Footballer 'LA' Lewis bouncing back from injury
Gordon Williams, Sunday Gleaner Writer
For an agonising moment, between the "pop", drop and arrival of medical help last July, André 'LA' Lewis confronted doubt.
As he crumpled to the turf following a collision during an exhibition football game in the United States, the Jamaica youth international immediately sensed something was horribly wrong.
"His knee ran into the outside of my knee," Lewis recalled December 3. "That's when I heard something pop. I knew it was serious right after. I couldn't walk.
"I never had an injury like that before. At the moment when it popped, I thought my foot was broken."
Lewis was wrong. It was worse.
"I tore my ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) and ripped part of my meniscus in my right knee," he said.
The frustration that followed was rare for the seemingly ever upbeat Lewis, who thrived on skill and confidence to become a local star at St George's College, "one-to-watch" globally after a brilliant goal against France at the 2011 Under-17 World Cup, and a member of Jamaica's senior squad as a teenager.
To add irony to injury, Lewis was not parading his trademark technical gifts - smooth ball control, clever dribbles, vision and passing - when the setback occurred.
Yet, if the physical pain was bad, mental anguish, after realising he would not play again this season, compounded it. Lewis was eager to return to the Reggae Boyz' fold in 2014. Jamaica's schedule, including friendly internationals, Caribbean Cup, CAC Games, Olympic qualifiers, Gold Cup and Copa America, offered ample opportunities to fulfil his dream to be among Jamaica's best. The injury was brutal proof of how nightmares are made.
"I was thinking about missing all these games with my country," Lewis said.
His professional club career, still in infancy, was also left teetering. In January, Vancouver Whitecaps selected Lewis seventh overall in the Major League Soccer SuperDraft, days after impressive displays at the MLS combine elevated him above nearly all of the best US college players on show.
Before that, Lewis had spent time with North American Soccer League club New York Cosmos. Disagreement over who owned his rights surfaced, but he landed in Canada. Lewis showed promise during the preseason, playing multiple midfield roles for the Whitecaps.
"I was settling down," he said. "I had started to play my game, take touches. Be me. ... First, I was nervous. I was afraid to take risks. But each day I was growing."
Lewis harboured thoughts of sticking with Vancouver for MLS 2014. But in March he was sent on loan to Charleston Battery, a club playing a tier below MLS, North America's premier league. Vancouver believed he needed consistent playing time to toughen his slender physique and sharpen his game. Though "surprised", Lewis understood.
"I was young, I needed development," he said. "After I went to Charleston, I realised how much room was there for me to develop although I was doing well in preseason."
At Charleston, Lewis earned playing time and praise. He also fast-tracked the learning curve of life as a pro.
"Yes, it was a total different thing from high school," said Lewis. "I still have a lot to learn, but I know better how and when to use my skill.
"I got to realise this is a business," he added. "This is where players are playing for their future and to keep their contract."
Lewis, however, was still confident a Vancouver recall would come. The injury, suffered playing an exhibition game for Charleston, shattered that. He described the knee surgery, done on his 20th birthday, August 12, as "successful", but Lewis is not expected to play competitively again until March or April. So these days he is immersed in rehabilitation at Vancouver under the guidance of multiple physiotherapists. Discomfort has eased, but caution prevails.
"There's no pain," Lewis said, "but there are times my leg feels tired. It's one day hard, one day slow."
Occasionally, he's allowed "soft touches" of the football. He jogs. Lewis is learning how to run again.
"Making sure my foot is in the right place," he said.
There's no rush to heal physically. Lewis's mindset, however, has long recovered.
"In the early stages I was frustrated and stressed," Lewis admitted, "but not now. I'm more focused on my knee."
Gym work has also bulked him from roughly 138 pounds to between 145 and 150.
"People tell me my shoulders and chest are bigger," Lewis said laughing. "I know I am stronger."
He gets plenty support from Vancouver, including national teammate Darren Mattocks.
"He offers encouragement and checks up on me," Lewis said. "He showed me he was concerned and that he cared."
He also doled out praise for Vancouver's physiotherapists and Trinidad international Carlyle Mitchell, who's no longer with the Whitecaps.
"He was like my friend," Lewis said. "After the surgery he would come by my apartment and bring food for me."
Despite the support, including a contract from Vancouver for next season, Lewis knows it's up to him to fulfil expectations of club and country. National call-ups for ex-U-17 teammates, including Alvas Powell, Cardel Benbow and Omar Holness, haven't escaped his notice.
"I feel happy with what coach (Winfried) Schäfer is doing, giving young players opportunity," Lewis explained.
Doubts gone, he eagerly looks to 2015.
"I want to prove myself," said Lewis, who is due in Jamaica for the upcoming holidays, his first post-injury visit.
"I want to come back and play in MLS. That's where I want to be. I hope by next year I will be fit enough to get a chance.
"It's just time. I still have my hopes up. I still have my dream to be a standout Jamaican player. I still have my dream to be among Jamaica's best."