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Witness Post: Jim Lewis

James C. Lewis was an All-American lacrosse player at the Naval Academy from 1964 to 1966, leading the Midshipmen to national titles in each of his three years, as well as perfect seasons. Navy’s national titles during these years were under the Wingate Memorial Trophy format, where national champions were selected by the vote of a committee.

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 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 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.”

Navy coach Bill Bilderback sensed that doggedness, scouting Lewis at a high school basketball game in his hometown of Uniondale, NY. Afterward, the legendary Bilderback offered him a full ride to Navy without having seen Lewis play lacrosse.

At Annapolis, Lewis also played soccer, with the same gusto. As a junior, he scored the game’s only goal in the NCAA championship 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.

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

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.”

On the growth of lacrosse since his playing days:

“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.”

Few athletes 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 majestic combination elevated Lewis to the rarest of air. The first three-time Turnbull Award winner claimed an equal number of national championships while averaging five points a game over his career in Annapolis. Lewis’s permanent impact on his position and game make him a most deserving 2014 Tewaaraton Legends Award recipient. Lewis received the honor at last week’s Tewaaraton ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC.  

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

This Hall of Famer worked mythic magic with an unusually flat, high-bridged weapon. After taming a half-inch-deep, homemade cotton catcher, the store-bought version was a breeze.

Coach Willis “Bildy” Bilderback, architect of Navy’s “Decade of Dominance,” never saw Lewis play lacrosse. The recruit’s dynamic point guard performance in the Nassau County hoops championship was enough. 

Lewis’s superb athletic gifts blended with his equally adept powers of split-second, situational analysis. 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. 

Add a Top Gun pilot’s devotion to fundamental preparation and a virtuoso Mt. Rushmore figure emerges.  

“I played the game differently than other people were playing at the time,” Lewis explains. “I always carried with my head up surveying the field.” 

The release point and balance differences of sticks crafted of wood, leather and catgut left few people of his era truly ambidextrous. 

Lewis embodied the 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 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.”  

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 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.” 

Dick Edell, pictured above, is one of the wisest sages of the sport of lacrosse. He places his former peer’s greatness in contemporary context: “When I watch the game today, everyone puts their four best longsticks on the opponent’s four best players,” Big Man says astutely, “so what your two worst offensive players do vs. my two worst defensive players typically determines the outcome. 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, a grown man recalls the idol of his 1960s Metro Baltimore lacrosse youth. “Everyone wanted to be Jimmy Lewis,” remembers Jeff Wagner, a Brown University lacrosse great. “We would fight over his No. 22 in all sports and act out dramatic, game-clinching plays pretending to be Jimmy.” Wagner and 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 and intimidating physicality flowed through these stellar Navy teams from 1960-70. At 5-9, 160 lbs., Jimmy Lewis’s pioneering wizardry stood in front from 1963-66. His teams lost zero games over those years. He personified, to teammates and foes alike, the unshakable belief that each contest was won before it began. 

After graduation, Lewis flew F-14 fighters in Vietnam. He tested jets for the Navy for 20 years. 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.

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Post Script:

Personal recollections of Jim Lewis. When I first played lacrosse, I had a knack for it 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 the Naval Academy at half-time of an 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 arm and head, as he ran down the field.

My next encounter with Navy’s Jim Lewis was about 20 years later. I played for the Northern California team against the Southern California team for the West Coast Club Lacrosse championships. During the final game, Lewis roughed me up with the butt of his stick a few times and even yanked down my shorts as we were going for a loose ball. After the game, I called him out for his lack of sportsmanship and he said to me, “Man, at my age you have to use every trick in the book to gain an advantage.”

I decided to give him that one.