Geno Lewis’ phone buzzed and the screen flashed to life.
It was the turn of the New Year and Lewis was away from his Penn State football teammates, on winter break. It could’ve been any of them. He was hoping it was one in particular.
Lewis pulled his phone out of his pocket and stared down at the incoming text message. He slid a thumb across the touchscreen and opened the thread from Allen Robinson.
Hey man, this is your time.
Lewis was expecting this. He kept reading.
It’s time to step up and make plays and just be confident in what you do.
And with that, Robinson was gone, headed for the NFL Draft. Lewis knew this day was coming. He knew his friend was plenty capable. He watched Robinson set records and torch defenses for the last two years.
Now, it would be up to Lewis to discover his own capabilities and emerge as the go-to guy in Penn State’s offense. It was the hopeful portion of the bittersweet feeling he had when Robinson decided not to return to Penn State for his final year.
“He took me under his wing when I came in and I learned so much from him,” Lewis said. “I’ll appreciate that forever.”
Eugene Lewis Sr. had plenty going for him. He had a standout basketball career as a guard at the University of South Alabama, enough so that the Utah Jazz made him a second-round pick in the 1989 NBA Draft.
The Jazz had visions to make him a point guard. But “Junie” struggled to catch on and was waived on just the fifth day of the team’s training camp. He went unsigned and returned home to Abington, just north of Philadelphia.
Then his life fell apart.
Denial turned to depression, and Junie turned to a destructive pattern of self-medicating. He drank and smoked and devolved to using crack cocaine habitually. He spent time in and out of homeless shelters. He split nights between the streets of North Philly, Wilkes-Barre and Norristown.
He rarely saw his kids. He missed them — a grade-school aged “Geno” born in 1994 among them. Geno lived with his mother, Amy, and rarely saw his dad. When he did, it wasn’t on the best of terms.
“When he was younger, six and seven, I used to take him with me into North Philadelphia and have him in places where we both should’ve been dead,” Junie said. “He saw it. He saw some of the things I was doing and he knew it wasn’t right back then.”
Eventually, Junie didn’t see his kids at all. His siblings disowned him. They wouldn’t answer the door when he knocked. It was 2003, and he had hit rock bottom.
“I got to the point where I didn’t want this life,” Junie said. “I was either going to die or I was probably going to end up killing somebody. I was living on the street and I knew I was better than that. I had a college degree. I was an intelligent person. I was just caught in this wicked addiction and once everybody that I knew loved me pushed me away, I knew I had to make some type of change.”
An acquaintance suggested Junie attend a service at the New Covenant Christian Church in Wilkes Barre. Junie did so and was immediately awed by Bishop Wallace Smith, whose fiery, passionate preaching changed Junie’s life.
“My life just took a 360-degree turn. When I heard him preach, it just took me away.”
Junie quit drugs and stopped drinking cold turkey. He joined Smith’s ministry where he preaches, 11-years sober, to this day.
Geno Lewis doesn’t allow his mind to dwell.
When he talks about his dad’s struggles, he does so in generalities. For him, a real relationship between them began in 2006. He’s drawn more positives from his father’s experiences and even has life after football planned out.
Lewis, a junior with sophomore eligibility, is well on his way to a degree in human development and family studies. He wants to be a youth counselor.
“I really want to help kids, teens with addiction, depression and family issues,” Lewis said. “I’ve had a lot of that in my family history, depression and drug abuse and stuff like that, and I’ve actually seen a lot of my friends get so close to being able to go to college, but they just made one wrong decision and everything went downhill.”
Lewis has already helped more than he might know.
Rev. Eugene Lewis Sr. has plenty of days behind him that he can’t remember. Certain portions of his life through the 90s were oftentimes blurs, he admits. But he remembers feeling the eyes of his oldest son on him. He knows his kids could hold ill will toward him for his past failures. They don’t.
“He always stuck with me at all times. He always had this, ‘You’re my dad,’ ” Lewis, Sr. said. “I think that really helped me out, too, as I was getting myself together.”
When Geno was 12, he moved in with his dad — at that point three years sober — near Wilkes-Barre in order to attend a school with less distractions and temptations as the ones in North Philadelphia. As he got older he got bigger and stronger. His athleticism as evident by the time he entered high school at Wyoming Valley West, where he played basketball and quarterback.
His first college visit was to Penn State. He also visited Pitt, where his aunt, Debbie Lewis, just happens to be the Panthers’ career assists leader.
No school he visited after Penn State compared, Lewis said. His dad, who had originally started his college career at Pitt, told him to go with his gut. Lewis committed to Penn State in August 2011.
Robinson’s departure coupled with the graduation of Brandon Felder left the Nittany Lions without 52 percent of their receiving output.
Lewis, who caught just 18 passes in 12 games last season, said he initially felt pressure to step up in Robinson’s absence. It initially subsided, oddly enough, after Lewis dropped his first two targets in the season-opener against Central Florida. He responded by catching the next seven passes thrown his way for a team-best 173 yards and a touchdown.
Meanwhile, he has emerged as quarterback Christian Hackenberg’s go-to receiver on third down. Lewis has been targeted a team-high nine times and has 206 of his 462 receiving yards and his touchdown on third down plays. Four of Lewis’s six third-down catches have come on third-and-long situations.
Not bad for a wideout who’s not known for blazing speed and the ability to consistently separate from defenders.
“The thing that he has, he has really strong hands and he doesn’t go down easy, so he’s able to drag people for yardage or a lot of times. He’s able to break free,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “He’s a big, strong, powerful receiver and that’s kind of his game. That’s something that we’re working on right now with his route-running and his explosion to get more separation.”
As for those hands? Shake one and you’ll find it’s plenty soft, but the grip is plenty firm. Lewis may as well have vice grips attached to his arms.
One of his favorite workouts is simple enough. He runs his hands through a bucket of white rice, constantly opening and closing his hands and flexing his wrists.
He’ll also see how long he can hang from a cylindrical protrusion in the team’s weight room — another exercise to boost his overall hand and grip strength.
“I still think his best football is still ahead of him,” Penn State receivers coach Josh Gattis said. “I think he’s very conscious of everything we ask of him as far as the details. He’s a very hard worker that shows up every day.”
Lewis attributes a lot of his work ethic to his mom — who raised a family with little help — and to his dad who struggled mightily but eventually found his way.
After all, as Lewis has gained a better understanding from his studies at Penn State, those affected by drug addiction have to work every day to stay on point in their recoveries and quest to say clean. Struggles on the football field pale in comparison, Lewis said.
“He’s been there and done it so he’s somebody that I can go to whenever I need advice,” Lewis said. “He’s helped me through this so much and I appreciate him dearly. I don’t know where I would be without him to be honest and I’m just happy to have him in my corner.”
He uses Robinson’s text message as fuel, too.
“There was pressure, but I’ve been through pressure since high school,” Lewis said. “The way to beat pressure is to go out there and make plays and win. That’s basically the main thing, just be confident in what you do. You don’t want to get caught up in the pressure and all the expectations and everything like that.”