Lincoln loses a legend

Leo Lewis dies at age 80

Leo Lewis was an almost mythic sports figure, not that you would know it by talking to him.

But after the legendary Lincoln University player, coach and teacher passed away Friday at the age of 80, there were plenty of people who were willing to sing his praises.

“Not once in the time I knew him did he sit there and brag about what he accomplished,” said Lincoln women’s tennis coach Tim Abney, who was a student at the school when Lewis was an instructor and coach and later was a colleague at Lincoln. “He was more about helping the next generation, helping inspire them to do good things. Not once did I hear him say, ‘I was so good,’ or, ‘I did this,’ or, ‘I did that.’”

You could have forgiven Lewis if he had bragged. There’s a laundry list of superlatives surrounding the legendary figure:

• He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2005.

• He owns the top three single-season rushing marks for the Blue Tigers, despite playing almost 60 years ago.

• He is the career rushing leader for the Blue Tigers with 4,457 yards and the single-game leader with 245.

• He was a six-time All-Star in the Canadian Football League, as he was inducted into that organization’s Hall of Fame in 1973 after 11 seasons with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

• He was inducted into the Winnipeg Hall of Fame in 1984.

“Lincoln University lost a legend today,” Lincoln athletic director Betty Kemna said. “Many people knew Leo through his many positions, whether it be in football as a player, or coming back and coaching women’s basketball or as a physical education instructor.

“We’ll be celebrating him again when his (1952 and 1953) teams are inducted into the Lincoln Hall of Fame in October.”

The man known as the “Lincoln Locomotive” helped the Blue Tigers win 27 games in his career, and the 1952 team ended up being ranked No. 2 in the nation by the Pittsburgh Courier.

“His records still stand, so he has a very impressive record,” Kemna said. “If people don’t know him, we have a plaque downstairs (in Jason Gym), and he’s one of only two retired football jerseys at the stadium. People should know who Leo Lewis is. It’s important that everybody know who he is.”

After his playing days were over, Lewis returned to Lincoln in 1968. During the next 32 years, he served as an assistant football coach (1968-72), head football coach (1973-75), men’s golf coach (1971-89), women’s basketball coach (1980-93) and assistant professor of health and physical education, along with a stint as an interim athletic director.

It was during that time Abney, who played basketball and tennis for the Blue Tigers from 1974-78, came into contact with Lewis.

“Back in the day, (the coaches) were all father figures, and he was definitely a father figure,” Abney said. “Whether it was (basketball coach) Don Corbett or (football coach) Dwight T. Reed or Leo Lewis, it didn’t matter what sport we played, those men treated us as if we played for them.”

Abney said his first call upon hearing the news was to Corbett, which then started a chain reaction of calls as news quickly spread.

“While it was not a shock to hear the news, as we knew his health was not good, hearing it did still bring chills down my back,” Abney said. “I can’t stress how much when we (athletes) came to Lincoln, we looked up to the people who were teachers and professors. Physical education and athletics were very intertwined — we were all one family down there, and we looked up to all of (those coaches).”

Lewis, who had been living in Columbia, came back to Lincoln after his retirement during every spring, when the university hosted the state track and field meet. Kemna said he did that up until three years ago, when health woes forced him to quit.

Abney came back to Lincoln in 1999 as a coach and said he enjoyed getting to work with Lewis before his retirement. The two also got to work together during the summers with the local arm of the National Youth Sports Program.

“He touched so many lives,” Abney said. “He was a good person.”

Abney added he was honored to be there in 2005 when Lewis was added to the College Football Hall of Fame.

“That was such a proud moment, not only for Leo Lewis and his family, but also for Lincoln University,” Abney said. “That was a very proud day.”

But again, it wasn’t a feat you’d hear Lewis bragging about.

“He wasn’t one who had his voice ring louder than his actions,” Abney said. “He was a powerful man, but a quiet man. People knew him and respected him for the things he accomplished and what he stood for.”

Follow News Tribune sports reporter Tony Hawley on Twitter at @tony_hawley and News Tribune sports coverage at @NTsports.

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