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Detroit Lions beat writer Dave Birkett takes questions from Facebook Live viewers about his latest NFL mock draft and more Thursday, April 13, 2017.

Malik McDowell, Desmond King and Jourdan Lewis won a PAL championship together 8 years ago. Now, they'e ready for NFL

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They were 13 and 14 years old, on top of the world after winning another Detroit PAL championship, and when they piled together for one last team picture that fall day in 2009, Malik McDowell, Desmond King and Jourdan Lewis sat right next to each other like the Three Musketeers of football.

King, in a No. 20 jersey like Barry Sanders, sat in front, legs spread wide with his red and white helmet on the Ford Field turf. Lewis, laid back as always, was on one knee behind King and to his right. And McDowell, the largest kid in the league, knelt right beside Lewis with his big left paw up in the air, index finger extended, telling everyone who was No. 1.

They were carefree then, focused on football and dreaming where it might take them. They didn’t have private workouts to worry about or team visits to take cross-country, and they certainly weren’t managing expectations like they are now for this week’s NFL draft.

McDowell, who played the last three years at Michigan State, is a potential first-round pick who very likely would have gone top 15 if the Spartans’ disaster of a 2016 season didn’t reveal questions about his work ethic.

Lewis, an all-Big Ten cornerback from Michigan, was solidly in the Day 2 mix until he was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of domestic violence last month. Now, his draft stock in flux.

King, the Jim Thorpe Award winner at Iowa in 2015, is a likely Day 2 pick as a cornerback or safety in what’s considered the deepest defensive back draft in years.

All three players said they have fond memories of playing for the Westside Cubs, where they won championships together in multiple age groups. And coaches from those old Cubs teams said it was obvious then that they had a special trio of players on their hands.

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Former Michigan State defensive tackle Malik McDowell believes he is a top five draft pick, says he has no work ethic problems at NFL combine Saturday, March 4, 2017. Video by Dave Birkett, DFP.

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“Those teams were phenomenal,” said William Tandy, who coached King, Lewis and McDowell on the Cubs’ A team (ages 13-14) and watched them come up through the program for years.

“Desmond King was looking like Barry Sanders. If you look at his film, him running that ball, he was Barry Sanders and that’s why he wore No. 20. He was phenomenal. Jourdan Lewis could catch a BB in the dark. He could catch everything. Malik was just overpowering. So when you’ve seen your Nick Perrys and you’ve seen your Braylon Edwardses and you’ve seen your Larry Footes matriculate through, you start getting a propensity to be able to see or an eye for who has the ability to have Division I talent.”

'It's a little destiny'

Tandy, now the coach at Detroit Loyola, worked with plenty of future pros in 23 years with the Cubs, including Foote, Edwards and Perry.

He said the Cubs previously had a team with three future NFL players on it, Perry, Dion Sims and Edwin Baker in 2004. And while he declined to compare any of his old teams, it’s clear the King-Lewis-McDowell group was special.

“I used to sit back and lick my chops because when I tell you seeing those kids on (the younger levels), you knew, especially Desmond,” Tandy said. “Desmond was just a freak of nature with that ball, and then as Jourdan developed. Malik was big and lazy at that time. His body didn’t catch up with him, so he wasn’t as dominant as early as Jourdan and Desmond. And Malik used to want to quit and Desmond used to not let him stop because, ‘Look man, we need a big lineman. You can’t quit.’ So as he caught up with his body, he began to develop and dominate. But when you’re talking about C team level (9-10 year olds) and B team level (11-12 year olds), those kids were, man, they were outstanding.”

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Tandy estimated the Cubs went 40-2 during the four seasons King and Lewis played together on the A and B teams. McDowell, who’s a year younger than both King and Lewis, won championships at both levels playing with teammates he still considers good friends today.

“It’s crazy how the picture is,” McDowell said at the NFL combine last month. “We’re all literally taking the picture sitting right next to each other. It’s a little weird, but it’s a little destiny, I guess

“We always had dreams of growing up to make it to the league and we actually did. We got this far, so now we’re trying to get in there and actually make some plays. Make some shine, really.”

King, McDowell and Lewis made plenty of shine in the PAL league, which CEO Tim Richey said has some 3,000 kids take part in its football programs every year (and 13,000 kids overall).

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King played safety on defense and was a natural-born leader who former Cubs defensive backs coach Demetrius Johnson fondly remembered as being in on every tackle. On offense, he was the feature back in the team’s veer-spread attack.

“Desmond, I think he matured early,” said former Michigan State tight end Jamal Lyles, who played against King and Lewis with the PAL’s Tigers. “He was on one of those great Cubs teams so he just was another great piece to their puzzle. Fast. It was hard to beat those guys.”

Lewis played cornerback and wingback. He specialized on reverses, and Johnson remembers him being one of the fastest players in the league.

“If he got to the linebackers it was a wrap,” Johnson said. “I mean, his speed was not like, ‘OK, I got a head start. You’re not going to catch me.’ His speed was like, ‘I’m in front of you, I’m going to stretch the gap out.’ He wouldn’t ever get caught.”

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Michigan's Jourdan Lewis, Channing Stribling and Jeremy Clark, MSU's Montae Nicholson and Iowa's Desmond King (Detroit King) speak at Sunday's NFL combine session in Indianapolis. Video by Mark Snyder/DFP Videolicious

McDowell resisted playing offensive line when he first joined the Cubs, but Tandy said he eventually became a two-way force who was the league’s version of Ndamukong Suh. As for those early bouts of laziness, a question that continues to dog McDowell now, Tandy said McDowell’s work ethic improved dramatically during his time with the Cubs and he vouches for him today.

“I just think that he got a bad rep based on the culture that was (at Michigan State),” Tandy said. “I don’t worry about Malik working hard. Malik worked very hard on the Westside Cubs. He was a hard worker, and this was the thing: I would sit his ass down in a heartbeat, excuse my French. I would sit him down and he knew it. So you’re going to either come out here and bust your tail and work or you’re not going to play. I want you, but I don’t need you. So when he comes to that next level, he comes a dime a dozen. So to the NFL teams that’s out there worrying about it – please put this in your paper: Don’t worry about Malik McDowell. He is going to work his tail off.”

 

 

 

 

 

Realizing the dream

NFL teams have much to consider when it comes to the draft stock of McDowell, Lewis and King.

McDowell is near the top of a thin group of defensive tackles, despite concerns about his inconsistent play. He has rare athletic gifts at 6 feet 6 and 295 pounds.

King and Lewis both measured 5 feet 10 at the combine and couldn’t break 4.5 seconds in their 40-yard dashes. But they both have position versatility and excellent ball skills, with King snagging 14 interceptions in his four seasons as a starter and Lewis making one of the highlight plays of the college football season, a leaping one-handed interception against Wisconsin.

Lewis also has the pending legal matter. He did not return phone calls for this story after speaking about his Cubs teams at the Senior Bowl in January,

King, who said he stayed in close contact with McDowell and Lewis throughout their college careers, said the trio hopes to get together in some way to celebrate the draft this week. Playing for the Cubs, he said, was a “pretty significant” part in their lives.

“It’s always a dream you have when you’re growing up, just to make it to the next level,” King said. “At that age we were just trying to get to a great high school and then to a great college. It’s a step by step process and that was the first step.”

Tandy said he couldn’t be more proud of his three former players, now on the verge of realizing their NFL dreams. And Johnson joked that draft day will be “Cubs day” when he’s watching at home on TV.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “Like, I’m going to be sitting front row watching it. It’s going to be a holiday for me. It’s going to be a holiday, and I mean just go figure. How often do you figure three gentlemen that played on the same little league team is going to get drafted in the NFL the same year? I don’t think that happens too often.”

Contact Dave Birkett: dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. Download our Lions Xtra app for free on Apple and Android!

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