Tragedy helped sharpen fo­cus for Eastern CB Lewis

The News Tribune - - Sports - BY RYAN COLLING­WOOD The Spokesman-Re­view

A cap-and-gown clad Josh Lewis car­ried a heavy heart across the stage of Eastern Wash­ing­ton’s spring com­mence­ment.

Earn­ing a crim­i­nal jus­tice de­gree is of­ten a joy­ous oc­ca­sion, but Lewis, EWU’s trusty de­fen­sive back, had yet to shake the grief that con­sumed him the night be­fore.

Driv­ing back from his home­town of Ta­coma on June 15, Lewis was near­ing the Cheney exit when he was hit with a flurry of phone calls and text mes­sages.

When he pulled off to the side of the road to re­spond, he learned friend and for­mer Steila- coom High team­mate Fotu Leiato was killed in a ve­hi­cle crash that morn­ing.

Leiato, a safety who ap­peared in 13 games dur­ing Ore­gon’s 2017 sea­son, was the pas­sen­ger in a Kia sedan that crashed and rolled around 2:30 a.m. near Autzen Sta­dium in Eu­gene, ac­cord­ing to po­lice.

The driver, Pe­dro Chavarin, told po­lice he didn’t have any pas­sen­gers. A pedes­trian later found Leiato’s body in bushes near the site of the crash. Chavarin was charged with sec­ond­de­gree man­slaugh­ter, DUI and reck­less driv­ing.

“It was sad. I had never ex­pe­ri­enced any­thing like that be­fore,”

said Lewis, a fifth-year se­nior whose Ea­gles (10-2) face UC Davis (10-2) on Satur­day at Roos Field in the FCS quar­ter­fi­nals. “I was pretty upset. I can’t imag­ine what his fam­ily went through. It was hard, but part of God’s plan.”

Leiato’s brother, An­thony Leiato, was a fresh­man line­backer at EWU last sea­son. Weeks be­fore his death, Fotu Leiato was in Cheney vis­it­ing his brother and voiced his in­tent on po­ten­tially trans­fer­ring to EWU, Lewis said. Leiato was dis­missed from Ore- gon’s foot­ball team in March be­cause of a vi­o­la­tion of team rules.

The loss of Leiato, a young man Lewis de­scribed as gen­uine and “al­ways played like his hair was on fire,” put things in per­spec­tive for Lewis go­ing into his fi­nal col­lege sea­son.

“It’s sad that some­thing like this makes you re­al­ize that you re­ally can’t take any­thing for granted,” Lewis said. “You have to go out there and play like it’s your last play, and live life like it’s your last day, be­cause you never know

“Ev­ery day is a bless­ing, and (col­lege foot­ball) is a great op­por­tu­nity.”

Lewis and Eastern Wash- in­g­ton’s stingy de­fense have ad­hered to that ap­proach. EWU lim­ited con­fer­ence foes to a Big Sky-low 16.9 points per game. The Ea­gles rank 18th in the FCS in scor­ing de­fense (21.2 ppg), 20th in forced turnovers (25) and are first in de­fen­sive touch­downs (six).

It’s a sub­stan­tial im­prove­ment from last year’s unit that yielded 33.3 points and forced 13 turnovers.

Lewis has 43 tack­les and three of his team’s 15 in­ter­cep­tions and has bro­ken up a team-high nine passes.

“This is where we planned to be,” said Lewis, a sec­ond-team All-Big Sky cor­ner­back. “We sat down as a de­fense this off­sea­son and voiced what we wanted to do. We set a stan­dard and did the ex­tra things like player-led meet­ings and work­outs to get to this point.”

EWU cor­ner­backs coach Chero­kee Va­le­ria isn’t sur­prised Lewis has helped take charge.

“Un­be­liev­able per­son,” Va­le­ria said of Lewis, who sports a 3.54 GPA and is con­sid­er­ing a ca­reer as a de­tec­tive or fraud in­ves­ti­ga­tor. “A high-char­ac­ter fam­ily man who has had the same girl­friend for­ever.

“Josh has been the starter this long be­cause of what he does off the field. There’s been guys around him in the past who’ve been even with him in skill, but he’ll never al­low them to pass him be­cause how he leads by ex­am­ple, the ex­tra work he does in the film room and his com­mu­nity ser­vice.”

Lewis ac­cepted an in­vi­ta­tion to show­case his tal­ent in front of pro scouts at the NFL Play­ers As­so­ci­a­tion Col­le­giate Bowl in Jan­uary, a post­sea­son all-star game for draftel­igi­ble play­ers.

His brother, Sean Lewis, played line­backer at Cen­tral Wash­ing­ton in the 1990s and had a cup of cof­fee in the NFL, Josh Lewis said.

Lewis said he plans to train for pro day after the sea­son, but his fo­cus is com­plet­ing a sea­son sweep of Big Sky foe UC Davis, a team the Ea­gles han­dled 59-20 last month in Cheney.

EWU’s se­condary lim­ited the Ag­gies’ Wal­ter Pay­ton Award can­di­date Jake

Maier to 23-for-42 pass­ing for 195 yards with two in­ter­cep­tions. It also held

NFL prospect Kee­lan Doss to five catches for 70 yards.

“(UC Davis) is a big-play team, so that’s some­thing we’re go­ing to have to limit,” Lewis said. “And what hap­pened last game doesn’t mean it’s go­ing to hap­pen this game. It’s hard to beat a team twice in a sea­son.”

YOUNG KWAK AP

Eastern Wash­ing­ton’s Josh Lewis, right, and Mitch Fet­tig, left, tackle Wash­ing­ton State wide re­ceiver Davon­tavean Martin on Sept. 15. Lewis played at Steila­coom High School, and Fet­tig played at Olympia.

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