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Frank Deford
May 30, 1966
Even in Maryland, where lacrosse enjoys exalted status and local talent is idolized, Jimmy Lewis of New York is hailed as the game's best player
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May 30, 1966

Navy's Star With A Stick

Even in Maryland, where lacrosse enjoys exalted status and local talent is idolized, Jimmy Lewis of New York is hailed as the game's best player

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The state of Maryland brooks no dissent in estimates of its favored athletic stalwarts. Their reputations are inviolate; an appreciative citizenry cannot do enough for them. Thus at the University of Maryland the football coach once was moved up to university president, and now it is considered unpatriotic if one does not purchase hamburgers from either Gino Marchetti (15�, buy 'em by the bag) or Alan Ameche (55� Powerhouse). By the same token, because it brings the Colt and Oriole games to a grateful public, National Beer—"brewed on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay"—is viewed as a benefactor, never as a mere sponsor.

Nothing in the Free State is so highly esteemed as National Beer, though the game of lacrosse is just as indigenous, and it is the state sport now that slot machines are being phased out. Lacrosse has always been the showcase for the flower of Maryland manhood. So it comes as a considerable shock to discover that all around the state, wherever fans fight for the privilege of buying another National—from Steinwassers' over the bridge in Mount Washington on down to Annapolis and the Red Coach—the lacrosse talk concerns that kid from Uniondale on Long Island: Midshipman James Lewis, attackman on the champion Navy team.

Only one other out-of-state lacrosse star has ever been granted such acclaim in Maryland, and that was Jimmy Brown. Like Brown—but for entirely different reasons—Lewis will never be able to play lacrosse again once he graduates this June. Thus something of a sense of urgency has been created. With the end of his career approaching, there is a rush to assess Lewis before he is really gone—out of the game and off to flying Navy jets.

The Baltimore Sunpapers, beacon of Maryland thought, capped the discussions with a cover story on Lewis in a recent Sunday Sun supplement. It was headlined GREATEST LIVING LACROSSEMAN. Indeed, there seems to be no argument left against the claim that Lewis is the best player of his era. Neither is there any contemporary award left for him. In both his sophomore and junior years he was not only an All-America, but winner of the Turnbull Trophy, which is presented to the nation's best attackman (actually, the best attackman to play on Maryland soil). At graduation ceremonies next month he will be awarded the Naval Academy Athletic Association sword for excellence, as the best athlete at the academy.

By now, in fact, only the memories of a few stars from the past can be invoked for purposes of comparison. These include Bobby Poole, an attackman with St. John's of Annapolis in the early '30s; Jack Turnbull, who played at Johns Hopkins and on the Mount Washington Lacrosse Club in the same decade; and Billy Hooper, a Baltimorean who strayed to the University of Virginia and then returned to finish his career at Mount Washington. Hooper retired in 1955. Jimmy Brown was the only other player usually ranked with this group, until Lewis appeared. But Brown played lacrosse for only a few years—when he was at Syracuse—and, as Dinty Moore, the president of the Lacrosse Hall of Fame, points out, there are certain intricacies of the game that even an athlete like Brown could not master in such a short period. Lewis, on the other hand, does everything well. If he could play club lacrosse for a few years, merely to polish his skills with experience and to display them longer, he would remove all doubt that he has never had a peer on the lacrosse field. "If Jimmy played for Mount Washington," Lewis' coach, Bill Bilderback, says, "there just wouldn't be any sense going to the games. He's that good."

Lewis was so outstanding in high school that Uniondale Coach Terry McDonald had to take him out of most games early in order to keep from running up scores. At the same time, he was so small that no college coach was really interested in him, except Bilderback, who had been lucky enough to see Lewis in action as captain of his county's champion basketball team. "You could see then how really strong he was," Bilderback says, "particularly in the arms and shoulders."

Stockier now, Lewis is still only 5 feet 9 and seldom reaches his program weight of 160. "In high school I was really, really small," he says. "Now I'm just small." Lewis got into the academy as an alternate, the hasty appointment of a Mississippi Congressman, since New York's representatives had their slates filled. (Jimmy continues to get letters from one New York Congressman asking him if he is still interested in applying to Annapolis.)

Despite his size, Lewis has managed to stay quite whole in combat against the big boys of lacrosse. This year, however, he is lucky to be alive and able to go out on the field and get banged around. Last Christmas, after a ski trip to Vermont (where he spent much of the time posing upside down in the snow or wrapped around trees for pictures that he sent to an unamused Bilderback), Lewis returned home for a few days on his way back to school. On New Year's night, as he and a friend were getting into Jimmy's car in neighboring Garden City on Long Island, a gang of thugs jumped Lewis' buddy. Jimmy started to rush around the car to help when, from behind, another mugger appeared and clouted him over the head with an unknown object. Jimmy never knew what hit him.

Lewis estimates he was out "only about 20 seconds," but when he did come to, he promptly drove the car home himself, called a cheerful "hi" to his father and went up to bed without a word, so as not to "bother" his parents. He washed the blood off the back of his head, but most of the night he was up vomiting and his head continued to shimmy. Today, months later, he still has a constant ringing in his ears.

"When I talk about what happened," he says, "well—I guess it's all psychological—I start thinking about it. Otherwise, a lot of the time, even though the ringing is always there, I just sort of get used to it. That's what happens when I'm playing. Anyway, the doctor says all the side effects should be gone in a couple of months."

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