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Lewis didn't just sit on the sideline, to his chagrin

January 01, 2007|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

One impetuous act, an indiscretion that resulted in little harm except to the perpetrator's dignity, led to a lifetime of heartache for Tommy Lewis, a former Alabama fullback whose impulsive pride in the Crimson Tide burned a little too bright.

You may have read about it or seen a replay. Much to Lewis' everlasting regret, it's one of the most famous plays in college football history.

It happened 53 years ago today, late in the second quarter of the Cotton Bowl game, Jan. 1, 1954, at Dallas, where Rice held a 7-6 lead over Alabama. In only the second Cotton Bowl game to be nationally televised, Lewis had scored Alabama's touchdown on a one-yard run in the first quarter.

Rice running back Dicky Moegle, on his way to a 265-yard rushing day after scoring earlier on a 79-yard run, broke free around the right end and was sprinting down the sideline for what looked like a certain 95-yard touchdown run.

But as Moegle roared past the Alabama bench, the bareheaded Lewis jumped from the sideline "like a rocket," as the Dallas Morning News' account of the game described it, and cut down Moegle with a perfect block.

Just as quickly as he'd appeared, it seemed, Lewis retreated to the Alabama bench. There, "he threw his hands up to his face and said, 'My God, my God, what have I done?' " former teammate Harry Lee said.

Moegle, flat on his back, was credited with a 95-yard run.

Lewis, sobbing on the bench, was inconsolable. After Rice had wrapped up a 28-6 victory, a still-tearful Lewis apologized to Moegle as they walked off the field, telling him, "Man, I'm so sorry I did that," said Moegle, who later changed his name to Maegle because it was mispronounced so often.

Later, Lewis wept unashamedly in the locker room and told reporters, "I guess I'm too full of Alabama."

Today, living in retirement in Huntsville, Ala., after a long career in the insurance business, Lewis is still full of Alabama.

And filled with guilt.

"If I could take back anything in my whole life, that would be it," said the 74-year-old grandfather, whose memory is a little fuzzy since he suffered a stroke July 4 but is crystal clear regarding the play that, to his chagrin, defined his Alabama career. "But I have to live with it. And I have to live with it on a daily basis."

After the game, the two players were flown to New York to discuss the tackle on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Former Cal center Roy Riegels, who famously ran 65 yards the wrong way with a fumble in the 1929 Rose Bowl and later capitalized on his unfortunate claim to fame by performing in a vaudeville stunt, advised Lewis to laugh it off.

But Lewis never could.

It haunts him to this day.

"I hate it worse than anything in this world," said Lewis, whose teammates included quarterback Bart Starr. "I was the alternate captain of that football team, voted on by my teammates, and they trusted me....

"I just had a rough time overcoming it. I still haven't overcome it. And my friends know not to dare mention it. Nobody who knows me ever mentions it."

Said Lee, his former teammate: "He tells me, 'God, I've had a good life, except for that one moment,' " adding that Lewis believes everyone thinks he's a blockhead.

"I said, 'No, everybody's proud of you.' I said, 'Even the Texas legislature made you an honorary citizen.' The Texas legislature said, 'Anybody that's got that much spirit deserves to be a Texan.' "

To Lewis, still full of remorse, it's not a laughing matter.

Not widely known is that at the time, his wife, Helen -- Lewis was the Tide's only married player -- was expecting their first child. Already experiencing a difficult pregnancy but given the OK to travel to Dallas, she miscarried the day after the game.

"We try not to make an issue of that," said Helen, a mother of three grown children and still as in love with Tommy -- and he with her -- as the day they were wed nearly 55 years ago. "It was such a personal and private thing, and then that was something else that was heaped on top of him at the same time."

Thousands of letters -- mostly sympathetic, Lewis said -- poured in from all over the country. "They'd bring them to the house in duffel bags," his wife said.

Maegle said that if he hadn't taken a step to his left at the point of impact -- he saw Lewis approaching from his right out of the corner of his eye -- he might have suffered a broken back or neck.

"It was a real good lick, I can tell you that," said Maegle, who is retired and living near the Rice campus after a successful career as a Houston hotelier and nightclub impresario. "It knocked all the wind out of me."

Maegle, though, held no grudge. He and Lewis have rarely seen each other since 1954. In 1986, Maegle said, at a function celebrating the 50th Cotton Bowl, Lewis shared with him his anguish over his wife's miscarriage.

"I never have said anything derogatory about Lewis, like, 'He's a solid idiot, or nuts,' " Maegle said. "I never said any of that. I really never did hate the guy, never did dislike the guy. I liked him, to tell you the truth....

"He was a regular guy. He was just a little confused."

Lewis' turmoil lingers.

"At the time, I was so down and so embarrassed," he said. "I knew I had done something really bad. But I didn't know I'd be living with it the rest of my life."


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