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AGAINST ALL ODDS: C’yontai Lewis overcame misfortunes in journey to joining Florida Gators

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C'yontai Lewis

Florida tight end C'yontai Lewis overcame everything from his mother getting run over by two trucks to his father being sentenced to life in prison to him being ruled ineligible to play high school football.

Ben Hill Griffin Stadium has finally quieted down.

Florida’s marching band — once blaring the tunes of “Gator Maximus” and “Hey! Baby” — has packed up its instruments and vacated the bleachers.

UF fans — once screaming at the top of their lungs as burly, sweaty men collided into each other for three-and-a-half hours — have trudged out of the exits and stomped onto Gale Lemerand Drive.

Public address announcer Jack O’Brien — once bellowing his voice through the facility’s loudspeakers — has turned off his microphone and disappeared out of the press box.

It’s a fitting end to the 2017 Gators football season, one that started with an emphatic, booming roar and ended with a faint, barely audible whimper. Almost everyone in attendance at Florida’s final game, a 38-22 shellacking at the hands of Florida State, has left the premises of The Swamp and vanished from the north side of UF’s campus.

It’s Nov. 25 in Gainesville. The Gators’ 16-point loss to the Seminoles has just come to a conclusion 20 minutes ago, knocking Florida’s record down to 4-7 — its worst mark since 2013.

Although only a few people remain in the confines of the stadium, several UF players are still standing on the sidelines. They haven’t retreated to the locker room yet, wanting one last view of the venue their team calls home.

One player in particular, donning the number 80 on his orange and white uniform, takes in the scene around him. His body is rigid and his helmet, still perched atop his head, glistens in the sunlight. His eyes swivel from the student section to the scoreboard as his gloved hands and sleeved arms hang at his sides.

He gives one final glance at the mostly empty seats and starts to stroll toward the Gators’ tunnel.

His name is C’yontai Lewis.

C’yontai, like many of his teammates, didn’t have an easy journey on his way to becoming a Division I football player. No one works their way up to one of the top programs in the country without overcoming some form of adversity.

But not many athletes have experienced what C’yontai has. And that’s a grave understatement.

Whether it was his mother getting run over by two trucks, his father being sentenced to life in prison, him being ruled ineligible to play high school football or him having to live with a surrogate family, nothing about C’yontai’s life has been ordinary.

Every time he steps onto a football field, he is reminded that he beat the odds. He wasn’t supposed to make it this far.

But he did, and this Saturday — exactly 140 days since Florida’s season-ending loss to FSU — C’yontai and his teammates will play in front of their home fans at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium once again for UF’s annual Orange and Blue Game.

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C'yontai Lewis

C'yontai Lewis and the rest of Florida's football team is competing in UF's annual Orange and Blue Game on Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

It’s a big year for the Gators under first-year coach Dan Mullen. C’yontai, a redshirt senior, is expected to be the team’s No. 1 option at tight end following the departure of fellow position-mate DeAndre Goolsby, giving him an opportunity he hasn’t had so far at Florida.

“I’m just excited. (The new coaches) use the tight end,” C’yontai said. “We get the ball a lot now.”

Coming off a disappointing 2017 campaign that saw him register only seven catches for 42 yards and one touchdown, it’s hard for C’yontai to not be excited about a new regime coming to Gainesville.

But in order to fully appreciate what’s expected of him this season, it needs to be explained what C’yontai has overcome, a journey that began in his hometown of Eutaw, Alabama. 

•   •   •

To this day, C’yontai’s mother, Lametrius Lewis, isn’t exactly sure how the first truck managed to hit her. It’s all a blur in her mind.

The only thing she remembers is jogging on the right side of a road near her house. Then, it all goes black.

It was the morning of Oct. 1, 2008, in Eutaw, a town located in western Alabama.

Lametrius had just dropped off C’yontai, then a seventh grader, and his sister C’yonna, then a third grader, at their bus stop.

Lametrius enjoyed working out in the early hours of the day and decided to go jogging on a back road nearby. Cars rarely traveled on this particular pathway, making it an ideal spot for people to exercise.

Ten minutes into her run, however, her life was turned upside down.

As she trotted up the two-way street, a truck driving in the opposite lane swerved to its left and plowed into her without warning, leaving her unconscious in the middle of the gravel. The driver didn’t stop to see if she was OK, leaving Lametrius behind as the vehicle sped away.

“I was left for dead,” she said. “I don’t remember anything after I got hit.”

As Lametrius’ body lay sprawled out on the ground for several minutes, another truck approached her. The driver, a 72-year-old man, didn’t see her in front of him.

He drove straight over her, breaking her shoulder and hips, crushing both of her ankles and fracturing her face.

Lametrius snapped back to consciousness, unsure of what had taken place. She felt no pain in her splintered body but knew something was wrong. She could feel flesh splattered all over her cheeks.

The 72-year-old man, who identified himself to her only as Mr. Fowler, called 911 and requested an ambulance. Paramedics rushed her to the DCH Regional Medical Center in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where she underwent emergency surgery for the next 12 hours.

C’yontai and C’yonna were devastated.

“It was just hard,” C’yontai said. “I really just thought that my mom was going to die.”

But after successfully undergoing the surgery, Lametrius was stabilized and placed in the hospital’s intensive care unit over the next week. She then moved to a regular room for another month but was told by her physician, Dr. William Standeffer, that she may never walk again.

C’yontai and C’yonna, meanwhile, were staying with their grandmother, Bessie Lewis. They went several weeks without seeing Lametrius due to a fear of hospitals. As days went by without visiting her, the two siblings had nightmares about their mother and struggled to sleep.

“They had questions of, ‘Why did someone hit my mom?’” Lametrius said. “‘Why was my mom left out there?’”

Once three weeks passed by, C’yontai and C’yonna finally entered their mother’s room to greet her for the first time since the accident.

Lametrius had a tube going down her nose, a cast on her left leg and IVs in both of her arms. Bandages on her face had recently been removed, revealing her wounds to her two young children.

C’yontai and C’yonna jumped into bed with her, remaining silent as they looked over their recovering mother. They eventually lay down next to her, taking comfort in the fact they were reunited with her once again.

“I was just worried about her,” C’yontai said. “Not sure if she was going to be OK or not.”

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C'yontai Lewis/Lametrius Lewis/C'yonna Lewis

Florida tight end C'yontai Lewis stands with his sister, C'yonna (left), and his mother, Lametrius (right).

After spending another week in the hospital, Lametrius was finally discharged and sent home. She was in a wheelchair, but Dr. Standeffer still wasn’t sure if she’d ever be able to walk again.

Her doctor’s skepticism initially rang true. Lametrius was stuck in her house for the next six months, unable to do anything for herself without the help of Bessie, C’yontai or C’yonna. 

C’yontai woke up early every morning and walked into his mother’s room to see if she needed his assistance. After school ended in the afternoon, he’d come home and help her use the bathroom, carrying her over to a bedside commode she couldn’t reach on her own.

“He was good about helping me as much as he could,” Lametrius said.

But as time wore on, Lametrius started to regain her health. She went from using a wheelchair to using a walker, and then from a walker to a cane.

In July 2009, just nine months after Mr. Fowler’s truck crushed her legs and ankles like a medicine ball rolling over eggshells, Lametrius took her first steps without the use of a mobility aid.

“I was determined to get back up and get back to work because I knew I had two kids to feed,” she said. “I knew I had things I had to take care of.”

C’yontai, in awe of his mother’s resiliency, started taking athletics more seriously. If Lametrius could defy the odds and walk on her own less than a year after being left for dead in the middle of a road, he could accomplish anything he wanted to on a football field.

And once he got to high school, he started to excel. In his junior year, he caught four touchdowns and notched 313 receiving yards, leading to scholarship offers from Mississippi State, Notre Dame and — on May 23, 2013 — Florida.

C’yontai, who grew up a Gators fan during the era of Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow, committed to UF right away.

Things were looking up for the talented tight end. He was set to play football at his dream school. His mother was healthy and walking better than ever.

But during the summer before his senior year, he was blindsided by a piece of news that put his ability to play the game he loved in jeopardy.

“I was just praying everyday,” Lametrius said. “I didn’t know what we were going to do.”

•   •   •

The Alabama High School Athletic Association made its decision in June 2013.

It sent two letters. One to Northridge High School. The other to Tuscaloosa County High School.

In Northridge’s letter, the school was informed it had been fined $300, placed on probation and needed to forfeit every football and basketball game it had won over the previous 10 months.

In Tuscaloosa County’s letter, the message was much simpler. C’yontai Lewis was banned from playing sports in the Alabama public school system during his senior year.

“It came out of nowhere,” Lametrius said.

One year earlier, C’yontai had just completed his sophomore season at Greene County High School in Eutaw when he and his mother decided he needed to transfer.

He was quickly becoming one of the top athletes in the area, leading the school’s football team to a state playoff berth and averaging 15 points per game with the school’s basketball team, but hadn’t received any attention from college scouts.

Wanting her son to land an athletic scholarship at a Division I university, Lametrius set her sights on Northridge — located 40 minutes away in Tuscaloosa — which had recently produced then-Mississippi State player Malcolm Johnson and then-Alabama player Vinnie Sunseri.

Lametrius enrolled C’yontai at Northridge for his junior year and moved him in with his uncle, Robert Lewis, who resided in the school’s zoning area. One month later, she and C’yonna found a place to live in Northport, Alabama, a nearby town located just outside of Northridge’s zone.

Lametrius was told by the school’s coaching staff that as long as C’yontai continued to live with Robert and documentation was provided proving his home was in the area, her son would be eligible to play at Northridge.

She followed those instructions and C’yontai spent his junior season with the Jaguars, leading to his eventual scholarship offer from Florida.

“He was so excited,” Lametrius said about C’yontai’s commitment to UF. “He ran in the house to tell me.”

However, in March of that year, Robert’s job forced him to relocate to Birmingham, Alabama, giving C’yontai no other choice than to move out of Northridge’s zoning area and back in with his mother and sister.

He continued to attend Northridge for the rest of the spring and played in all of its basketball games. Despite there being nowhere else for him to live, the move would ultimately cost C’yontai his high school eligibility as he'd violated a rule that transfer students must live in their new zoning area for at least nine months.

Later that summer, Lametrius transferred C’yontai again, this time to Tuscaloosa County High School, which was located in the zone affiliated with her house in Northport. While reviewing the change, the Alabama High School Athletic Assocation discovered C’yontai’s violation.

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C'yontai Lewis

C'yontai Lewis was ruled ineligible to play football his senior year by the Alabama High School Association after he violated transfer rules during his junior season.

The association sent the aforementioned letters to both schools involved, penalizing Northridge for allowing C’yontai to participate in athletics and informing Tuscaloosa County its newest student was ineligible to play on its football and basketball teams.

Lametrius was heartbroken.

“I really had to ask God, ‘What do we do now?’” she said. “I didn’t feel like we’d done anything wrong.”

Unsure of the possible implications it could have on C’yontai’s future at UF, Lametrius became determined to find a private school her son could attend that would allow him to play football his senior year.

She looked at local options like Tuscaloosa Academy and received interest from other schools in Georgia and Mississippi.

But something didn’t feel right to her. None of the places she looked at seemed like the proper fit.

One day, Lametrius and several women from her church prayed for C’yontai. They prayed he’d find a place to play football his senior year. They prayed nothing would happen to his athletic scholarship at Florida. They prayed he’d continue to stay on a good path.

What happened next, however, shocked Lametrius.

As she recalls to this day, one of the women in her group claimed God spoke back to her, telling her He had a solution.

“God used her to tell me that He was going to send a white man to help me with C’yontai,” Lametrius said. “This man was going to teach C’yontai how to be a man. He was going to mold C’yontai. He was going to mentor C’yontai.

“And so in my mind I’m like, ‘Well who is this white man?’”

•   •   •

Shane Sumrall sat in his office and glanced down at the newspaper lying on his desk.

It was June 2013 in Birmingham, Alabama. Shane, an attorney for McGriff, Seibels and Williams, Inc. — an insurance brokerage firm — picked up the paper and flipped to the sports section.

Immediately, he noticed C’yontai’s picture. A story had been written about the Alabama High School's Athletic Assocation's decision to rule him ineligible for the upcoming football season.

Shane, whose sons Gavin and Gage had briefly played with C’yontai in a seven-on-seven football league, recognized C’yontai’s face and felt the urge to help.

“I started looking into it,” he said. “I knew that it was going to be devastating for him.”

Shane reached out to Lametrius through the former seven-on-seven coach and made a proposition: C’yontai could live with him and his family in Alabaster, Alabama — located an hour and 15 minutes west of Northport — and attend his sons’ private school, Kingwood Christian, during his senior year. It would give C’yontai an opportunity to play high school sports, and it wouldn’t cost his mother a dime.

Lametrius, who’d been wondering for weeks if her son was going to get to play football that upcoming fall, felt a sigh of relief course through her body.

“A calm just came over me,” she said. “God had to come and remind me, ‘Didn’t I tell you I was going to send a white man?’”

However, C’yontai had reservations. He didn’t want to leave his mother and sister, and he didn’t know the Sumralls very well. But after taking a few days to think it over, Lametrius convinced him to accept the offer.

“There’s nowhere you can go that you’re going to be able to play football,” she remembers telling him. “You can stay here and sit out, or you can go up there and play.”

Shane and his wife, Kristina, had previous experience housing kids who needed a place to live. Several years prior, they took in two brothers — ages 10 and 8 — who stayed with them for several months. They housed another boy as well who lived with them on and off until his senior year of high school.

Just like they’d done with the previous kids who stayed in their house, they wanted C’yontai to feel at home.

Before he moved in, Shane and Kristina painted C’yontai’s new bedroom "Florida blue" and decorated it with Gators merchandise.

“We wanted him to feel like, ‘This is yours,’” Shane said. “We wanted to make it C’yontai’s room.”

But unbeknownst to Shane, a place to play football wasn’t the only thing missing in C’yontai’s life.

The talented tight end never had a male role model to look up to throughout his childhood and teenage years.

C’yontai’s father, Marlin Powell, was convicted of attempted murder on June 26, 2001, after he shot a man in the head on May 23, 2000. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole and placed in the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama.

With his dad behind bars the majority of his life, C’yontai desperately wanted — and needed — a father figure to lean on.

“C’yontai told me several times, ‘Mom, you can’t be the momma and the daddy,’” Lametrius said. “’I need a man to tell me how to do things.’”

After going 17 years with that void inside of him, C’yontai finally filled it with Shane.

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C'yontai Lewis, Shane Sumrall

With his father in prison on a life sentence, C'yontai Lewis has found a male role in Shane Sumrall, the husband of a surrogate family C'yontai stayed with during his senior year of high school.

A couple days into the process of transporting his belongings over to the Sumralls’ home, Shane told C’yontai how excited he was to be housing him for the next 10 months.

“I don’t want you to think this is all about football,” Shane said to the teenager. “This is an opportunity for you to come and be a part of the family. That’s our goal.”

C’yontai responded by confiding in Shane that he didn’t have a single friend whose father wasn’t either dead or in prison, a jarringly candid statement that broke the ice between the twosome.

From that moment forward, they built a bond — and a trust — that has continued to grow to this day.

“He was really looking for a male role model, and we just hit it off,” Shane said. “(Kristina and I) have always had kids that stayed with us and that we’ve tried to help out, but C’yontai is one of the first ones that really came in and wanted to be part of the family. He was looking for something more than just a place to stay.”

C’yontai did everything with the Sumralls during his senior year. He went to dinner with them. He traveled with them. He even spent Christmas with them and got to meet Shane’s extended side of the family.

“He was just one of us,” Shane said. “He wanted to be engaged.”

C’yontai also had an impressive season on the football field, catching 45 passes for 703 yards and 10 touchdowns. He helped lead the Lions to a 9-4 record and recorded five receptions in a 36-21 playoff victory over Fort Dale Academy.

When the year came to an end, C’yontai graduated from Kingwood Christian and moved down to Gainesville to begin his career at Florida. However, he still keeps in close contact with the Sumralls and visits them whenever he's back in Alabama.

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C'yontai Lewis, Sumrall Family

C'yontai Lewis sits with the Sumrall family. From left to right: Gavin (son), Kristina (mother), Gage (son), Shane (father), Payton (son).

“They took my son in their home and they treated him like he was theirs,” Lametrius said. “We’re just one big family now.”

•   •   •

When C’yontai takes the field on Saturday for Florida’s Orange and Blue Game, it will mark the beginning of the end of his collegiate career.

The redshirt senior has one final season to achieve his goal of winning a conference championship, something he reminds himself of everyday when he walks into his bathroom.

Tacked on the wall, next to his mirror, are pieces of white and blue confetti that reigned from the rafters of the Georgia Dome after Alabama demolished UF 54-16 in the 2016 SEC title game. He picked up the shards of paper as he walked off the field that day. When he looks at them now, one and a half years later, the only thing he sees is a reason push harder.

“It’s time for me to step up,” he said. “I think this year’s going to be a big year for us.”

But regardless of whether he or the Gators have a good season in 2018, C’yontai has nothing to hang his head about when looking back on his time in Gainesville.

He wasn’t supposed to have made it this far to begin with.

Whether it was his mother getting run over by two trucks, his father being sentenced to life in prison, him being ruled ineligible to play high school football or him having to live with a surrogate family, C’yontai fought back against all odds to become a college football player, which is an awe-inspiring feat, in and of itself.

Follow Dylan Dixon on Twitter @dylanrdixon and contact him at [email protected].

Dylan Dixon is the sports editor of the Alligator. He has previously covered UF men's tennis, UF soccer, UF women's basketball, UF baseball and UF football. He has worked at the paper since Spring 2016.