Tommy Lewis

Tommy Lewis in motorcycle police sidecar (1956)Tommy Lewis sprawls across a motorcycle policeman’s sidecar as he and other Rough Riders are escorted from Lansdowne Field in Ottawa after a 1956 game.

Thomas Edison Lewis
Born: October 7, 1931 (Greenville, Alabama)
Died: October 12, 2014 (Huntsville, Alabama)

Tommy Lewis came north to play professional football after taking part in a bizarre college football play that earned him everlasting notoriety.

Lewis, a fullback, scored 14 offensive touchdowns — 13 on the ground, one in the air — over two fruitful seasons with the Ottawa Rough Riders of the Big Four.

Tommy Lewis (mug)The 5-foot-11, 195-pound athlete from Alabama was paired with fellow American Don St. John as Riders coach Frank Clair implemented a twin fullback system for the 1956 season.

Lewis also played defensive back in the days when a star import was expected to be a two-way player.

In a game on Sept. 15, 1956, the hometown Rough Riders were nursing a 14-9 lead over the favoured Montreal Alouettes at Lansdowne Park. On the final play of the game, Montreal’s Sam Etcheverry tried to pass to Hal Patterson only to have Lewis intercept the throw and run it into the end zone to seal a 20-9 victory with one second left on the clock.

As soon as Lewis crossed the goal line, delirious Ottawa fans poured from the grandstand onto the field, making the convert attempt not only moot but impossible. To get to the dressing room safely, a trio of Rough Riders accepted an escort by motorcycle policeman, Lewis hopping into the sidecar of one wheeled cop.

The hard-working Lewis rushed for 1,082 yards on 215 carries over two seasons for a five-yard average. His longest run of 36 yards came in 1957. He caught 27 passes for 288 yards over those two campaigns.

On defence, he had nine interceptions, the longest returned 46 yards. He scored majors twice on interceptions.

He also kicked a single in 1957, recording 97 career points.

Lewis played 24 games in the Big Four, missing four in 1957 with a leg muscle injury.

He came to Ottawa after a stellar college career at the University of Alabama, where he was best known for a play in which he came off the bench to interfere with a play.

Born in Greenville, Ala., he was named All-State while in high school, where he set a rushing record that stood for three decades. Lewis then played three seasons with the Crimson Tide. He was a senior playing fullback when he befriended sophomore quarterback Bart Starr. Lewis was alternate captain of the 1953 Southeastern Conference championship team and he played in the 1953 Orange Bowl, the 1954 Cotton Bowl and the 1955 Palmetto Shrine Bowl at Charleston, S.C.

1954 College Bowl program

In the Cotton Bowl, Rice was leading 7-6 when Dicky Maegle of Rice University took a handoff from quarterback LeRoy Fenstemaker on his own five-yard line. He raced up the sidelines when Lewis, without bothering to put on his helmet, stepped onto the field to deliver a rolling block. Maegle was tackled on Alabama’s 42-yard line. The referee awarded Rice a touchdown and Maegle was credited with a 95-yard run as Rice went on to a 28-6 victory. The “12th man” “bench tackle” was voted the sports oddity of the year in a poll conducted by the Associated Press.

Both Lewis and Maegle appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and other broadcasts to talk about the notorious play, whose place in college football lore was forever sealed after Lewis said he committed his impulsive act because he was “too full of Alabama.”

Overshadowed by the drama of the sideline caper was Lewis’s own touchdown on a two-yard run to open the game’s scoring.

He served as an Army corporal for the Fort Jackson (S.C.) Eagles, turning professional with the Rough Riders after completing two years of military service.

Lewis was a member of the coaching staff in Paul (Bear) Bryant’s first year as a coach at Alabama. Lewis later coached high school football in Florida and in his home state.

He ran an insurance agency in Huntsville, Ala., until retiring in 1999. He died five days after his 83rd birthday.

Lewis had recently moved to Ottawa when neighbourhood children rang his door bell one morning asking him to join them for a pickup game of football. The big running back finished his breakfast, stepped out onto his yard, throwing a football that caught 10-year-old Bruce Ardern flush in the face, breaking his glasses. Lewis loaded up his squad of four youngsters to drive to an optometrist on Bank Street to replace the boy’s $8 frames.

Tommy Lewis (Cotton Bowl tackle, labels)Tommy Lewis interrupts Dick Maegle’s touchdown scamper in the 1954 Cotton Bowl,
one of the most infamous plays in college football history.

Tommy Lewis apologizes

Tommy Lewis (right) apologizes to Dick Maegle for his illegal tackle. Maegle was credited with a 95-yard run and a touchdown in the 1954 Cotton Bowl. 

Tommy Lewis (82) tackled by Big John Welton of Toronto in 1957
Tommy Lewis (in white, No. 82) is tackled by Big John Welton of the Argonauts
after being tripped by Toronto’s Dick Shatto (in dark, No. 88).

Tommy Lewis pays for new frames when pass strikes Bruce Ardern, 10 (Ottawa Citizen, Oct. 29, 1956).a

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