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Carolina Panthers

Damien Lewis brings his old soul and nasty protective streak to Carolina

Damien Lewis

CHARLOTTE— Damien Lewis exudes a controlled calmness.

"They say I got an old spirit."

With a dripping accent that draws to mind rocking chairs, magnolia trees and someone that has seen it all in their time, the 27-year-old Canton, Mississippi native admits he doesn't necessarily know what that means.

"I'm still to this day trying to define it," Lewis laughed.

But it doesn't take long talking to the Panthers new offensive guard to get an idea. Nothing detracts him because he's already made it through the worse. Nothing will harm that which he loves because he's molded into a protector. Nothing flusters him because he's been forged in a life of uncertain chaos, seeing more in less than three decades than some experience in a lifetime.

At a young age, Lewis realized he was bigger, stronger, tougher than everyone else on the playground.

"Pick up, mess up, that what we used to call it; we throw it in the crowd, somebody pick it up, they got to get messed up," Lewis recalled, about his childhood version of the classic sandlot game.

"So, I was one old guy who would try to pick the ball up and I already, 'come on, mess me up.' But they couldn't get me down though. So, to that day right there, I feel like I could do that. I'm going to deliver the blow."

Damien Lewis

Lewis lived the first nine years of his life on the Gulf Coast, in Biloxi, Mississippi. The small beach town sits right on the water, with nothing but Spanish Moss and prayers to protect it when storms roll in. When Hurricane Katrina pounded the Gulf Coast in 2005, the Lewis family, like thousands around the Gulf, found themselves in a flattened, flooded bog, their home washed away, and effectively their life as well.

"Just being in that action, seeing that water, we were stuck," Lewis shared. "Thank God we still here.

"That damaged a lot of people for life. A lot of people, still to this day, didn't recover from it. But thank God, He had a plan better than my mom because He moved us up and got us out there. And look where I am today."

After the water subsided, the family moved 200 miles north to Canton. Lewis' dad was incarcerated at the time, leaving the nine-year old feeling responsible for his three younger brothers.

"I can't do what kids my age were doing because I had to take care of my brother and had to grow up real early," Lewis recalled.

And in Canton, he found a village that not only helped with that responsibility but took the gentle giant under their wing as well.

"I felt the love in Canton. Been there ever since. That's home. Nothing better than that," Lewis said. "It's a joy to my family there. My pastor's there. Old friends, school friends.

It's where he goes home to refill that spirit and "keep the old man motivated."

Even with the community surrounding their family, the burden of taking care of his siblings still weighed on Damien. Every time he stepped on the field, it was with the knowledge that each snap was a snap closer to taking care of his family. He never missed a game while playing at LSU, and since entering the league, he's played a minimum of 91 percent of the offensive snaps each of his four years in the NFL (2020 - 91%, 2021 - 93%, 2022 - 97%, 2023 - 95%).

Damien Lewis

It's a draining practice at a position that acts as a batter ram. Last year alone, the Panthers were forced to start seven different left guards, and eight different right guards. But it's the mantra by which Lewis lives, "taking care of everybody off the field, even if you got to sacrifice yourself."

The tenet of any offensive lineman is to protect the quarterback, so Lewis' protective streak works in his favor on the field. He hasn't been able to meet Bryce Young yet, but hopes to soon, if for no other than to start a bond that will be crucial come fall.

"Coming here to the Panthers with Bryce, I'm excited to be here, work with him and especially block for him," Lewis said. "Can't wait to pick his brain and see what he likes, where he's comfortable, what he wants me to do and how he's comfortable back there. His state, so he don't have to move, he can just do his thing."

Lewis spent the last four years in Seattle, blocking for first Russell Wilson, then Geno Smith.

Lewis is quick to praise both, declaring, "I thank God for Russ," and all Wilson did to teach Lewis how to watch film and understand play-calling. "Russ took me and helped me learn a lot and I never looked back. He taught me the game."

The Seahawks transitioned to Smith in 2022, a move of which Lewis said, "Geno took me up to another level; how he sees stuff on the field."

Damien Lewis, Robert Hunt

Perhaps most importantly, Lewis spent time in Seattle with an offensive coaching staff that is now largely in Charlotte. He played under head coach Dave Canales, who was the passing game coordinator Lewis' first two years, and assistant offensive line coach Keli'I Kekuewa, who holds the same position with the Panthers. The fact this staff wanted Lewis to join them in Carolina means more than Lewis can express.

"It means a lot, and it's strong, just showing much they value me," Lewis expressed. "So, I got to come in and make a point. I got to get that fire me and bring it to the team, be the best teammate that I can be for this organization and help us win championships."

From the moment Canales was hired in Carolina, he's stressed the importance of the interior linemen, particularly in relation to Young's progression. He told reporters at the NFL combine that "guard play, center play, is really big" as Young develops and "specifically if you get big, massive guys who can kind of anchor the pocket, then that helps."

Lewis is 6-2, and 327 pounds, so he fits the standard. He'll line up at left guard and be joined by the Panthers other free agent signing, Robert Hunt, who is 6-6, and 323 pounds at right guard. Austin Corbett will move in to center and provide point, at 6-4, 305 pounds.

And as docile as Lewis can be in every other facet of his life, the old spirit is nowhere to be seen on the field. He wants the trio of he, Hunt and Corbett to be known as "mean, tough and nasty."

Lewis says he's nasty, Corbett is mean, and Hunt is tough. "That three in the middle got to be firm so that quarterback can have time and see down the field," he explained, "I think that three need to be stout in front. Mean, tough and nasty."

The descriptors sound slightly ironic coming from the smooth voice of such a gentle giant.

But Damien Lewis is controlled calmness, a fierce protector and an old spirit who's been hardened by time and fire and storms.

He's been through hell and back to get to this point.

The football field is the culmination of all his sacrifices and the manifestation of all his deepest dreams. Nothing is going to take that away.

The Carolina Panthers were busy in free agency this week, signing multiple players on both sides of the ball. The first wave arrived on Thursday and Friday, getting a tour of Bank of America Stadium, meeting coaches, teammates and taking in their new home.

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