In addition to being a 157-pound cornerback, Keenan Lewis was a kick and punt returner his senior season at O. Perry Walker High School in New Orleans. And a pretty good one, too, according to one of his former coaches.
But, after the third game of the 2003 season, Chargers coach Frank Wilson decided he needed to find a way to get the fastest player on his team on the field. So he replaced Lewis with a junior wide receiver named Mike Wallace.
"The rest, as they say, is history," said David Johnson, who was the offensive coordinator/wide receivers coach at Perry Walker. "Keenan never returned a kick again."
That was the beginning of Wallace's career as a return specialist, and all he did his senior season in high school was return four kickoffs for touchdowns, four punts for touchdowns, and have another seven called back. It was part of a spectacular season in which he scored 27 touchdowns for the Chargers and accepted a scholarship to Oregon State.
But the only way he was going to Oregon State was if Lewis, his best friend since the two were kids growing up in the Cutoff section of Algiers, a neighborhood of New Orleans, went with him.
"The people at Oregon State saw the highlight tape and they told Keenan to pack his bags," said Johnson, head coach at St. Augustine High School in New Orleans. "So Keenan went to Oregon State."
As it turned out, Lewis and Wallace never played together at Oregon State.
When Wilson, his head coach during his sophomore and junior seasons in high school, accepted a position as running backs coach at Mississippi, Wallace transferred to Ole Miss without enrolling at Oregon State to be with his former coach.
"I was a little upset he didn't go to Oregon State," Lewis said. "But he made the best choice for him and I am happy for him."
Five years later, the best friends are reunited again. They were each selected in the third round by the Steelers -- Wallace with the 84th overall pick and Lewis with the 96th -- two childhood chums from the tough West Bank side of New Orleans getting to share a locker room all over again.
And getting to face each other in practice.
Wallace, the second-fastest wide receiver in the draft who was timed at 4.28 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine; and Lewis, a tough, physical cornerback who has added 50 pounds since high school and weighs 208. The two celebrated their selection together, just like old times, at Wallace's house in New Orleans yesterday.
"This is crazy," Wallace said. "I never thought in a million years we'd be on the same team. And for us to be on the same team and go in the same round, around the same time, is one of the better things that could have happened."
With the Steelers, Lewis will be no better than the No. 4 cornerback this season, playing behind Ike Taylor, William Gay and nickel back Deshea Townsend and competing with another rookie, fifth-round pick Joe Burnett of Central Florida. But secondary coach Ray Horton said Lewis is comparable to Taylor because of his size and ability to run (4.55 in the 40). Because he is so physical, Lewis can be used to bump receivers at the line of scrimmage, something Horton said comes in handy when playing teams such as the Arizona Cardinals, who have two physical receivers, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.
"You have to be physical to play in this game," Horton said. "You can be a cover corner if you want to be a cover corner, but you better pick the ball off, and there are not a lot of guys that do that because cornerbacks are so good. You have to stop the run to make them throw the ball, and he is a big physical corner, a la Ike Taylor."
Lewis appreciated the comparison to Taylor, who was born in New Orleans and attended Louisiana-Lafayette. Lewis worked out before the draft with Taylor at Tom Shaw's Performance Enhancement Center in Orlando, Fla.
"I love Ike," Lewis said. "It's a blessing to be working with him."
And be reunited with his best friend.
"For those guys to get to the NFL and then be on the same team, it's truly a blessing," Johnson said.
Gerry Dulac can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .