Monday, October 13, 2014

Tommy Lewis

Tommy Lewis is dead.  Most people would be hard-pressed to identify the name; only the most die-hard of college football fans and trivia buff would recognize him as the central figure in one of the most famous, and infamous, plays in college football history.

The year was 1954.  The Alabama Crimson Tide met the Rice Owls in the Cotton Bowl.  Rice had finished the 1953 season 8-2, its only Southwest Conference loss to SMU, and had finished in a tie with Texas for the conference championship.  Because Texas had appeared in the Cotton Bowl more recently, Rice received the SWC champion's bid to play in the New Year's Day game.

Alabama, the 1953 SEC champion with a 4-0-3 (yes, three ties!) conference record (6-2-3 overall), was still four years away from the start of Paul "Bear" Bryant's tenure there.  But it had clawed its way to the top of the SEC, so it was invited to play in Dallas on New Year's Day 1954.

Tommy Lewis was Alabama's fullback, and by no means the team's star.  (That honor went, literally and figuratively, to Bart Starr, who would later become an NFL Hall of Famer and 5-time NFL champion as quarterback of the Green Bay Packers.)  Rice, then something of a football power, was led by running back Richard "Dicky" Moegle, who was always sure to remind people to pronounce his last name "MAY-gull"--so sure, in fact, that later in life he changed the spelling to Maegle to make it easier to remember how to pronounce.

Back in the 1950s, the players played both offense and defense, owing to a rule that if the player left the field in favor of a substitute, the player could not return to the game until the next quarter.  (Later that decade, the "free substitution" rule would fundamentally change the game of football, leading to greater specialization of offensive and defensive players and situational substitutions.)  That rule would lead to the first big play of the 1954 Cotton Bowl--Starr's interception of a Rice pass.  In the ensuing possession, Alabama drew first blood when Lewis punched it into the end zone from the two yard line to make it 6-0.  (The extra point attempt was blocked.)

On the first play of the second quarter, Moegle broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage, then raced 79 yards for a touchdown to put Rice up 7-6.  Later in the quarter, Lewis was replaced on the field to give him a breather.  After the teams traded punts, with a few minutes left in the half, Rice was pinned on its own 5-yard line.  Then Moegle struck again.  Taking the handoff on a sweep, he broke down the sideline for a long run--and only one Crimson Tide player could catch him.  That player, unfortunately, was Lewis, who ran off the bench, without a helmet, and flattened Moegle at the Alabama 42-yard line.

The officials ruled that Moegle would have scored but for Lewis's interference and awarded Rice the touchdown.  The play became one of the most famous in football history.

For his part, Lewis was distraught at what he had done.  "I kept telling myself I didn't do it, I didn't do it," Lewis said in a post-game interview.  "But I knew I did."  At halftime, Lewis ran up to Moegle, put his arm around him, and apologized, then offered an apology to Rice's head coach, Jess Neely.  After the game, Lewis famously said, "I guess I'm just too full of Alabama," in explaining what he had done.  Lewis would repeat the line on the Ed Sullivan Show two nights later, when he and Moegle appeared together.

Rice went on to win the game, 28-6, with Moegle adding another touchdown in the third quarter.  Moegle would be named an All-American after the next season, then enjoyed a seven-year NFL career, mostly with the 49ers, but short stints with the Steelers and Cowboys.  He was named to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1979.

After college, Lewis played professionally in Canada before returning to Alabama, where he coached football for a time, then became an insurance agent in Huntsville.  He was married for 62 years and died yesterday at 83.

In an interview in the Houston Chronicle on Lewis's death, Moegle said that the two had become friends in later years.  "He was a good guy who got caught up in the moment and the excitement," Moegle, now 80, said.  "He was very remorseful, and I thought he was sincere. I liked him."

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