Alex Lewis' long road home

LINCOLN, Neb. -- For miles to the west as the bustle of this college town fades into dusty roads, Memorial Stadium rises over the horizon like a shrine. And for so many in Nebraska and beyond, it serves as a place with higher meaning.

Alex Lewis was no different than the thousands who journey to the altar of Nebraska football.

The son of a former All-America center under coach Tom Osborne and a Huskerette dancer, Lewis was raised in Arizona but never felt far from Lincoln, where his maternal grandparents, Walt and Joy Broer, live on 15 acres at the city's southwest edge. They raise and board horses at the ranch -- as their home is known to family and friends -- and young Alex wanted every summer to vacation only there.

When he visited, Alex talked of his dream to play for the Huskers and to make his home at the ranch. God willing, Joy Broer told her grandson, she would live long enough to see the day.

It arrived last week on a sun-drenched Saturday, Joy Broer's birthday, no less. Lewis' family converged on Memorial Stadium, and, oh, did the tears flow at the vision of big Alex in uniform, his dream achieved after traveling a stormy and emotional path over the past 16 months.

Lewis, after starting 15 games in 2011 and 2012 at Colorado, decided in early May 2013 to transfer to Nebraska. The Huskers had turned him down out of high school in Phoenix, but Lewis added weight to his 6-foot-6 frame and earned honorable-mention sophomore All-America honors.

The Buffaloes won four games in his two seasons. Lewis hated the losing. He longed for an environment in which football was met with passion. So when Nebraska accepted his paperwork, Lewis celebrated with his family in Lincoln.

Days later, early in the morning of May 11, 2013, a drunken Lewis and former Colorado teammate Jordan Webb were arrested after an altercation in downtown Boulder. According to the police report, witnesses said Lewis repeatedly slammed the head of 22-year-old Lee Bussey into a brick wall and punched the Air Force cadet, who was knocked unconscious.

Lewis faced two felony assault charges. Nebraska withdrew his scholarship and placed stringent restrictions and requirements on his enrollment. He was allowed no contact with the football program during his first semester in Lincoln.

"Hours felt like years," Lewis said. "Years felt like centuries."

On Saturdays in the fall of 2013, Lewis sat outside the ranch with his dogs, a 1-year-old border collie, Tootsie, and a 2-year-old German shepherd mix, Tino. Devoted to animals, Lewis rescued both dogs, and they could sense a sadness, he said, as the roar of 91,000 fans rolled toward him across the flatland when the Huskers scored a touchdown or sacked the quarterback.

Lewis attended just one game last season, a Nebraska win over South Dakota State. For the others, he could not stand the pain. No TV. No radio. Only the dogs -- and the noise, covering four miles from the stadium to his ears.

"Dogs know," Lewis said. "You could see it in their eyes that they knew something was going on."

Lewis met every condition and joined the football team in January. He served 28 days in the Boulder County Jail for a conviction of third-degree assault.

The experience of past 16 months has reshaped Lewis, he said.

"I'm more proud of him as a person than I am as a football player," said his father, Bill Lewis, who played seven NFL seasons with the Raiders, Cardinals and Patriots. "And I think he's got a chance to be a pretty damn good football player."

Those closest to Alex Lewis said they've seen rapid maturation. He fits in in Lincoln like every moment of his life has prepared Lewis for this.

"I believe in the kid," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "I believe he's a good kid. I think he learned a lesson."

'It was so difficult to watch him'

The ranch was his sanctuary.

When Lewis moved to Lincoln to live with his grandparents last summer, Joy Broer asked him to live in the main residence, which included a well-appointed basement suite.

Lewis insisted on the white barn across the driveway. It houses a makeshift apartment and stables for 22 horses. He needed solitude, time alone with his thoughts.

His grandmother often worried about him.

"It was so difficult to watch him," she said.

Alex's mother, Kimberly, worried, too, from her home in Phoenix, though she understood.

"He wanted to grow as a human being," Kimberly Lewis said. "Learning to forgive himself was a part of the solitude."

Alex studied his grandfather's German heritage and embraced his spirituality. His grades flourished.

He met regularly with Matt Hecker, dean of students in Lincoln, and Jamie Williams, a former college teammate of his father who works as an associate athletic director at Nebraska. Hecker and Williams grew into mentors for Lewis and helped teach him, he said, to channel his aggression.

"As a parent," Bill Lewis said, "it's hard to find words to express the amount of gratitude for the people at Nebraska. Their support was nothing short of phenomenal."

Alex Lewis said he has "changed completely."

"I didn't know how to click the switch off at Colorado," he said. "They made me find myself here, not just as a football player, but as a student and a man.

"It was something that made me think hard and deep about who I was and what I wanted in life."

Before the incident in Boulder, Lewis had no criminal record. Kimberly Lewis, divorced from Bill when Alex was 2, raised her son around the arts. She founded the Phoenix Suns Dance Team during the organization's heyday more than two decades ago and has long taught the discipline.

Her community of performers knew Alex as a gentle giant, she said.

Young Alex worked at dance and art and music. But he fell for football. Bill Lewis held his son out of the game until seventh grade. After that, there was no stopping him.

"His love for the game is what drives him," Bill Lewis said.

In the spring of this year, Alex Lewis joined the Huskers as a walk-on. Immediately, he teamed with senior guard Jake Cotton -- another Husker legacy as the son of ex-lineman and current assistant coach Barney Cotton -- to form a ferocious pair on the left side of the offensive line.

"There really wasn't any learning period with him," Cotton said. "It just clicked right away."

Respect came quickly from fellow Huskers.

"Honestly, I call him one of my best friends here," quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. said.

Lewis served four weeks in prison at the close of the spring semester. He said he passed the time by reading and re-reading 50 to 60 letters mailed to him by Armstrong, star I-back Ameer Abdullah and Abdullah's family, professors at Nebraska, Hecker, Williams and others.

They encouraged him to stay strong.

"It reminds you of what you're striving for," Lewis said.

On June 9 at 6 a.m., Kimberly Lewis and her 12-year-old daughter, Avery, loaded Alex into the family's Dodge Journey at the Boulder County Jail.

Alex adores his little sister and she idolizes him, their mother said, but he wanted Avery to know every detail of his crime and punishment, so he would never have to explain it to her later.

They drove straight through to Lincoln, stopping at the Colorado-Nebraska border to take a photo, and arrived at Memorial Stadium early in the afternoon.

There, on that day, he signed scholarship papers.

Their second stop: The ranch, where his grandparents awaited with a cake and hung signs from the roof of the white barn to welcome Lewis home.

"It's called a second chance," Kimberly Lewis said. "The University of Nebraska gave him that second chance."

'I'm sorry for it ... and I'm learning from it'

Alex Lewis' darkest moment of the past 16 months did not come in prison.

His darkest moment came in a Colorado courtroom as he listened to testimony from the family of Bussey, who suffered after the assault from the effects of a concussion.

"It's hard on me, as a person, to hear another family struggling because of you," Lewis said. "Not only that, but a son struggling. I can only imagine my mother crying the same way. I'm sorry for it. I'm growing up, and I'm learning from it."

Tootsie and Tino wait long hours this fall for Lewis at the ranch. He leaves early and comes home late, but the dogs have plenty of space to run.

And Lewis has a roommate in the barn this year, too -- sophomore guard Corey Whitaker, sitting out this fall with his second major knee injury in three years. Lewis knows the solitude.

He starts at left tackle as a 22-year-old junior. In his debut on Saturday, Lewis earned the belt for most pancake blocks by an offensive lineman in Nebraska's 55-7 win over Florida Atlantic. The Huskers rushed for 498 yards and totaled a Big Ten modern-day record 784.

There to see it: Bill Lewis, who had not attended a game at Memorial Stadium since his induction into the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame in 2003.

Kimberly's brother, Kurt Broer, another ex-Husker, came, too, along with Walt and Joy, of course.

Many of them cried when Alex walked off the team bus with a huge smile. There were more tears as he ran from the tunnel before kickoff and after the game when he hugged his family.

"My road here was bumpy," Lewis said. "I never thought I'd go through what I went through, never thought I'd be a part of such a great team, such a loyal fan base."

Lewis said he set out from the day of his arrival in Nebraska to clear his name. Work remains.

"He was on a mission," Pelini said. "Right, wrong or indifferent, there was a perception out there -- there still is -- that he would like to change."

Lewis may have time on his side. Despite living only in Arizona before college, he feels a connection so strong to Nebraska that he plans to stay. For good.

Wherever life takes Lewis after college, he told his mother, he would return to Lincoln. He wants to take over the ranch from his grandparents and raise his family where he can hear the roars from Memorial Stadium, rolling across the flatland.

A simple reason: It's home.