Tommy Lewis Story Was One Of Love For Tide

I remember distinctly the first time I met Tommy Lewis. Anyone whoever had his hand crushed by that handshake does. I told him I was honored and discussed some mutual friends. Later he told me that after that meeting he knew he could trust me.

Tommy Lewis, a fullback and linebacker on Alabama’s football team from 1951-53, died this week in Huntsville, where he had battled severe illness for several years. He had been a wonderful citizen of Huntsville, a successful businessman and community leader.

He has been known for most of his life, since January 1, 1954, as the man who came off the bench to make a tackle in the Cotton Bowl.

When I was preparing to write a book, “What It Means To Be Crimson Tide,” I wrote to many former players about the possibility of them participating. I included a letter to Tommy Lewis, but didn’t expect to hear back from him. He had been approached probably thousands of times about telling his story, meaning the story of the Cotton Bowl tackle. He had always refused.

Imagine my surprise when he wrote back -- a long letter -- saying that he would be a part of the book. I thought his heart-felt contribution was one of the best.

The chapter began with a brief editor’s note. The rest is in the words of Tommy Lewis.

Of the millions of people who love Alabama football, it is likely only one is embarrassed by an event of January 1, 1954. That was the day in the Cotton Bowl that Alabama’s Tommy Lewis left the bench, without helmet, to make a tackle on Rice’s Dickie Moegel. Moegel was awarded a touchdown. The incident was national news, even to Lewis appearing on the Ed Sullivan television show to apologize. Lewis told a sympathetic nation, “I’m just too full of Alabama.” Lewis apologized to Moegel and the Rice team following the game. The Dallas Morning News ran a front page editorial expressing admiration for Lewis as a “genuine competitor” and urging the event be regarded as a “forgivable error.” –Kirk McNair

I’ve never wanted to talk about the Cotton Bowl incident. I knew the moment it was over that I would be hearing about it all my life. If there is one thing in my life I could take back, it would be that. I just didn’t want that guy getting into our end zone. I’m still embarrassed by it. It’s not my nature to do something like that. But I didn’t want to lose my last game at Alabama, where I had dreamed all my life of playing. I’d do anything to keep from losing. And I did. But if I could take it back, I would.

My teammates consoled me. My friends consoled me. They knew how I felt. And Alabama fans have been wonderful to me. I have never had an Alabama fan say that I had embarrassed him. But I embarrassed myself.

I had wanted to play football for The University of Alabama since I was a little kid growing up in Greenville, Alabama. My father had been a great football player at Butler County High School, before there was a Greenville High School. I had seen pictures of him in his leather helmet and heard the stories around town of what a player he was. Everyone knew him. He was considered a tough hombre.

We listened to Alabama football games on radio when I was growing up. When I was a junior and senior in high school I had a chance to be a junior counselor at Camp Mountain Lake near Tracy City, Tennessee. I didn’t get paid anything, but I didn’t have to pay to go, and it was a pleasant experience. The big drawing card for the camp was Harry Gilmer who would bring kids up from Birmingham.

I admired every step Harry Gilmer took. After the regular camp activities each day we’d have a football session. After it was over I’d ask him to throw me a “Harry Gilmer pass.” I’d run down the field and run either an out or a post, whatever he told me to do. And he would run out to his right and throw me that jump pass. That was almost more than I could stand I was so happy. And you can bet I never dropped a Harry Gilmer pass.

There is no way to say how much I wanted to play for Alabama. I worked hard on my own to become a good football player. I don’t know how in the world college football coaches found out about me playing in the little South Alabama town of Greenville, but I still have letters and telegrams from colleges that were recruiting me from around the country. One of them is from Coach Bryant at Kentucky. But I never gave a thought to any of them except Alabama. The day Alabama offered me a football scholarship it made my world. It was the Crimson Tide for me!

Joe Kilgrow was the freshman coach for Coach Drew, and he recruited me for Alabama. And I was glad he did.

One of the men I played with at Alabama was Bobby Marlow. I tell people he is one of the main reasons I went to Alabama. Our Greenville team played his Troy team, and he just about killed all of us. I decided I wanted to play on his side.

Bobby Marlow and I were about the same size, about 195 pounds, but he was twice as powerful. He was the halfback, and I was the fullback because they wanted me blocking for him. We also had Clell Hobson at quarterback and Bobby Luna at halfback. Looking back on now, it I thought that Happy Campbell, who was the backfield coach, might have had an easy job, but I’m sure that’s not true. He was a great coach, and he was always very good to me.

Freshmen couldn’t play for the varsity in 1950, and Alabama had a very fine varsity team. We played three freshman games, beating Georgia Tech, Georgia, and Auburn. The main thing I remember about my first year is one practice. Coach Drew had a separate practice field for the freshmen. But there was a tradition that each year the freshman team would “go across the fence,” which meant go to the varsity practice field for a scrimmage. We knew one day we’d get the call, but we didn’t know when. One day Coach Drew said, “We’re going across the fence.” And so we ran–we ran everywhere–across to the varsity field. And we were scared to death, because we knew there was a lot of quality talent and didn’t know what they might do to us. But we held our own pretty well.

Alabama had made the transition from the Notre Dame box, but we still shifted to the box occasionally. I can remember playing an opening game in Crampton Bowl, and I can still hear the “2, 4, 7,” which shifted us into what was a single wing formation.

I was a fullback only my first two years, but in 1953 we went to one platoon, and I also played linebacker.

We had a good team in 1952 and went to the Orange Bowl to play Syracuse. In those days the teams went to functions together. We didn’t get all buddy-buddy, but we did mingle with them and get to know them, and they were very nice guys.

It was one of those days. The first team didn’t play much over two quarters, but Bobby Luna and I had two touchdowns and Bobby Marlow had one. Our defense scored, Hootie Ingram returned a punt for a touchdown, and, of course, everyone who went in was trying to score. You couldn’t ask them to not try to score. And score is what they did. Bart Starr was the back-up quarterback to Clell Hobson and he got us into the end zone.

There was not a soul on our team who wanted to run up the score on anyone. Red Drew was certainly not the kind of guy to run up the score. But we beat them 61-6.

After my playing career at Alabama, I played two years in the Canadian Football League. Bobby Marlow also played in Canada because it paid more than the NFL in those days. Bobby played for Saskatchewan and I played for Ottawa, so we were in different divisions and didn’t play in the regular season, so I didn’t have to play against him. But we played an exhibition game once. I took some of my teammates down to the train station to meet them coming in, and Bobby nearly beat me to death on the platform.

I always thought that many doors were opened for me in the business world because of my association with our great university. I consider membership in the A-Club to be very special. I enjoyed being a State Farm agent in Huntsville for nearly 40 years, and I suspect having played football helped me to be successful. I wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.

Even though my senior year did not end on a happy note, my joy at being a player for The University of Alabama has never diminished, and I will forever be grateful for that opportunity.


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