Marc Lewis heard “Enter Sandman” blare and felt Lane Stadium shake. Maroon- and orange-clad football players surrounded the Virginia Tech director of sports science in the moments before the team rushed onto the field.
It was at this moment when Lewis knew he had come full circle. He thought back on his childhood, his challenges in foster care, and being homeless in nearby Roanoke, Virginia. How he served in the U.S. Army in Iraq in the heyday of Fallujah. How before all of that his grandfather took him to the Virginia Tech football game in which Michael Vick made the ridiculous flip into the endzone against James Madison 20 years earlier.
This was a moment, one of just a handful that a person has in a lifetime, that puts everything into perspective.
“I just couldn’t believe that I was there based on where I was and I couldn’t believe this was real,” Lewis said of the memory of running out of the Lane Stadium tunnel. “I put one foot in front of the other for a very long time to get to that moment.”
On May 15, when Lewis earns his Ph.D. from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise, that next moment arrives.
“Just because we may be in a difficult position with how we’re raised or what we experience doesn’t determine where we can end up,” Lewis said. “You can achieve a lot by just being persistent over a long time.”
Lewis was born in Bluefield, West Virginia, to a mother who struggled with substance abuse and a father he never knew. Struggling financially, his mother abandoned him in the trailer they were living in to go with a guy to Atlanta, Georgia.
After someone heard Lewis crying in the trailer off U.S. 460, his biological grandmother took him in temporarily while he was in the court system. She pursued custody of Lewis, but his mother returned, filed for custody herself, and was denied. The mother then lied, telling law enforcement that the grandmother was abusing Lewis, and Lewis ended up in the foster care system, bouncing from home to home for years.
Lewis finally ended up with a family he considered his own, but because his mother refused to sign the adoption papers, he was sent back to live with her. His mom would disappear for long periods, leaving Lewis with random people. This was the first time that Lewis remembers physical abuse from a babysitter, and he ended up back in social services.
Finally, Lewis lived with his grandmother again, who had relocated to Roanoke with her husband, a blue-collar railroad worker who took Lewis to Virginia Tech football games and was a positive influence.
In 2001, when Lewis was 14, he walked into his step-grandfather’s room and found him lying on the floor. “I tried to give him CPR,” said Lewis. “I didn’t know he was already dead. With what happened to my grandmother, I didn’t have anyone to live with.”
Lewis moved in with another foster family in Roanoke, but the man who lived there had a short fuse and drank excessively.
“We got into a fight, and there was a fireplace with some chimney pokers nearby. He grabbed one and came at me and caught me a couple of times,” Lewis said. “He got me once on the neck. I left and went out on my own.”
Lewis was around 15 years old when he began to sleep on the streets.
“I slept wherever I could find shelter, such as under bridges in Roanoke,” Lewis said.
The last formal education he had was a month of ninth grade. He got under-the-table jobs at a construction site and a local fast-food restaurant. Lewis saved up some money and eventually lived with a co-worker who ended up being a drug dealer.
“One thing that amazes me was how I was surrounded by drugs – like coke and meth – and by the grace of God I never partook in any of it,” Lewis said. “I easily could have done drugs and become addicted because that’s all I was around, and I had nothing.”
After working for around a year, a manager at another restaurant connected Lewis with a child attorney. He was advised to become an emancipated minor, which opened him up to state assistance. As a result, Lewis was able to get an affordable apartment and had a roof over his head.
Eventually, Lewis went to an adult education center in Bluefield to study for his GED, where he caught the eye of a military recruiter.
“I thought it was a way out, and it seemed almost too good to be true,” he said. “You sign up and get a paycheck? I know it wasn’t much, but to me, I had no idea what to do with all the money. Plus, they paid for my GED.”
Lewis hadn’t been taking classes for long, but the military wanted him to take the GED anyway to see how much more studying he had to do before passing. He passed on the first try, just weeks after starting classes at the adult education center.
Even more importantly, the Army gave Lewis motivation and meaning.
“I felt like if I died that day, no one would care and my life wouldn’t matter,” Lewis said. “That recruiter gave me a meaning and a purpose to my life.”
A meaning and a purpose
Earning his GED opened the door to the military, which, in turn, would open the door to college courses.
Lewis started in the infantry, excelled in boot camp, and was promoted to airborne infantry in short order. It was the height of the war in Iraq and the Middle East. The unit to which Lewis was assigned was already deployed, which meant that he was a replacement infantryman.
With his unit already deployed, he signed his will, had his wisdom teeth pulled, and was off to war.
In 48 hours, Lewis did last-minute training in Fort Worth, Texas, and boarded a plane to Kuwait before going to Baghdad, Iraq, and onward to Camp Fallujah before finally arriving at Observation Point Omar.
He arrived in the middle of the night, caught some shuteye, and awoke to gunshots.
They were under attack.
“I was told to keep my head down and to do what I was told. That was my introduction,” said Lewis, who earned his combat infantry badge on day one.
The area was a hotspot in 2005 and 2006. Sometime in his first two weeks, he gunned down a car from an observation tower that was attacking the camp.
About three months after his arrival, he was in a Humvee manning the machine gun when the vehicle ran over an IED. Lewis was ejected out of the turret and knocked unconscious.
Just a month later, he was with a team that was at a stop directing traffic when they were fired upon. “The next thing you know people are dying and you’re carrying them to the med tent and blood is everywhere,” Lewis said. “You look at a guy’s eyes as you carry him, and he’s dying as you try to get him to the med tent.”
Those four months had a lasting impact that changed the next decade of his life and forever changed who Lewis was as a person.
Pursuing a dream
The entire reason Lewis joined the military was to get a college degree, so when he returned to the United States after serving his country, he made that his top priority. Near the end of his time in the military, he also got into physical conditioning and training. It came naturally, and then an old squad leader who had briefly gone to college to major in exercise science lent him some textbooks.
“I thought ‘you can go to school for this? This is amazing!” Lewis said. He knew he was hooked.
Lewis took remedial courses at West Virginia University to make up for not having a formal high school education, and then was admitted to the university’s exercise physiology program, where he soaked up everything he could. A professor, Jean McCrory, took notice and recommended that he transfer to another university to get more hands-on research as an undergraduate.
Based on his transcripts, she told Lewis he could go anywhere. He applied to the University of North Carolina, Wake Forest University, and the University of Virginia; was admitted to all with scholarships at each one; and accepted a full academic ride to Wake Forest.
“You can imagine that a tattooed 20 something-year-old, as an undergrad at Wake Forest, a traditional school and a great school, and you’re going to class with like people that are 17 and graduated early. It was an interesting dichotomy,” Lewis said. “I got to experience what I wanted, which was to be an undergraduate engulfed in research.”
In addition to the research, Lewis worked with Wake Forest’s strength and conditioning coach for the women’s soccer team and did personal training outside of his other responsibilities to keep one foot in research and one in application. Lewis graduated in 2014.
He went on to earn his master’s from the University of South Carolina.
Coming full circle
When Lewis’ biological grandmother was diagnosed with colon cancer, it changed everything. “She had no money, nothing,” Lewis said. “I decided to come to Virginia Tech to pursue my Ph.D. to be close to her.”
Before he started his Ph.D., Lewis earned two master’s degrees, one in public health and another in higher education, at Virginia Tech.
“Marc sets a high bar form himself and doesn’t let obstacles distract him from his goals. He is a highly motivated individual focused on generating high-quality work,” said Kevin Davy, a professor in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise and Lewis’ Ph.D. mentor. “It has been a privilege to work with Dr. Lewis at Virginia Tech and to see the impact he’s had in the classroom and on the athletic field.”
Lewis interned with Greg Werner and the Virginia Tech women’s basketball team, which in turn introduced him to the Virginia Tech football team.
“Grit and perseverance are two of the qualities we emphasize frequently in our football program. There’s no shortage of guys on our team who have rebounded from injuries, hardships, or other obstacles to enjoy success on the football field. However, I’d suggest that perhaps no one else currently associated with Virginia Tech Football has overcome bigger odds in life to achieve what Marc Lewis has done,” said Virginia Tech Head Football Coach Justin Fuente.
“Marc is an incredibly valuable member of our team who incorporates science and technology to maximize the potential of our student-athletes,” Fuente continued. “But even more importantly, Marc serves as a real-life example of someone who embodies the traits we value the most as a football team. Whether it’s the unimaginable stress of his upbringing, his heroic service to our country in the U.S. Army, or his steadfast determination to get a college degree, Marc has deservedly earned the respect of our players, coaches, and staff. He’s a remarkable man with a remarkable story. I’m extremely grateful to have someone who possesses his talent and character working with our young men on a daily basis.”
The team had just gotten some new GPS training equipment, which allows detailed information about practice performance to be viewed and analyzed by coaches.
Lewis focused his dissertation on this same topic – athlete monitoring in American collegiate football.
Lewis implemented this monitoring with the football team, helping players reach their full athletic potential. Equipped with a GPS monitoring device and heart rate monitor, he’s able to download a set of 125 variables for each player after practice.
As the assistant director of strength and conditioning and director of sports science, Lewis narrows those variables down to a handful of important ones that can be tracked daily.
This not only helps the players reach their on-field potential, but also helps them safely return from an injury, prevent injuries, and helped with the return to play COVID-19 protocols in 2020.
“We can use technology and make it a part of how we do things,” Lewis said. “We can take the data and use it intelligently while being tough on the field.”
While he loves working in college athletics, he couldn’t work with another school’s football team after working with the Hokies. He turned down the head applied sport scientist position for the University of Texas football team.
After earning his Ph.D. from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Lewis will become a tenure track professor at Valdosta State University in Georgia.
“I’m getting my Ph.D. 45 minutes from where I was homeless and from where I was abandoned as a baby in a trailer,” Lewis said. “It’s surreal to be able to do this.”
— Photos and story by Max Esterhuizen