As an aspiring offensive lineman in Canton, Mississippi, Damien Lewis looked up to fellow Mississippian Gabe Jackson, an All-SEC guard at Mississippi State who went on to a successful NFL career with the Raiders.
Years later, Lewis and Jackson are teammates with Seahawks, Lewis having been drafted by Seattle last year and Jackson having signed as a free agent this offseason, and together those two hope to give the Seahawks a physical guard tandem that can help protect Russell Wilson while also paving the way for a successful running game.
"Gabe is from the North, and I'm from the Central part of Mississippi, but I was a fan," Jackson said. "I'm still a fan of Gabe. Coming out of high school, I looked up to Gabe. I told people I wanted to be like Gabe someday, and now I'm on the same team as him."
After looking up to Jackson, Lewis arrived in Seattle displaying some of the same traits that made Jackson a seven-year starter in Oakland and Las Vegas before signing with Seattle.
"I like how he's so nasty," Lewis said. "He's mean. He's tough. He's got a grit, and he always finishes guys. That's one thing that stood out to me with Gabe, to watch his film and how nasty he is. That's my role. I like to be mean, tough, and nasty. Perfect to me."
And now that they're teammates, Lewis respects Jackson, but he isn't going to back down from his more experienced teammates, which is why the two have a friendly wager going this season on who can record more knockdown blocks over the course of the year. Living up to the standard set by Jackson won't be easy, but after a rookie season that saw him earn PFWA All-Rookie Team honors, Lewis is expecting big things out of himself in 2021. After all, he jumped into last season without the benefit of an offseason workout program or a preseason and was still enjoyed a strong season, so there are plenty of reasons to expect Lewis can make a Year 2 leap.
"I have high expectations of myself," he said. "I feel like the sky's the limit for me, and I can't wait to see what this season holds for me. The speed of the game has slowed down a lot. I can see the whole field. I can see the offense and defense, so everything's just slowed down and I feel it out there so, I'm just ready to put it together."
If Lewis does indeed build off of a strong rookie season to become an elite guard this year and beyond, it will hardly come as a surprise to the team that drafted him in the third round last year.
As Seahawks coach Pete Carroll put it at the end of last season when asked about Lewis, "This guy is a championship kid, he's really smart, he's really tough, it's not too big for him, so he's going to have a great career."
Another big believer in Lewis was his college coach, Ed Orgeron, who brough Lewis to LSU from Northwest Mississippi Community College, where Lewis began his college career having had no Division I offers out of tiny Canton High School. And because Orgeron worked for Carroll for four years at USC and the two remained close ever sense, an endorsement from Orgeron carried a lot of weight as Seattle evaluated Lewis.
"We had very, very clear communication with Eddie throughout," Carroll said on Day 2 of last year's draft following the selection of Lewis. "We stay in touch, as a matter of fact, he was the highlight of the post draft pick of Damien Lewis. Everybody got to hear him as he was going on and on about him and how much he loves the kid and all that. Our scouts had great information, it was really helpful, I felt really confident too to see all the connections and why we felt so strongly about Damien from the background checks and all of that. Those kinds of relationships are important. Eddie and I see things squared up, so when he's telling me I'm going to love this kid and I'm going to think the world of him by the way he competes and battles and all of that, I know he's right. That does help."
Lewis changed positions this year, moving to left guard to allow Jackson to stay on his preferred right side, but says that transition has gone smoothly, and with things slowing down following a full season, he's ready to take his game to another level, and yes, to try to win a bet with a player he considered a roll model when he was younger.
"I'm excited for the season," he said. "Everything's calmed down for me and I'm just ready to get out there, because I know that I've worked really hard and I have my teammates behind me. I'm just ready to go. I think the sky's the limit for me. I'm just thankful for God putting me in this position and blessing me with these tools that I have. I'm just trying to see what this season holds for me."
Photos from Seahawks practice, held on Thursday, August 26 at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center in Renton.