A cap-and-gown clad Josh Lewis carried a heavy heart across the stage of Eastern Washington’s spring commencement.
Earning a criminal justice degree is often a joyous occasion, but Lewis, EWU’s trusty defensive back, had yet to shake the grief that consumed him the night before.
Driving back from his hometown of Tacoma on June 15, Lewis was nearing the Cheney exit when he was hit with a flurry of phone calls and text messages.
When he pulled off to the side of road to respond, he learned that friend and former Steilacoom High teammate Fotu Leiato was killed in a vehicle crash earlier that morning.
Leiato, a safety who appeared in 13 games during Oregon’s 2017 season, was the passenger in a Kia sedan that crashed and rolled around 2:30 a.m near Autzen Stadium in Eugene, according to police.
The driver, Pedro Chavarin, told police he didn’t have any passengers. A pedestrian later found Leiato’s body in bushes near the site of the crash.
Chavarin was charged with second-degree manslaughter, DUI and reckless driving.
“It was sad. I had never experienced anything like that before,” said Lewis, a fifth-year senior whose Eagles (10-2) face UC Davis (10-2) on Saturday at Roos Field in the FCS quarterfinals.
“I was pretty upset,” Lewis said. “I can’t imagine what his family went through. It was hard, but part of God’s plan.”
Leiato’s brother, Anthony Leiato, was a freshman linebacker at EWU last season. Weeks before his death, Fotu Leiato was in Cheney visiting his brother and voiced his intent on potentially transferring to EWU, Lewis said. Leiato was dismissed from Oregon’s football team in March because of a violation of team rules.
The loss of Leiato, a young man Lewis described as genuine and “always played like his hair was on fire,” put things in perspective for Lewis going into his final college season.
“It’s sad that something like this makes you realize that you really can’t take anything for granted,” Lewis said. “You have to go out there and play like it’s your last play, and live life like it’s your last day, because you never know
“Every day is a blessing and (college football) is a great opportunity.”
Lewis and Eastern Washington’s stingy defense have adhered to that approach.
EWU limited conference foes to a Big Sky-low 16.9 points per game. The Eagles rank 18th in the FCS in scoring defense (21.2 ppg), 20th in forced turnovers (25) and are first in defensive touchdowns (six).
It’s a substantial improvement from last year’s unit that yielded 33.3 points and forced 13 turnovers.
Lewis has 43 tackles, three of his team’s 15 interceptions and has broken up a team-high nine passes.
“This is where we planned to be,” said Lewis, a second-team All-Big Sky cornerback. “We sat down as a defense this offseason and voiced what we wanted to do. We set a standard and did the extra things like player-led meetings and workouts to get to this point.”
EWU cornerbacks coach Cherokee Valeria isn’t surprised Lewis has helped take charge.
“Unbelievable person,” Valeria said of Lewis, who sports a 3.54 GPA and is considering a career as a detective or fraud investigator. “A high-character family man who has had the same girlfriend forever.
“Josh has been the starter this long because of what he does off the field. There’s been guys around him in the past who’ve been even with him in skill, but he’ll never allow them to pass him because how he leads by example, the extra work he does in the film room and his community service.”
Lewis accepted an invitation to showcase his talent in front of pro scouts at the NFL Players Association Collegiate Bowl in January, a postseason all-star game for draft-eligible players.
His brother, Sean Lewis, played linebacker at Central Washington in the 1990s and had a cup of coffee in the NFL, Josh Lewis said.
Lewis said he plans to train for pro day after the season, but his focus is completing a season sweep of Big Sky foe UC Davis, a team the Eagles handled 59-20 last month in Cheney.
EWU’s secondary limited the Aggies’ Walter Payton Award candidate Jake Maier to 23-for-42 passing for 195 yards and two interceptions. It also held NFL prospect Keelan Doss to five catches for 70 yards.
“(UC Davis) is a big-play team, so that’s something we’re going to have to limit,” Lewis said. “And what happened last game doesn’t mean it’s going to happen this game. It’s hard to beat a team twice in a season.”
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