Staff Photo: Will Hammock Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Kendrick Lewis (left) nominated one of his former coaches, Central Gwinnett's Todd Wofford (right), for the Don Shula NFL High School Coach of the Year Award.
When he arrived in Gainesville, after fleeing Hurricane Katrina, Kendrick Lewis had almost nothing.
A few small bags held his only possessions, the clothes he thought he needed for a short trip to evacuate after the 2005 catastrophe. Like many from New Orleans, he expected to return in a few days to his hometown, but the city and his family's house was wiped out by the massive water surge. His high school and all of his school records were destroyed, too.
Lewis, now the Kansas City Chiefs' starting free safety, will never forget the help he got from the Gainesville community. Specifically, he won't forget one of his coaches, current Central Gwinnett head coach Todd Wofford.
That's why the the 24-year-old jumped at the chance to nominate Wofford for the 2012 Don Shula NFL High School Coach of the Year Award. Each NFL team nominates one high school coach, so Wofford is part of an elite group.
"Our media people asked me if there's a coach who I'd like to nominate who really helped me and I said, oh yeah, Todd Wofford," Lewis said. "That's my guy. That's my man. Coach Wofford helped me out when I came and helped me through the tough times. He was more like a father figure and not just a coach in my life. Immediately when they said coach, he's the first one that came to my mind. I had coaches in New Orleans that did some things for me, but the relationship that me and Coach Wofford have is strong so I felt like he was the man for the job."
After Katrina, Lewis stayed with an uncle in Houston and his mother went to Georgia to look for a job. She found one and FEMA housing, a small apartment in Gainesville, so Lewis moved to Georgia because he wanted to play his final high school season where his mother could watch.
They walked into Gainesville High School mid-week as the Red Elephants were in the middle of afternoon practice for their fourth game of the 2005 season. The first coach they met was Wofford.
"We were in the middle of practice and an (assistant principal) called on phone and said come to the office right now," Wofford said. "I thought, oh no, this isn't good. I told (head) Coach (Bruce) Miller I've got to go to the office. The AP told me, peak your head in the counselor's office. I talked to Kendrick and told him to come watch practice when he was done (enrolling). I walked back out and the AP was looking him up on computer, and said he was the number whatever receiver in nation. We had no idea. The rest is history."
An exceptional athlete, Lewis scored a touchdown for Gainesville that Friday, just two days after he enrolled. He didn't play a full season, but put up such big numbers as a two-way starter that he earned all-state honors in his new home.
Off the field, Wofford did just as much for the new student. He secured a grant from a sporting goods company so Lewis could get athletic apparel. He lined up a back-to-school shopping trip to get the newcomer more clothes for school.
"He was just so happy all the time," Wofford said of Lewis. "To go through something like that and be so happy all the time, it was amazing. I tell my kids about coaching him all the time, a big-time kid who loved to practice as much as he liked to play games. He would run from the locker room to the practice field. He was the first kid I coached from New Orleans. I've coached two. And they were the exact same way."
Though Lewis' stay in Gainesville was brief, he kept in touch with Wofford throughout his career, first at Ole Miss and now in the NFL. They talk on the phone and text, like Wofford does with so many of his players.
Now in the offseason, Lewis swung by Central this week for a visit with his old coach. The two chuckled as they watched an old highlight tape from a Gainesville game with Flowery Branch, and Wofford got his first chance to thank Lewis face-to-face for the NFL coaching award nomination.
"It was big (to be nominated)," Wofford said. "It's not big because it's an award for me. It just brought back the memories of all the stuff me and him did. I didn't feel like it was something that was out of this world to do. I mean, this kid had nothing. I just tried to help him out. He was down and out, rock bottom. No clothes. No house. They were gone.
"You love to see someone coming from that have the success that he's had."
Wofford expects to hear soon if he's one of the three finalists for the prestigious NFL honor. Each of those finalists will receive a $2,500 cash award and a $5,000 grant for his football program.
The overall winner will receive an additional $7,500 cash award and $10,000 for his football program. The national winner also gets an all-expenses paid trip to Super Bowl XLVII --conveniently in New Orleans, Lewis' hometown.
"If we win, we're going back home," Wofford laughed as he told Lewis. "The nomination is exciting. I'm excited to see if we win. I want to know. Everybody wants to know. I think it would be a great story with everything New Orleans has been through. This kid came through New Orleans during its worst time, but New Orleans is back and this kid is successful. It would be a cool deal. But just to be nominated for this is really special."