Witness Post: Jim Lewis

James C. Lewis is an All-American lacrosse player who attended the U.S. Naval Academy from 1962 to 1966, leading the Midshipmen to three perfect seasons and a trio of national titles. Navy’s three national champion titles were earned under the “Wingate Memorial Trophy” format. [1]

In 1966, The Baltimore Sun called Lewis the “greatest living lacrosseman.” He is ranked fifth all-time in Navy men’s lacrosse scoring with 169 career points. A bantam-sized (5 feet 9, 160 pounds) attackman, Lewis led Navy in scoring each season and scored an average of five points per game for his career.

In his junior year, the Midshipmen won 12 games, each by six goals or more. As a senior, Lewis paced a Navy team that scored at least 10 goals in every game, including an 11-10 victory over Maryland, that cost the once-beaten Terps the national title.

Many of those lopsided victories could have been even more so, he said.

“We pulled in the reins in a lot of those games,” Lewis said. “There was an understanding amongst us that Navy was going to win every time. It wasn’t based on arrogance, but on our track record.”

Quick and strong, with savvy stickwork and an obsessive work ethic, Lewis three times won the Jack Turnbull Award as the nation’s premier attackman, the first of three collegians to do so.

“Navy gave me the opportunity [for success],” he said. “We led spartan lives and didn’t get out much, so I’d practice on my own all the time, any place where there was a wall. It’s not hard to find walls at the Naval Academy.”

Lewis sharpened his game at practice, challenging the Middys’ long sticks, who were just as tough.

“Five days a week, I’d go against the best defensemen in the country,” he said. “I was driven to perfection. If somebody took the ball from me, I didn’t want it to happen again.”

“I really did not like failure.”

Lewis’ Soccer Career

At Annapolis, Lewis also played varsity soccer, with the same athletic gusto. As a junior, he scored the game’s only goal in the NCAA championship game against Michigan State. As time wound down, Lewis took a crossing pass and drilled home the shot that gave Navy’s its first (and only) soccer title to date.

“Playing multiple sports was advantageous for me,” he said. “All of that stuff, like making split-second decisions, goes into your memory bank.”

Fighter Pilot

After college, Lewis attended flight school and became a fighter pilot, flying F-14s toward the end of the Vietnam War.

“On the last day, we flew cover during the evacuation of Saigon,” he said. “It was a heart-wrenching experience.”

He spent the next 20 years as a Navy test pilot and now works for a firm that provides target services (aerial and seaborne) for military training. Fishing and golf are his pastimes. Currently engaged — Lewis has two children from a previous marriage — he has homes in Camarillo, Calif., and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

Even there, fishing for marlin off the Baja Peninsula, his thoughts may stray to the sport he played.

Lewis’ take on the recent resignation of longtime Navy coach, Richie Meade: “I think the world of Richie, but change is inevitable in everything. I look forward to Navy lacrosse being successful.”

The Growth of Lacrosse

“The technological advances of equipment have made it so much easier for players to pick up the fundamentals of the game. But the path to the top hasn’t changed. You still need the commitment and the courage to recognize that you need to put in extra time to hone the skills that will separate you from the rest of the guys.”

The Changemaker

All great athletes mold themselves to be superior players within the limits of their sport. Few athletes, however, dare to change their sport. From 1963 to 1966, Navy’s innovative attackman Jimmy Lewis did exactly that. His feet, hands and brain operated in perfect synchronization at supersonic speed. 

This refined combination of skills elevated Lewis to the rarest of air. Lewis’s permanent impact on his position and the game of lacrosse made him a most deserving recipient of the 2014 Tewaaraton “Legends Award.” Lewis received the honor at the Tewaaraton ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC.[2]

The Beginning: A Long Island Athletic Prodigy

A basketball, baseball and sandlot football prodigy raised in Long Island’s Uniondale, in Nassau County, Jimmy and his older brother saw their initial lacrosse game through the chain-link fences at Hofstra. Immediately captivated by the sport, the 12-year-old Lewis fashioned his first stick from a broom handle, wire hanger and pillow case. 

This Hall of Famer worked mythic magic at an early age using only an unusually flat, high-bridged weapon. After taming a half-inch-deep, homemade cotton catcher, the store-bought version of a lacrosse stick was a breeze.

Navy’s Coach Bilderback Spotted the Gifts

Coach Willis “Bildy” Bilderback, architect of Navy’s “Decade of Dominance,” had a keen eye for athleticism. He scouted Lewis at a high school basketball tournament in Nassau County, New York. The recruit was dynamic and commanding on the court as a point guard. After watching Lewis on the court, Bilderback immediately offered Lewis a full ride to Navy, without having seen him play lacrosse.

Lewis’s superb athletic gifts blended with his equally adept powers of split-second, situational analysis. He was like Wayne Gretzky on turf. To torture the lacrosse/ice hockey metaphor, Lewis raced to where the lacrosse ball was going to be, not where it had been. He captured and influenced the entirety of each offensive and defensive chess piece around him, envisioning every next possibility two seconds ahead of anyone else on the field. Those two seconds were his athletic edge.

Add a Top Gun pilot’s devotion to his fundamental practice and preparation and a virtuoso lacrosse figure emerges.  

“I played the game differently than other people were playing at the time,” Lewis explains. “I always carried the ball with my head up surveying the field,” holding his stick perfectly balanced for an instantaneous release point.

The tools of the game were also different. The lacrosse sticks were crafted of steam-curved hickory wood, leather straps and catgut walls. And stinging was polyester twin with cotton shooting strings. The lopsided crosse made ‘”dominant hand” play universal and it left few people of his era truly ambidextrous. Lewis embodied the “either hand” exception.

“I knew I could always free my hands,” Lewis states. “This allowed me to look past my man, see cutting lanes and manipulate off-ball defenders to gain an advantage,” Lewis details with surgical precision. “The mental aspects were my biggest strengths, the most fun and interesting parts.” 

Navy Lacrosse Goalie, Dennis Wedekind

Lewis’ Navy teammate Dennis Wedekind answers, with a straight face, that he cannot recall “Lewy” ever scoring on him in practice. “Well,” he yields with a laugh, “maybe once on extra man.”  

Himself a three-time All-American and C. Markland Kelly, Jr. Award winner as the nation’s outstanding goalie in 1963 and 1965, Wedekind watched Lewis routinely defy laws of physics and traditional constraint.  

“Jimmy changed the game as much as the plastic pole vault transformed track and field,” Wedekind says. “He took an ancient piece of equipment, carried it vertically and gave no hint when he would shoot or pass.”  

The master goalkeeper describes his low-key, modest friend as, “Consistently brilliant. Every practice, every game, Lewy was Lewy. There was nobody like him.”  

Wedekind and Lewis both credit the daily gladiatorial combat for the attackman’s and the Blue and Gold’s success. Says Lewis, “Each day I practiced against the best defensemen in the country.” Indeed, from 1963-65, the Naval Academy produced Schmeisser Award winners Mike Coughlin, Jim Campbell and Pat Donnelly.  

Most of these tenacious competitors also starred on the gridiron for Heisman Trophy winner and future Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Roger Staubauch’s superlative Navy football squads. “These were huge, fast, superior athletes,” Lewis reminisces. “After a week fighting them, games were easy.” 

Lacrosse Coach Dick Edell

Dick Edell is one of the wisest sages of the sport of lacrosse. A 2010 Tewaaraton Spirit Award winner, Edell was also an admired peer of Lewis. He places the greatness of Lewis in contemporary context: “When I watch the game today, everyone puts their four best longsticks on the opponent’s four best players,” Edell says astutely, “so what your two worst offensive players do versus my two worst defensive players typically determines the outcome of the game. Jimmy Lewis got his goals by beating the best defender on the other team, every game. He is as good a lacrosse player as has ever lived.” 

Echoing Edell’s sentiments, Jeff Wagner recalls Lewis as the idol of his 1960s Metro Baltimore lacrosse youth. “Everyone wanted to be Jimmy Lewis,” remembers Wagner, a Brown University lacrosse great. “We would fight over his No. 22 in all sports jerseys and act out dramatic, game-clinching plays pretending to be Jimmy.” Wagner and his Baltimore buddies would travel to Navy-Marine Corps Stadium and the Mt. Washington Wolfpack’s nearby Norris Field to revel in and copy every Lewis masterpiece. 

In his marvelous depiction of the 1965 Navy versus Johns Hopkins national title game, Sports Illustrated writer Robert Cantwell captures Lewis and his team’s transcendent fire. With Wedekind and Donnelly protecting the rear, captain Brian Lantier in the midfield and Lewis at the front, Navy vaulted beyond the moment. “They were not merely beating Johns Hopkins,” penned Cantwell. “They were beating the game of lacrosse.” 

Navy Captain, Brian Lantier, above

Outstanding coaching by Bilderback and his crew and intimidating physicality flowed through these stellar Navy teams from 1960-70. Jimmy Lewis’s pioneering wizardry certainly stood in front from 1963-66. During those legendary, unblemished seasons, he personified confidence in his team and his personal dominance. To teammates and foes alike, Lewis held an unshakable belief that each contest was won before the game even started.

Never injured in college, Lewis’s luminous playing career ended, when he tore an ACL playing club ball in California in the 1970’s. 

One might expect a genuine hero to express regret at the relatively early exit from the game he influenced like few before or after him. 

There is none.  

In the matter-of-fact, friendly manner in which he narrates every chapter of his storybook life, this ultimate warrior invokes Beatles-connected images of true harmony to explain his sustaining core. 

“One of the reasons we were so successful was that we were at peace with who we were and in love with the game and how we played,” Lewis says. 

Spoken as a true Tewaaraton Legend.


Post Script:

Personal recollections of Jim Lewis.

When I first played lacrosse in Baltimore, I had a knack for defensively guarding opponents and was recognized in the 4th grade as an up and coming “all star” midfielder. For that honor, our age group was asked to play an abbreviated game at half-time of the Naval Academy’s intercollegiate game against Johns Hopkins. Lewis was the star on the field that day, as expected, and I was remembered for spending most of my field time in the penalty box. I earned two slashing penalties, striking an opponent on the shoulder and head, as we ran in parallel down the field.

My next encounter with Navy’s Jim Lewis was about 20 years later. At the time I played for the San Francisco team that was Northern California champions and we were pitted against the Southern California team champs for the West Coast Club Lacrosse championships. During the tournament finals, Lewis roughed me up with the butt of his stick, shoving it forcefully into my ribs a few times. And later in the game as we both raced for a loose ball, he yanked down my game shorts to my knees. I pulled them back up to my waist, but not before he picked up the loose ball and was headed toward the goal. The Southern California team won. At the party after the game, I motioned Lewis aside and called him out for his cheap shots and lack of sportsmanship. He said with a wry smile, “Man, at my age, you have to use every trick in the book to gain an advantage.”

I decided to give him that one.



[1] Navy’s national champion titles were earned under the “Wingate Memorial Trophy” format, where national champions were selected by the vote of a committee.

[2] Lacrosse is one of the oldest team sports played in North America. Rooted in centuries of Native American tradition, the game took on many variations before reaching its present day form. “Tewaaraton,” is the Mohawk name for their intra-tribal game and the progenitor of present day game of lacrosse. https://www.tewaaraton.com/