New cornerback Keenan Lewis feeling right at home with Saints

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON -- Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis practices at the team's practice facility in Metairie on Thursday, May 23, 2013.
Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON -- Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis practices at the team's practice facility in Metairie on Thursday, May 23, 2013.

San Diego, Oakland, Tennessee, Philadelphia and Atlanta — especially Atlanta — never had a chance.

Not when free agent cornerback Keenan Lewis was being peppered with texts from his mother, Muriel, to “Sign! Sign! Sign!” while he was at Saints headquarters. The O. Perry Walker graduate was there to negotiate what ended up being a five-year, $26.3 million contract — $10 million of it guaranteed with a $6 million signing bonus — negating any need to visit other would-be suitors.

But Muriel’s urgency was not just because the Saints were offering a plum deal, one that enabled her son to surprise her with a house for Mother’s Day. And it wasn’t just because the Lewis family is full of diehard Saints fans who couldn’t bear to see Keenan, who spent the first four years of his career with Pittsburgh, playing for anyone but his hometown team.

The real reason was that Kalise Genie Lewis — Keenan and wife Dannel’s 2-year-old daughter — would be close enough for Maw-Maw to see her whenever she wants.

“Yeah, she put the pressure on me,” Keenan recalled after the Saints’ Thursday organized team activity. “But I’ve always wanted to play for the Saints, too. Before I was drafted, I said some things about it which were disrespectful to other teams. But that’s the way I felt then, and I still do.”

Lewis’ dream of one day being a Saint also was the goal of the Rev. Joseph Lewis, Keenan’s grandfather. He died in 2004, the year Keenan signed with Oregon State.

“When Keenan was little, his grandfather would tell him, ‘If you play as hard as you can, one day you can play for the Saints,’ ” Muriel said. “He would have so much joy about this.”

Keenan agreed.

“He was the biggest Saints fan in the world,” he said. “Since he died, I’ve dedicated every game I played to him. I sure will now.”

Playing for your hometown team can have its pitfalls. Perhaps that’s why there’s surprisingly little of it in the NFL.

Relatives and friends — some you’ve forgotten or never knew in the first place — come out of the woodwork to request tickets, ask for a “loan” or offer a can’t-lose business deal.

“My rookie year, everybody assumed I just got all the tickets I wanted for free,” said Tyrone Hughes, a St. Augustine grad who was the Saints’ fifth-round pick in 1993 and spent four years with the team. “At the end of the season, my mom saw how much they’d charged me and told me, from then on, if somebody wanted something, have them call her. Next year rolled around, and when people would call her and she’d tell them the price, they’d usually say, ‘Let me get back to you’ — and that was the end of it.”

And sometimes reuniting with old friends can lead to more than money problems.

“I tell Keenan all the time that things have changed a lot since he went to Oregon State,” said Muriel, a seventh-grade teacher at Martin Behrman Charter School in Algiers. “A lot of his friends have taken different directions and didn’t make the right choices like Keenan did.”

Lewis following the wrong path seems unlikely. Married to a local girl — Dannel is the daughter of the late Lionel Delpit, also known as Big Chief Black Feather, and the cousin of former OPW teammate Kendrick Lewis (no relation), now a safety with the Kansas City Chiefs — Lewis benefits from being part of a close-knit family. More than that, he wants to use his voice and foundation to “help people to keep from getting caught up in the foolishness” that has inflicted his old West Bank neighborhood.

Plus, Lewis is a five-year veteran, not someone fresh out of college with money in his pocket for the first time. He’s also coming from perhaps the league’s most respected organization in Pittsburgh, where he was mentored by fellow New Orleanians Mike Wallace (an OPW teammate now with Miami), Ike Taylor and Ryan Clark, plus veterans such as Troy Polamalu and Hines Ward.

“Those guys showed me how you take care of your business on and off the field,” Lewis said. “They were great leaders, just like we’ve got here.”

But there still will be expectations to deal with. Not only did the Saints make Lewis their No. 1 target in free agency, they’re counting on him to shore up a secondary that ranked 31st in the league last year, contributing to the worst statistical defense in NFL history.

The Saints look on Lewis as their No. 1 cover corner, probably supplanting former first-round pick Patrick Robinson as a starter. All this for a player who has had only one season in that role under his belt.

Quarterback Bobby Hebert, who prepped at South Lafourche and signed with the Saints in 1985, said being in a spotlight position puts a local player under extreme pressure.

“You can be the quarterback and go to Seattle and (stink) but still come back home,” he said. “But when you’re from here, you’re either the hero or the goat. Remember that guy the Saints signed a few years ago, (cornerback) Jason David, who was so bad? Nobody cared when he left. For Keenan, that’s the worst-case scenario, and it’s not going to happen. I think he’s going to embrace the added pressure.”

He already has.

“Every game won’t have the outcome we hope it will,” he said. “But this is a Super Bowl-caliber team, and I’m going to give it 100 percent to help us get there.”

Lewis’ signing wasn’t just a hometown thing. He said he was heavily influenced by the presence of new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, whom he considers a guru of the 3-4 the caliber of longtime Steelers assistant Dick LeBeau.

“He’s one of the best out there,” Lewis said. “It’s not just the tactical side but the energy he brings to every drill. He always has you up and ready. I’m proud to be working with him.”

But even if Ryan had been elsewhere, Lewis is where he has long wanted to be.

“It still feels a little weird,” he said. “But I’m adjusting to it.”

And so is Maw-Maw.

“They know I’ll baby-sit any time,” Muriel said. “It feels so good to get them back home.”