March 30, 2014

His Space: Legend and Spirit Honored

by Bill Tanton | LaxMagazine.com

This column originally appears in the April 2014 issue of Lacrosse Magazine. Join US Lacrosse today to start your subscription.

I've been around lacrosse since the 1940s, and in all of that time, I've seen just four players who took over every game they played. One was Navy's Jimmy Lewis, who will receive the 2014 Tewaaraton Legends Award on May 29 at the Smithsonian National Museum of American Indians in Washington.

The other three were: Syracuse's Jim Brown, without a doubt the greatest athlete who ever played lacrosse, and maybe any other sport; Gary Gait, also of Syracuse, who was the greatest lacrosse player I've ever seen, and, not to be overlooked, Gary's twin brother Paul, who once led a Johns Hopkins defenseman named Dave Pietramala to tell me when asked which Gait was better, "Toss a coin."

This year, the winner of the Spirit of Tewaaraton Award is another Navy lacrosse hero, Brendan Looney, who was on coach Richie Meade's 2004 team that went to the NCAA championship game and lost to Syracuse 14-13. Brendan's brothers, Billy and Stephen, also played on that team. Lt. Brendan Looney, a member of SEAL Team 3, lost his life in a helicopter crash in Iraq in September 2010.

I wish I had known Brendan Looney. What a man. What a family. Thinking about their heroism and patriotism can give you chills.

I do know Jimmy Lewis. He flew Top Gun in a squadron of F-14s during the Vietnam War, providing cover at the end of the war during the evacuation of Saigon, and for 20 years he was a Navy test pilot. He has sometimes traveled from his home in California to National Lacrosse Hall of Fame banquets in Baltimore when a Navy man was being inducted. That blue-and-gold loyalty always impresses me, but doesn't surprise me. I don't know any group that sticks together like the Navy guys.

I officiated maybe a half dozen of Lewis' games, including when he played for the plebe team in 1963 when the NCAA did not allow freshmen to play varsity sports. Lewis was not a big guy at 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds. Ask anyone who saw him play what made him great, and the first thing they mention is his quickness.

True enough, but he had another quality that set him apart. His vision and alertness allowed him to react to plays before others could.

I remember one game when I was about five away from Lewis and suddenly he dived to a spot beside the goal. The ball was on the ground, but I hadn't seen it. Neither had any of the other players. In a flash, Lewis had the ball in his stick and flicked it to Pete "The Shot" Taylor for an easy goal.

Lewis made first team All-American every year, was a three-time winner of the Jack Turnbull Award as the nation's top attackman and led Navy to three national championships (part of the eight straight titles the Midshipmen won from 1960 through 1968).

"Navy gave me the opportunity [for success]," Lewis told The Baltimore Sun in May 2011. "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 was such a gifted athlete that when he arrived at Annapolis he decided to take a crack at soccer, even though he never played the game at Uniondale High on Long Island.

Lewis became an All-American in that sport, too. In 1964 Navy beat Michigan State, 1-0, to win the NCAA soccer championship. Lewis scored the game's only goal. That remains the only national championship Navy ever has won in soccer.

The Tewaaraton Foundation could not have chosen more deserving honorees than Lewis and Looney. May 29 promises to be a memorable and emotional evening.

Tickets to the 2014 Tewaaraton Award Ceremony, May 29 in Washington, D.C., are now available at Tewaaraton.com.


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