Former O. Perry Walker star Lewis makes splash in first game with Saints

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD --  New Orleans cornerback Keenan Lewis hits Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Harry Douglas, causing a fumble, during the first quarter of  the Saints' 23-17 win Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- New Orleans cornerback Keenan Lewis hits Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Harry Douglas, causing a fumble, during the first quarter of the Saints' 23-17 win Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Former O. Perry Walker star Lewis enjoys first game with Saints

Keenan Lewis made it. So many others didn’t.

Call it one of life’s cruel quirks.

A high school football star in New Orleans leaves for Oregon State and years later returns to play for his hometown NFL franchise.

Meanwhile, one of his former prep teammates — just as talented in the secondary, if not more, fails to enjoy the same football journey of a lifetime.

While Lewis spent last Sunday afternoon running out of the tunnel at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome as the Saints opened the 2013 season, Daryl Johnson was nowhere near the field.

“He definitely could be here,” Lewis said after the Saints beat Atlanta 23-17. “That’s one of those special athletes. I’m pretty sure if he had a second opportunity, he would here. He’d be a starter.”

The Saints (1-0) play at Tampa Bay (0-1) on Sunday.

Although the former teammates didn’t make it to the NFL together, they are here together, in a way. They still watch film together, Lewis said.

“He still helps me out,” Lewis said. “I appreciate his time in helping me out. Still watch film with him.”

Sunday’s game, Lewis’ first with the Saints, should be a moment of reflection this week. Lewis joined a small number of New Orleans natives to play for the Saints, most recently Michael Lewis.

“I think I got too hyped for this game beforehand,” Lewis said. “Next week, I’ve got to take it down a notch.”

When Lewis was in Sunday’s game, he helped the Saints curtail perhaps the best receiving duo in the NFL, holding Roddy White to two catches for 19 yards and Julio Jones to seven catches for 76 yards and one touchdown. Without him, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan picked on his replacements, Patrick Robinson and Corey White.

Against Atlanta, Lewis had two tackles and one forced fumble.

Johnson was likely watching, living his dream through Lewis.

Johnson, who played safety, committed to Miami, but signed with LSU in February 2003. He was ineligible that fall semester. It is believed he left for a junior college before trying to catch on at Southern University, the end of his journey.

“(Alabama coach) Nick Saban still talks about this guy,” Landry-Walker coach Emmanuel Powell said. “It’s unreal.”

Better than Lewis, his friend. Better than former Chargers Mike Wallace, even Craig Davis.

“If you ask anybody here who was here during the 2000s who’s the best player to come through Walker, Darryl Johnson’s name is always going to come up,” Powell said. “If you ask any coach, Tulane, wherever, they’re going to say Darryl Johnson. Best ever.”

Just because you make it to the NFL doesn’t mean you were always the best.

No wonder Powell said Lewis wouldn’t make his all-time list of best football players at O.Perry Walker, now known as Landry-Walker. That’s actually a compliment, a testament to Lewis’ work ethic that transformed him into one of the most successful from the program.

After becoming a standout cornerback and academic achiever at Oregon State, Lewis was selected by Pittsburgh in the third round of the 2009 NFL Draft. He worked his way up the depth chart for three seasons before earning his first shot starting job in 2012.

His offseason, he departed for the Saints, who considered an upgrade at cornerback vital to their future defensive success.

“I asked him during the week, ‘Is this going to be a big ticket week for you,’ “ coach Sean Payton said. “Once you do that, there’s a saying: Once is forever. All of a sudden, if there’s 28 tickets in Week 1, there’s probably going to be 28 tickets for every home game. He told me he was limiting it to six or eight.

“More than anything else, being a part of a win. ... I’m sure it carries some special meaning. But he’s going to play home a lot here now, so I thought he handled all of that pretty well.”

Even now, his attention of details is part of who he is.

“I’m trying to keep getting better and better every day,” he said. “That’s what I did, and that’s why I’m here today.”