Thursday, August 24, 2006

Grambling greats: Frank Lewis

Humble Frank Lewis called one of GSU's greatest

June 19, 2006

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — Former Grambling State and NFL standout Frank Lewis was always one to quietly succeed. That's his nature.

Yet, it's no surprise that the Houma native will be inducted this week into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. He was, even if he'd never say it, one of the best.

Lewis' teammates will tell you.

"No question, this honor is overdue," said former GSU quarterback James "Shack" Harris, a teammate who shared a 1968 league title with Lewis. "He was great high school player, a great college athlete — not good but great — and established himself as a solid NFL player. With those kind of credentials, he played his way into the Hall."

Lewis' coaches — including former Grambling coach Eddie Robinson — will tell you, too.

"When Frank was right, Grambling was right," Robinson has said. "He was one of the most gifted and versatile athletes I've ever seen. He's definitely in the running as one of our best athletes."

Douglas Porter, offensive coordinator during Lewis' 1968-70 tenure at Grambling, echoes that.

"He was one of the most modest and quiet individuals that you will ever be around," said Porter, "but as a competitor, he had a heart as big of a lion. He made it look easy. Frank was probably one of the smoothest and most fluid runners you will ever see."

But Lewis tends to sidle up to that legacy. It's his way.

"Everybody had talent and everybody was capable of playing on our Grambling teams, whether you started or not," Lewis said. "Some of us were fortunate enough to start, but the others were capable too."

Lewis' Hall of Fame induction, along with a 2006 class that includes Louisiana-Monroe product Chuck Finley and former New Orleans Saints standout Eric Martin, is Saturday in Natchitoches. He becomes the 19th Grambling product to be so honored, and 15th from the football program.

Lewis, though used exclusively as a wideout in the pros, was also a prolific rusher in Grambling's fabled Wing-T attack of the 1960s.

As a junior, the brilliantly versatile Lewis was GSU's leading receiver (with 31 catches for 607 yards) and rusher (145 attempts for 786 yards). He then led all receivers with 25 catches for 411 yards as a senior.

A three-time All-Southwestern Athletic Conference wingback, Lewis finished with 42 touchdowns at Grambling. Over his final two seasons alone, he scored 28 times.

That convinced Pittsburgh to select him in the first round of the 1971 NFL Draft, No. 8 overall. He arrived as the Steelers were coming off a dismal 5-9 season, but the young team had talent and ambition.

Over the next seven seasons, Lewis would play — quietly, of course — an integral early role that jumpstarted an NFL powerhouse in the 1970s.

Lewis was the Steelers' leading receiver by 1974, playing on two AFC championship clubs over the next three seasons — and winning two Super Bowls.

"I feel good about being part of turning something like that around," said Lewis. "We started a dynasty, and improved the franchise from something that for 40 years hadn't won a championship."

But the best, at least statistically, was yet to come. After a 1978 trade to Buffalo, Lewis made 28 or more catches in every one of his five seasons with the Bills — and twice had more than 1,000 yards.

His Pro Bowl season in 1981 included 70 catches for 1,244 yards. Lewis would be named All-AFC, breaking Buffalo's single-season record for receptions and receiving yards.

"Most people relate my career to Pittsburgh, because of the Super Bowls, but with Buffalo the memories are still very fond," said Lewis, who helped lead the 1980 Bills to the playoffs for the first time in six years.

"When I got there, I saw a team at the bottom again, and we turned it around, too," Lewis said. "We were 5-11 that first year, then two years later? Division champs. To see a turnaround like that, it's one of the most rewarding things a player can go through."

Lewis' career NFL totals were 397 receptions for 6,724 yards and 40 touchdowns. He would become the first player in league history to gain 100 yards receiving in postseason games for two different clubs.

And this from a guy who played just a single season of high school football at Houma — and not as a wideout, but at fullback, defensive back and punter — before being signed by Robinson to play at GSU.

Funny thing is, Lewis thought of himself as a basketball player in high school. Some say he could have made it in the major leagues, too.

"Grambling had a lot of great athletes, so it's hard to say who would be the best athlete we've ever had," Harris said. "Whoever that may be, he would have to be compared to Frank Lewis. There has never been one any better."

Lewis, born July 7, 1947, averaged 30 points playing hoops as a prep senior. Several programs, including Nicholls State, actually recruited him as a basketball prospect.

But Robinson saw something else, taking careful note of Lewis' team-leading mark in Houma for interceptions — something he did even while averaging more than six yards an attempt as a fullback.

"He gave us the dimension of the big play," Robinson would say. "The BIG play."

Lewis averaged nearly 20 yards every time he caught the ball at Grambling, and a first down (10.8 yards) every time he ran the ball — primarily as part of either a signature sweep or the timeless "26 Counter."

"He made that sweep look like it was designed just for him," Porter said. "Then he would get open (on a passing play) and those defensive backs were left scratching their heads. They're probably still trying to figure out how he did it."

Football took Lewis to Pennsylvania, and to upstate New York. But he never really left the piney hills and red-clay valleys of Lincoln Parish. Not in his heart.

"There's something about Grambling," he said. "It's a small school in a secluded area. But if I had to choose again — even as big as things are in today's world of college football — I'd still go to Grambling. I'd want that same experience. It's unforgettable. I don't think you could trade that for anything."

Like most of Robinson's players, Lewis still listens intently to the echoes of long-ago lessons taught by his now ailing former coach. The words still ring true.

"I always relate back to Coach or the Grambling experience in my life," Lewis said. "Coach had a big influence on a lot of players that have come through there. It's only right because of type of person he was."

Lewis became the same kind of community leader, and he's done it back home. He has worked for the past two years as a Houma board director with the Workforce Investment Act — which benefits laid-off workers, youth, veterans and people with disabilities, among others.

"He's continued to represent Louisiana well, and never been anything but a class guy," Harris said. "He still works with kids. You don't have a Hall of Fame without guys like Frank."

Through it all, Lewis has remained true to himself. He's just as unassuming today, Super Bowl and SWAC championships aside, as he ever was. Induction in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, as thrilling as it may be, won't change him.

"It's been 22 years that I've been out of football," Lewis said, still awed a bit by his own achievement. "The Hall of Fame is not something that I walked around thinking about. You know now that what you did was enough. I am just happy to be chosen to be in that group."

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Frankly speaking

June 05, 2006

Grambling great Frank Lewis has decided who will introduce him during Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, slated for June 22-24 in Natchitoches.

Lewis, a participant today in the Shack Harris-Doug Williams celebrity benefit golf tournament at Bossier, said he's selected Solomon Cannon of Lake Charles.

"He was a teammate of mine at Grambling, and then a roommate for a while as well," said Lewis, a member of our GRAMBLING80. "We also played high school ball together."

Lewis, a Houma product and All-America receiver at GSU, was an All-Pro for the Buffalo Bills after winning two Super Bowl rings with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Cannon, a respected educator, is now a Class 3A representative on the Louisiana High School Athletics Association executive committee as principal at Lake Charles-Boston.

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Connecting again

June 19, 2006

Want to get former Grambling quarterback James Harris going?

Talk about his old teammate Frank Lewis.

"I don't know of anything that Frank couldn't do," enthused Harris. "I'm not sure that Frank couldn't have played in the NBA."

And to think, Harris' other receiver at GSU that season was one Charlie Joiner, a future Pro Football Hall of Famer.

"With those weapons, you wanted to get to third down," Harris said, laughing uproariously.

A favorite story happened in Week 3 of the '68 season, as Grambling faced Tennessee State. The Tigers, then three-time Southwestern Athletic Conference champs, had unexpectedly stumbled out of the gate, falling to Alcorn and then Morgan State.

Zippy Tennessee State cornerback James Marsalis thought he saw an opening, and said so to a hometown reporter.

"He said that he had never been beat," Harris said. "We didn't allow that at Grambling. We're sitting there with Frank Lewis and Charlie Joiner. The nerve!"

Harris cut the article out of the newspaper, and brought it to the lockerroom.

"I told Frank: 'Here's what we're going to do: In the second quarter, you're going deep,'" Harris said "I wanted to wait until the second quarter for the fans who are late. I didn't want them to miss it."

Kansas City fans will recall that Marsalis would become the Chiefs' No. 1 pick in the following year's NFL Draft. GSU fans, however, have their own special memory.

"I told Frank: 'Run, and don't look back,'" Harris said, laughing again. "'Look in your right shirt pocket, and you will find the ball.'"

Harris connected on that pass and Grambling won 30-21 - and, in fact, never lost again over the next eight games in 1968 on the way to another league title.

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Catching on

June 24, 2006

Grambling great Frank Lewis recognized how the game of football has changed even while he was being honored as one of Louisiana's best.

"It's kind of hard to compare it to my time," said Lewis, inducted tonight in Natchitoches as GSU's 19th inductee into the state Sports Hall of Fame. "You are going to catch 60 or 100 passes these days. The game has opened up so much."

Lewis signed out of Grambling with the Pittsburgh Steelers - a run-oriented team in the early part of its four-time Super Bowl championship run.

In 1974, he led all Pittsburgh receivers with just 30 catches as the Steelers won the first of two titles with Lewis at wideout. (By 1978, the year that Lewis signed with Buffalo, the Steelers had begun to evolve - even as Pittsburgh won a third championship. Receiver Lynn Swann had 61 catches for 880 yards that season.)

Lewis had similar numbers in college, leading all Grambling players in receptions for both 1969 and '70 while averaging 28 catches and 360 yards per season.

"The running back catches that many today," Lewis said, chuckling. "It's a whole different ball game."

By contrast, GSU's leading receiver in 2005, Henry Tolbert, had 74 catches for 1,391 yards.

Still, for all those fireworks, Tolbert averaged 18.8 per catch. Lewis' old-school output? A comparable 18.65 per.

Clearly, Lewis could have held his own.

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