January 7, 2015
Love of the Colors on the Chest
From "No Matter Color You Bleed," Rick Bragg, ESPN the Magazine 8/18/14
Dicky Maegle was fast that day, his legs still fresh in the second quarter of the '54 Cotton Bowl. Maegle, the Rice halfback and future College Football Hall of Famer, took the handoff near his own goal line, turned the corner and blazed along the Alabama bench, on his way to a sure 95-yard touchdown.
From the sidelines, Tide fullback Tommy Lewis, who'd scored his team's only points in the first quarter, turned to see Maegle racing across the midfield chalk. In one second, one never-ending second, he launched himself bareheaded and laid Maegle out in one of the most memorable tackles in college football history. The refs gave Maegle his touchdown, and Rice would eventually win 28-6, while Lewis was left to wonder forever about what he had done. He lost his composure, he would later say as a guest with Maegle on The Ed Sullivan Show, because he was so full of love for the colors on his chest that he had to come off the sideline and knock that man down.
L: Dicky Maegle, Rice; R: Tommy Lewis, Alabama
The tackle lives on and on, as close as Google, or your granddaddy's memories. It is one of my favorite college football stories, not for its strangeness but because it proves something I've always believed: that no matter how much you dress it up or poke at it, college football is, at its core, a kind of beautiful chaos, something science, and certainly not people, can neither manage nor explain. ...
"He grieved and grieved and grieved over that play," said Helen Lewis, who married Tommy Lewis less than two years before that Cotton Bowl. "He was a captain, you know? But people always wanted to talk about that one play." Over their long life together, they would be out to dinner and someone would say, "Oh, you're that Tommy Lewis."
Later, when that person had walked on, she would tell her husband: "Tommy, I am so sorry."
But he eventually became famous, for showing people what was under the helmet, for embracing how much he loved this sport and all its beautiful chaos. In 2003, when Tommy Lewis was an old man, Mal Moore, Alabama's director of athletics at the time, asked him to carry the game ball onto the field before kickoff against Kentucky, a thing reserved for distinguished alumni and VIPs. Lewis would later say he was not sure what to expect - he thought they might boo. But the fans began to wildly cheer him; he almost choked to death, he told his wife, trying not to cry.
Today, after a series of strokes, he resides in an assisted living facility in Huntsville, Alabama. "He doesn't call my name anymore when I walk in the door," Helen told me. But when a teammate came into his room a few years ago, he sang out, "There's ol' No. 82." Science, maybe, can explain that, but not to Helen's satisfaction. ...
Tommy Lewis could have hidden from the game all those tortured years. But, Helen told me, it was his life. A lot of people say that, but she believes, especially as a young man, it was true for him. He never stopped going to the games in Tuscaloosa, never stopped sticking out his jaw to let the whole world take a swing; only his failing health finally kept him away.
Before Tommy fell ill, he and Helen went to see the cemetery plot where they would one day rest, side by side. Something made her ask: "What would you do if I had to be buried on a Saturday," on a day Alabama played?
This game, Helen Lewis told me, "will break your heart." And still, for as many times as it does, for as many times as they tear it apart and put it back together, we keep on loving it.
Helen, though, has not seen a Tide football game, up close, since her Tommy fell ill. "I don't go without him," she said.
Imagine that, something more important.