The late Leo Lewis ranks up there at the top of the icons who have worn Bomber colours, alongside the likes of Ploen, Jacobs, Brock, James, Stegall and Walby. And when his name is added to the Insurance Brokers of Manitoba Ring of Honour at Investors Group Field this Saturday, it will prompt another round of nostalgia that, for many, feels like a warm blanket on a blustery wintry day.
“He was a quarterback’s best friend,” said Ploen in a biography of Lewis on the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame website. “It didn’t matter what you asked him to do, he’d do it to the best of his ability. He was there all the time. He never complained. He was a true professional.”
He was nicknamed ‘The Lincoln Locomotive’ dating back to his days before Winnipeg at Lincoln University in Missouri. And by the time his days in a Bomber uniform were done in 1966, he had left a lasting impression with thousands, not the least of which was the legendary Bud Grant.
In fact, here’s all you need to know about Lewis while we begin to document his many accomplishments: Grant, a hall of famer himself who coached both the Bombers and the Minnesota Vikings, to this day still refers to the gifted running back as the greatest player he ever coached.
Just to put that into perspective: after leaving the Bombers after a dominant run that produced so many legends, Grant coached in Minnesota from 1967-83 and again in 1985, and the list of Vikings he led that are now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame includes, among others, Carl Eller, Alan Page and Fran Tarkenton.
And yet, he ranked Lewis above all of them.
Lewis was a star at Lincoln, where he still holds school records for touchdowns in a season (22), career touchdowns (64), rushing yards in a season (1,239) and career rushing yards (4,457).
He was a sixth round draft choice of the Baltimore Colts in 1955, but opted to come north to Canada instead.
“At that time you don’t realize what kind of money (football players) were making,” Lewis told the Winnipeg Sun in 2007. “Winnipeg was probably offering $3,000-4,000 more than Baltimore, which still wasn’t that much. I said, ‘daggone it, what happens if I go up there and break a leg? If I go to Baltimore and break a leg I’ll get paid $3,000-4,000 less.’ I thought, ‘I may not have a lot of years to play pro so I think I’ll go to Winnipeg and regardless of what happens, I’ll earn just a little more.’”
Good call, Mr. Lewis.
The man found a welcoming home here in Winnipeg and was part of a run that is still referred to as the ‘Glory Days’ of the franchise. The Bombers would appear in six Grey Cups during Lewis’ time, winning four: 1958, 1959, 1961 and 1962.
He retired in 1966 after a knee operation.
“Those years in Winnipeg were years of happiness and joy.” Lewis told CJOB’s Bob Irving in the 75th anniversary book on the Bombers titled ‘Blue & Gold.’
“The citizens treated me with respect and kindness and I will never forget it. Even though that was many years ago, the recollection of that period of time is always filled with tender, warm memories.”
Following his retirement Lewis worked with the United States Department of Agriculture, then with Hickman High School in Columbia, Mo. He then spent 30 years at his alma mater, Lincoln University, where he also served as a football, golf, basketball coach and the athletic director.
He was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1973, the Winnipeg Football Hall of Fame in 1984 (the first year of its inception) and the College Football and Manitoba Sports Halls of Fame in 2005.
He passed away in 2013 at the age of 80 but will be represented by two of his sons at the Ring of Honour ceremony – Leo Lewis III and Marc. Lewis’ third son, Barry, is not able to attend.
“It’s going to be wonderful,” said Lewis III, from his office at North Community High School in Minneapolis where he serves as athletic director. “And how fitting, but that’s my 60th birthday. It will be honourable to be up there with my brother Marc for the ceremony. It’s going to be great.”
“Certainly in those days the opportunities for black athletes were not as justified as they are now. The wage scale was competitive back then and I’m glad, as a black athlete coming out of a small college, that he had some options. I’ve studied those cultural issues around sport and it helped me understand what dad was experiencing.
“I look at all the photos of dad and every year somebody sends me a photo of him that I haven’t seen before.”
Lewis III played briefly in the CFL with Calgary and Hamilton and with the Minnesota Vikings – a good chunk of it under Bud Grant – from 1981-89 – and had a brief stint with the Cleveland Browns in 1990 and with the Vikes again in 1990-91.
Marc, meanwhile, played for the Stampeders, Ottawa Rough Riders, and the Denver Gold and Oakland Invaders of the USFL.
“I don’t remember a lot about my dad’s career, but I’ve been able to understand a lot about his legacy because of Bud Grant and me playing under Bud Grant as well,” said Lewis III. “There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t learn more and more about my dad’s career.”
Lewis III is currently writing his own memoir and the more he learns about his father and his playing days with the Bombers, the more fascinated he has become about his days in Winnipeg.
“I’m so curious about what it was like up there, because it’s 50 years ago that he played there and I was only 10 years old when he retired,” he said. “I haven’t been able to come up to Winnipeg and relax and just embrace those who are still living who remember those years.
“I’m looking forward to being able to understand more about his career and what it was like back then from those who remember and those who followed the Bombers religiously.
“I’m proud that this ceremony will only add to his legacy and to help him be remembered.”
THE LEO LEWIS FILE
– Played 12 years for the Bombers (1955-66) appearing in six Grey Cups, winning four.
– Nicknamed the ‘Lincoln Locomotive” during his college days at Lincoln University.
– CFL All-Star in 1962.
– CFL West Division All-Star in 1955, 1958, 1960-62, 1964.
– Inducted in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1973.
– Inducted the Winnipeg Football Club Hall of Fame in 1984.
– Inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame in 2005.
– Led the Bombers in rushing n 1958, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1964.
– Remains the Bombers all-time combined yardage leader with 18,577 yards (8,861 rushing; 4,251 receiving, 5,465 in returns).
– Was the Bombers all-time leading rusher upon his retirement in 1966 until Charles Roberts surpassed him during the 2007 season. Averaged 6.6 yards per carry.
– Is the Bombers all-time leader in kickoff-return yards with 5,444. Retired as the CFL’s all-time leader in kickoff-return yards (now fifth).