNation. He can be reached at bprzybyloespn@gmail.com.

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