Catching Up With ... Jimmy Lewis, Navy lacrosse
About once a week, the silver-haired Californian finds one in his mailbox — a lacrosse ball ripe for an autograph. Jimmy Lewis, 66, reads the accompanying request, signs the ball and sends it back.
Forty-five years after Lewis starred at Navy, fans still remember the Hall of Famer some call the greatest college lacrosse player ever.
Lewis sidesteps the issue.
“It's a debate with no real conclusion,” the three-time first-team All American said. “All I know is that if I were to have played today, I'd be no less driven — or successful.”
And Navy might be playing in Monday's NCAA championship at M&T Bank Stadium, instead of watching on TV.
With Lewis up front, the Midshipmen rolled to three straight national championships (1964-1966) and never lost a college game. A bantam (5 feet 9, 160 pounds) attackman, he led Navy in scoring each season and scored five points per game for his career.
In his junior year, the Mids 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 Mids' 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, N.Y. 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.”
Baltimore Sun file photo 1966