Even in Maryland, where lacrosse enjoys exalted status and local talent is idolized, Jimmy Lewis of New York is hailed as the game's best player.
Nothing in the Free State is so highly esteemed as National Beer, though the game of lacrosse is just as indigenous, and it is the state sport now that slot machines are being phased out. Lacrosse has always been the showcase for the flower of Maryland manhood. So it comes as a considerable shock to discover that all around the state, wherever fans fight for the privilege of buying another National—from Steinwassers’ over the bridge in Mount Washington on down to Annapolis and the Red Coach—the lacrosse talk concerns that kid from Uniondale on Long Island: Midshipman James Lewis, attackman on the champion Navy team.
Only one other out-of-state lacrosse star has ever been granted such acclaim in Maryland, and that was Jimmy Brown. Like Brown—but for entirely different reasons—Lewis will never be able to play lacrosse again once he graduates this June. Thus something of a sense of urgency has been created. With the end of his career approaching, there is a rush to assess Lewis before he is really gone—out of the game and off to flying Navy jets.
A member of the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame, Jimmy Lewis is one of only three players in the history of college lacrosse to win the Turnbull Award in three-consecutive years (1964-65-66).
The Baltimore Sunpapers, beacon of Maryland thought, capped the discussions with a cover story on Lewis in a recent Sunday Sun supplement. It was headlined GREATEST LIVING LACROSSEMAN. Indeed, there seems to be no argument left against the claim that Lewis is the best player of his era. Neither is there any contemporary award left for him. In both his sophomore and junior years he was not only an All-America, but winner of the Turnbull Trophy, which is presented to the nation’s best attackman (actually, the best attackman to play on Maryland soil). At graduation ceremonies next month he will be awarded the Naval Academy Athletic Association sword for excellence, as the best athlete at the academy.
By now, in fact, only the memories of a few stars from the past can be invoked for purposes of comparison. These include Bobby Poole, an attackman with St. John’s of Annapolis in the early ’30s; Jack Turnbull, who played at Johns Hopkins and on the Mount Washington Lacrosse Club in the same decade; and Billy Hooper, a Baltimorean who strayed to the University of Virginia and then returned to finish his career at Mount Washington. Hooper retired in 1955. Jimmy Brown was the only other player usually ranked with this group, until Lewis appeared. But Brown played lacrosse for only a few years—when he was at Syracuse—and, as Dinty Moore, the president of the Lacrosse Hall of Fame, points out, there are certain intricacies of the game that even an athlete like Brown could not master in such a short period. Lewis, on the other hand, does everything well. If he could play club lacrosse for a few years, merely to polish his skills with experience and to display them longer, he would remove all doubt that he has never had a peer on the lacrosse field. “If Jimmy played for Mount Washington,” Lewis’ coach, Bill Bilderback, says, “there just wouldn’t be any sense going to the games. He’s that good.”
Lewis was so outstanding in high school that Uniondale Coach Terry McDonald had to take him out of most games early in order to keep from running up scores. At the same time, he was so small that no college coach was really interested in him, except Bilderback, who had been lucky enough to see Lewis in action as captain of his county’s champion basketball team. “You could see then how really strong he was,” Bilderback says, “particularly in the arms and shoulders.”
Stockier now, Lewis is still only 5 feet 9 and seldom reaches his program weight of 160. “In high school I was really, really small,” he says. “Now I’m just small.” Lewis got into the academy as an alternate, the hasty appointment of a Mississippi Congressman, since New York‘s representatives had their slates filled. (Jimmy continues to get letters from one New York Congressman asking him if he is still interested in applying to Annapolis.)
Despite his size, Lewis has managed to stay quite whole in combat against the big boys of lacrosse. This year, however, he is lucky to be alive and able to go out on the field and get banged around. Last Christmas, after a ski trip to Vermont (where he spent much of the time posing upside down in the snow or wrapped around trees for pictures that he sent to an unamused Bilderback), Lewis returned home for a few days on his way back to school. On New Year’s night, as he and a friend were getting into Jimmy’s car in neighboring Garden City on Long Island, a gang of thugs jumped Lewis’ buddy. Jimmy started to rush around the car to help when, from behind, another mugger appeared and clouted him over the head with an unknown object. Jimmy never knew what hit him.
Lewis estimates he was out “only about 20 seconds,” but when he did come to, he promptly drove the car home himself, called a cheerful “hi” to his father and went up to bed without a word, so as not to “bother” his parents. He washed the blood off the back of his head, but most of the night he was up vomiting and his head continued to shimmy. Today, months later, he still has a constant ringing in his ears.
“When I talk about what happened,” he says, “well—I guess it’s all psychological—I start thinking about it. Otherwise, a lot of the time, even though the ringing is always there, I just sort of get used to it. That’s what happens when I’m playing. Anyway, the doctor says all the side effects should be gone in a couple of months.”
It was not until he reached Annapolis the evening following the mugging that Lewis saw a doctor. He immediately was rushed to Bethesda Naval Hospital, where initial tests indicated traces of blood in his spinal fluid. “I found out,” Lewis reports somberly, “that if ever you get a blow on the head and then you start throwing up that is very serious.”
The spinal taps were never so worrisome again, however, and the final diagnosis was a suborbital hematoma, which kept Lewis in Bethesda for five days. When he finally talked his way out he had lost 17 pounds. Then he spent two more weeks in the academy’s sick bay. Still weak and tending to dizziness, he did poorly on midyear exams, his grades falling from Bs to Cs. It also was several weeks after practice began in March before he was really himself on the lacrosse field. But he has his grades back up to the Bs now and seems fully recovered, except for the ringing.
“I guess about the only thing Jimmy does wrong is get hit on the head,” Bilderback says, smiling, sort of. That has also happened in games, since Lewis is the target of all defenses and is repeatedly knocked down. Most of the defensemen who guard him outweigh Lewis by at least 40 pounds, and everybody else near him gangs up as soon as he gets the ball. Also, playing soccer last year, Lewis got bowled over in a melee when a free kick bounced back. Thereupon someone summarily kicked him square in the head while aiming at the ball alongside.
Lewis became a soccer standout after taking up the game as a plebe solely to win a seat at a training table. (Plebes who are not at training tables are subject to some interesting diversions.) He made the starting soccer team as a sophomore, even though he never became very adept at the tricky art of kicking with accuracy. With his speed and agility, however, he was always a threat. And, as in lacrosse, he was best under pressure. Six of his 15 goals came in six NCAA championship games. As a junior, in the finals against Michigan State he took a pass over midfield, dribbled the ball clear and headed in on the goalie. “I kept thinking,” he remembers, ” ‘Oh, no, I’m going to do it again. I can’t kick the thing. I know what to do, and I can’t kick it.’ ” Finally, about 12 yards out, he pulled up and booted it solidly into the corner of the net, just about where most of his lacrosse shots go. It was the only score in the game, and Navy won its first soccer championship. In his three varsity years Lewis has played in about 50 soccer and lacrosse games. Navy lost exactly two of these.
Lewis’ only defeat in lacrosse came this April in a game with Mount Washington, the perennial club champions. The Mounties have numerous former All-Americas on their roster, and few college teams can even stay on the same field with them. But in recent years Navy has been so good that it not only has dominated the collegiate field, but has been the best lacrosse team of any class. Since the start of the 1960 season, the Middies have lost only six games—three to Mount Washington, one to the Baltimore Lacrosse Club and two to Army—and have won six straight NCAA championships. An expected win at West Point on June 4—in Lewis’ last regular game—would make it seven in a row, a string unprecedented in lacrosse and topped in all collegiate sport only by Southern California‘s nine consecutive track titles from 1935 to 1943 and Yale‘s nine in golf from 1905 to 1913.
Bilderback has achieved this record through innovations. He has, for instance, employed football players to the utmost advantage—usually as tough defensemen who have little need for the niceties of stickhandling. One group was called The Bumper Cars. They just ran over people and stomped on them. Navy teams have depth and stamina and enough strength to overpower the traditional Maryland-stocked quick, slick teams, of which Johns Hopkins is the prototype.
In Navy’s recent game with Hopkins the Middies took a 9-0 lead, with Lewis scoring twice, and it looked like a clear runaway. But in the third period Hopkins rallied and scored five straight goals. During this spell the Blue Jay fans started singing the school fight song, which does not happen often at intellectual Hopkins. The prospect of beating the national champion kept the fight song ringing for 10 minutes.
But when Navy gets into trouble Lewis usually comes to the rescue. He stopped the Hopkins surge with his third goal just before the end of the third period and added a fourth in the final period. In Lewis’ first scoring attempt of the game the Hopkins goalie made a fine stop, but that only served to inspire Lewis to greater effort. Seconds later he darted from behind the goal, beat his defenseman to position and made the score 1-0. In the same period he assisted in Navy’s second goal and scored the third on a high backhander less than a minute later.
His final goal was a remarkable over-the-head shot at a time when his defenseman was sure he had Lewis well covered. It was his top scoring day of the season, and Navy won 12-7. Said Hopkins Coach Bobby Scott, “Every-time Lewis had the ball he was a threat to score. He could have had six or seven goals, except that our goalie made some brilliant saves.”
Bilderback has gathered a Navy staff of football-like proportions, one that even includes special coaches for face-offs and extra-man situations. He has so many assistants it is not too surprising that one of them turns out to be named Jimmy Lewis, only this Jimmy Lewis is an Episcopal priest who was an All-America goalie for Washington and Lee. Bilderback was the first Maryland coach to recruit heavily on Long Island. This has brought him not only good players, but players of a different breed, and many observers consider that even more significant. In the Baltimore area kids start fooling around with sticks when they are only 7 or 8. At that stage they are not ready for the rugged contact the sport allows, so they concentrate on the showy stickhandling maneuvers. Long Island players, on the other hand, seldom pick up a stick until they reach high school. By then, stronger and more mature, they are thrown into action before they have time to develop fancy stickwork. Consequently, they come to depend on power more than guile. When such players are combined with the big Navy football men, power takes over. The University of Maryland‘s entire first attack this year is from Long Island, and even Johns Hopkins has begun to recruit in New York.
Essentially, what makes Jimmy Lewis so good is that he blends the best of the Maryland and New York styles. He is as tricky, and moves the stick as well, as any young man brought up on Powerhouses at Ameche’s. And he is a master of the Long Island techniques. “He releases the ball faster than anyone I ever saw,” says Bilderback. “His change of direction is such,” says Bobby Scott, “that he can dodge his man almost whenever he wants to.”
Lewis has also created his own style, one that is certain to be emulated. Frank Riggs, a former football co-captain at the University of North Carolina, guarded Lewis in the Navy-Mount Washington game. Lewis made two goals and had three assists, but Riggs still was credited with an outstanding defensive job. “He’s definitely different from any other little attackman I’ve ever played,” says Riggs. “Most of them just dodge and dart. They roll and give you the back most of the time. The one-on-one is more like it is in basketball. But not Lewis. He comes right at you. He makes it like a football situation, the defensive back against the offensive end. He holds the stick absolutely perpendicular to the ground. I’ve never seen anyone else do that. I don’t see how he keeps the ball in there. Then he’ll get up a full head of steam and come at you and pull that stick right across his face, right in front of you, teasing you. You can almost hear him saying, ‘O.K., big boy, I’m coming at you.’ And if you take the bait, if you commit, he’ll come right past you. It’s a great thing. I told George Boynton, who’s an attackman on our team—built about the same way Lewis is—and he tried it a couple of times and really had some success with it. But it’s a new thing and hard to learn if you’ve always been doing something else.”
The Long Island in Lewis makes him a perfect lead for the rough Navy team. The attack is geared to him, with most plays starting with Lewis in his outside left position. Generally his teammates will clear out and let him work one-on-one. But since it is impossible to contain him in this situation, at least one member of the opposition backs up on him to assist the defenseman assigned to guard Lewis.
“Of all his assets,” says Gene Corrigan, the University of Virginia coach, “I’ll take his toughness. They knock him down. They ride him. But he gets up. When Navy brings the ball downfield they give it to Lewis. When he loses it, 98% of the time he gets it right back. That’s when he’ll catch the defense off balance and come up with the really great play.”
When Navy moves on the attack Lewis—feinting and faking—waits for the ball to move downfield. Suddenly, as it nears him, another buzz drowns out the buzzing in his ears. This is from the midshipmen—a singular, high-pitched, excited hum, as if the brigade had seen Tecumseh himself get down from his pedestal in front of Bancroft Hall and pick up a lacrosse stick.
In his three years at Navy, Lewis has made 74 goals and 84 assists in 31 games, but the statistics are meaningless because the Navy powerhouse has outclassed the opposition in many games and Lewis has been content just to feed off to his teammates. He has to be followed closely at all times, though, for he gives little indication of an impending shot or pass, and he is made even more deceptive by the fact that he shoots equally well left- or right-handed. “Louie, Loo-oo-ee, Loo-oo-ee-ee,” the Middies roar when he starts his move, and when he passes it off they wait for him to get the ball back, not really content until he has fed for a score or blasted his own quick rocket into the nets.
Only football surpasses lacrosse in popularity at Annapolis, so over the last decade only Joe Bellino and Roger Staubach have been more acclaimed than Lewis. He wears his celebrity well, proud that the system permits him no favors. “You just think,” he says. “The Saturday morning of any game I’m still up at 6:15 and out on that river after breakfast till 10 in those little boats.” He has grown from a shy “youngster” (which is the Annapolis term for sophomore) into a self-assured first classman who is honestly aware of his great talent. “You could see Lewis’ confidence increase year by year,” says Coach Scott of Hopkins.
“But he’s a cocky little devil,” Riggs says. “Of course, he’s got all the right to be. After he’s gone by you a couple of times and left you standing there looking silly, he’ll give you the little looks, sort of disdainful, like he can do it again anytime he wants to. It has to unnerve you a little. Then the day after our game I understand he came right out and did tell someone that he could go around me anytime he wanted to.”
Lewis is now preparing for his departure from athletics. “It’s been fun,” he says. “Athletics to me is a good time. I like to play. So it’s a void I’ll have to fill. I just bought some golf clubs. Pretty good buy—$35, a secondhand set. I really don’t know how much I’ll miss sports. I saw Dennis Wedekind—he was our goalie last year—I saw him the other day and he told me, ‘You’ll miss it.’ Well, I don’t know. Maybe I will. I don’t know. But I am finished. I bought the golf clubs.”
After some temporary summer duty Lewis will report to Pensacola in September to begin flight training that will probably stretch out to two years. This is his choice, not an assignment. Only after this training ends does his four-year obligation begin. He doesn’t wave the flag or drum out Anchors Aweigh on the tablecloth, but Jimmy Lewis is going to be a Navy man.
Maybe that is why there seems to be less regret in his own mind than in the minds of the lacrosse fans who will miss him. But he has made his decision. “I saw some figures,” he says. “Over a 20-year period one Navy pilot is killed for every 3.87 that make it. That’s not a very good ratio. [Well-timed pause.] I didn’t find that out till after I signed up.”
And maybe that is why he is so casual about his near-fatal mugging. That same week, somewhere over Vietnam, Lieut. Don MacLaughlin and Lieut. John Prudhomme were shot down with their planes. Both had played lacrosse at the academy. As a plebe, Jimmy sat at the training table with MacLaughlin.
“Some people,” Jimmy Lewis says, “want me to get all excited because there’s some talk that Jack Heim at Maryland is a better attackman than I am. Am I supposed to worry about that? A few months from now I’ll be down in Florida, and you can see me standing up and saying, ‘Hey, I’m the best attackman in all of Maryland!’ Who do you think is going to care? They’ll just tell me, ‘Hey, buddy, get out of the room.’ Worrying about that sort of thing is silly.”
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