When Carl Lewis was an eight-year-old living in Willingboro, N.J., he drifted over to a football field to watch his cousin's Pop Warner team. One of the players got plastered and lay crumpled on the ground, inert. "Be tough!" yelled the boy's coach. "Get up! Be a man!" Lewis was repelled. "Right then," he says. "I knew the sport wasn't for me." And so he drifted off.
He returned to the gridiron last Saturday during halftime of the University of Houston's home game against Pitt. Rather than take the field, the 36-year-old Lewis circled it on a track he had donated to his alma mater. Billed as the nine-time Olympic gold medalist's "final race," the exhibition 4 x 100-meter relay was more of a final trot. Be-fore an applauding crowd of 17,000, Lewis ran the anchor leg unopposed, in sneakers, bringing the baton across the finish line in a decidedly uncompetitive 47.66. "I wanted to run fast enough to look good and slow enough so it didn't end so fast," Lewis explained, his dreadlocks swishing like tassels on a mortarboard. "I was more nervous today than I was at big races. If I had dropped the baton, that would have been it. There's no tomorrow tomorrow."
As valedictories go, this wasn't up there with Lou Gehrig's farewell at Yankee Stadium or Larry Bird's at Boston Garden. It was closer to Dynamite Lady's blowing herself up between halves of an Edmonton Eskimos game: sad but somehow fitting. Sad because, to ensure a turnout, the send-off had to be held at a football game. Fitting, because Lewis's relationship with fans in the U.S. has always been slightly uneasy. Beloved in Europe and Asia. Lewis has never been fully embraced by the American public. Part of the coolness toward Lewis is attributable to a Stateside ignorance of track and field, part to Lewis's knack for undercutting his success with a kind of vain smugness. While winning the long jump at the 1984 Olympics, he got booed for bagging his final four attempts—and any chance at a world record—in an effort to save his legs for other events. Despite winning the 100 in world-record time at the '91 World Championships, Lewis snubbed Mike Powell, who had beaten him in the long jump by breaking Bob Beamon's 23-year-old standard. Lewis even sullied his dramatic ninth gold medal, which he won last year in the long jump at Atlanta, with crass politicking: He maneuvered to anchor the 4 x 100 relay though he had skipped training camp.
At the midfield ceremony after the run, Lewis thanked his family, his coach and his teammates. Then he quoted Frank Sinatra. "I did it my way," he said, "and it felt pretty damn good."
After a victory lap, Ol' Brown Lyes held forth in a tent near the south end zone. He sat for about half an hour and talked. He answered questions, he explained, he expounded, he conversed with the sports-writers assembled before him. Sometimes he argued. Sometimes somebody argued back. "Physically, I feel I could still jump well and run well," he said. "Mentally, I feel it's time to move on. The desire to compete isn't there anymore." Asked if he would change anything in his career, Lewis stared straight at the questioner with an eye that caught his inquisitor like a fishhook. "No regrets," he said. "Nothing different. You go out and do what you think is right." Retirement plans? "I've got lots," Lewis said. "Conducting track clinics for kids, acting, writing fitness books, promoting an indoor-outdoor mountain bike and my own line of dress clothes...."
Slowly, the light began to leach out of the blue Houston skies, and a BBC reporter asked Lewis to say goodbye to his fans in England. A faraway look came over Lewis as he grabbed a U.S. and a University of Houston flag and waved them at the camera. "U of H, USA, U of H, USA," he chanted. "See you later, world. Cheers."
And then he drifted off.