By patti dawn swansson, Gridiron Gal
I don’t want them to have a minute of silence for Leo Lewis. I want them to have a minute of hand-clapping.
That’s what they do in the U.K. when a soccer legend passes on. The patrons stand and, on the public address announcer’s cue, they salute the dearly departed with a minute of applause. They don’t shout and scream. They clap in unison, respectfully and appreciatively, in what is always a moving, emotional tribute to someone who has left our mortal coil.
That’s what the Lincoln Locomotive deserves. Applause, not silence.
So, when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and more than 30,000 followers gather at spiffy new Investors Group Field for the Banjo Bowl on Sept. 8, I’m hoping that’s how the legend of Leo Lewis is acknowledged. With applause. We gave him our applause when he was the best running back in the Canadian Football League, so why not give him our applause as a final farewell?
By now most of you know that No. 29 died on Friday, at age 80, and a lot of us felt like we lost a piece of our youth when we heard of his passing. I can’t count the number of times he signed footballs, magazines, photos or newspaper articles for me when I was a wee sprig. I just know he never refused my requests. He didn’t turn down, or turn away, any kid.
Leo Lewis was listed at 5-feet-10 and a few pounds south of 200 in his playing days, but to us kids he was much taller than that. Much larger.
Some of our childhood heroes tend to lose their lustre through the passage of time, mainly because idol worship is the province of children. We get over it. But our mind’s eye doesn’t let us lose sight of it. At times like this, we retreat and remember. And it’s a nice, peaceful place to be. A comfortable place.
Right now, I see Leo Lewis the dashing, slashing, daring, do-it-all scatback who could either run rings around defenders or simply run over them. And I also see Leo Lewis the football hero. He’s standing on the sideline post-practice, slightly hunched and with glistening beads of perspiration gathering on his forehead as he bends down to sign yet another autograph. Sometimes, a drop of his sweat splatters on to a scrap of paper he’s just signed, smudging his signature. You don’t care. You just thank him and admire your sweat-stained treasure.
I wish I could tell you that I still have a Leo Lewis autograph, but I can’t romanticize the moment with a mistruth. That would be a betrayal.
I can tell you this, though: Willie Fleming of the B.C. Lions was the purest running back I’ve ever seen in more than 50 years of watching three-down football. He was our Gayle Sayers. But Leo Lewis was the best running back I’ve ever seen in the CFL. He was our Jim Brown.
I wonder if the current-day Bombers know about Lewis. I doubt it. I’m thinking that the local football heroes heard the name Leo Lewis bandied about in the past couple of days and said, “Leo who? The dude our new quarterback or something?”
Seriously, if you were to wander through the Bombers’ changing room, how many of the large lads would recognize the name Leo Lewis? I mean, really recognize the name.
Would they know what the Lincoln Locomotive did for the Bombers? Would they know what he meant to the Bombers? Would they know about the four Grey Cup championships? Would they know that Lewis, a running back, threw more touchdown passes than any of the current Blue Bomber QBs, save for Buck Pierce? It’s true. He had 14 TD tosses, four of them in one season (1960). Justin Goltz, Max Hall and Jason Boltus can only wish.
The Lincoln Locomotive came to us in 1955 from little Lincoln University, a Jefferson City, Mo., school founded at the close of the American Civil War for the special benefit of freed African-Americans. To this day, Lewis holds every Blue Tiger rushing record of significance and is just one of two LU football players to have had his uniform number retired, the other being former NFL Pro Bowl defensive back Lemar Parrish.
Lewis was also the Bombers’ all-time leading ground gainer (8,861 yards) until Charles Roberts chugged past him, 41 years after the Lincoln Locomotive had packed away his cleats and shoulder pads in 1966. Truthfully, I was actually quite offended that Roberts had the bad manners to one-up Lewis. It seemed so disrespectful. Honestly, the nerve of some people.
I’m fine with it now, though. Roberts can have the record. I suppose it defines his career.
Leo Lewis’s career, on the other hand, is defined by overall excellence and those four Grey Cup titles during the Bud Grant era of the late 1950s and early/mid-60s. Those were the best of times in Bomber Nation.
So don’t thank the Lincoln Locomotive with silence on Sept. 8. Thank him with applause. Bring a new tradition to a new ball park.