Locomotive Still Chuggin'

CHAD SCARSBROOK, HOME TURF

, Last Updated: 8:55 AM ET

Forty-one years later Leo Lewis is finally feeling the effects of playing 22 years of tackle football.

"I'm just now realizing some injuries," the legendary 74-year-old former Winnipeg Blue Bombers running back said recently from his home in Columbia, Miss. "My shoulder's tender, my neck's tender. I can't even throw a football. I never hurt like this playing football."

These days Lewis is paying the price of dominating the CFL for over a decade in Blue & Gold. After his playing days were over he taught and coached at his alma mater -- the Lincoln University of Missouri -- before retiring about six years ago. He tells friends he's getting "fat and sassy ... although the weight's not that bad" and he enjoys spending time with wife Betty, spoiling his grandchildren and getting out to as many college football and basketball games as possible.

"Sometimes I think 'daggone, this is boring,'" Lewis said with a chuckle. "I used to like to rush to get to work or practice, now I wake up -- if I want to -- at 10 o'clock. But I'm here. I'm still living."

Lewis came to the Bombers after a stellar college career at Lincoln. Nicknamed the "Minnesota Express" in college (he was born in Des Moines, Iowa before moving with his family to St. Paul, Minn., as a baby), the 5-foot-10, 185-pounder led the Blue Tigers to a 27-5-3 record during his four-year tenure. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2005.

"That was great," said Lewis, who was also inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1973. "I was the only person inducted that year from a small school. It makes you feel proud that they thought of you in such a way."

HIGHLY TOUTED

Highly touted out of college, Lewis was drafted by the Baltimore Colts of the AFL as well as the Bombers.

"At that time you don't realize what kind of money (football players) were making," said Lewis. "Winnipeg was probably $3,000-4,000 more than Baltimore which still wasn't that much. I said 'daggone it, what happens if I go up there and break a leg? If I go to Baltimore and break a leg I'll get paid $3- or $4,000 less.' I thought 'I may not have a lot of years to play pro so I think I'll go to Winnipeg and, regardless of what happens, I'll earn just a little more.'"

So the "Minnesota Express" chugged up north where he'd become the "Lincoln Locomotive," one of the major contributors to the Bombers' dynasty of Grey Cups in '58, '59, '61 and '62.

Lewis would finish his 11-year career (he missed the entire 1956 campaign with an ankle injury) with 8,861 yards rushing (with a jaw-dropping 6.6 yard average -- best among backs in CFL history), 4,251 yards receiving and 75 touchdowns. He also added 5,444 yards on kickoff returns. He was No. 2 behind Kenny Ploen in The Sun's list of the top 75 Blue Bombers of all time in 2005.

Although Lewis did a lot of damage behind the line of scrimmage, his fondest on-field memory was actually on a kick return.

"The one thing I did pretty good was kickoff returning but I had never ran one back for a touchdown," the six-time Western All-Star said. "I remember finally doing that against Regina. I think I'll always remember that because I'd return kicks 60 yards and get tripped up or someone would catch up to me or knock me out of bounds."

Another thing Lewis can't forget was the infamous 1962 Fog Bowl against Hamilton in Toronto.

"It really wasn't that bad for us on the field because the layer of fog was above us," said Lewis. "The only problem was when we threw a pass, we couldn't see. As far as running, we could see the field but the fans couldn't."

CFL commissioner Sydney Halter halted the game with 9:29 to go and the remainder was played the next day. Winnipeg's 28-27 lead held up. Much of that was due to Lewis's 234 combined yards and two touchdowns.

Lewis retired from the game in 1967 having played his entire career in Winnipeg.

"The old limbs finally gave out," he said. "I had an operation and had both knees replaced and had my ankle replaced."

For the next few decades Lewis taught kinesiology in the health department at Lincoln and helped coach the football team and women's basketball squad.

Lewis kept in contact with several of his Blue Bombers teammates and coaches over the years, including the late Ernie Pitts, Kenny Ploen and Bud Grant (who has called Lewis the best player he's ever coached, anywhere). He's also grateful for the time spent in Winnipeg.

ENJOYED THE PEOPLE

"I enjoyed the people, I enjoyed the coaching staff and the atmosphere of the city," said Lewis.

"The way I was treated down in the States as a black person -- it was different in Winnipeg. They treated us great."

When Kirk Penton of the Winnipeg Sun informed Lewis his 41-year-old club rushing mark was about to be broken by Charles Roberts several weeks ago, the Lincoln Locomotive was shocked. He thought that mark had been shattered years ago. He was pleased when informed 'Blink' was the new Bombers rushing king.

"Good, I'm so happy for him," said Lewis. Tell him I said congratulations. I'm so glad he broke it and good luck from here on out."

Lewis will get a chance to congratulate Roberts in person when he and dozens of other members of the late '50s and early '60s teams return to the city in October to collect their ceremonial Grey Cup rings courtesy of Leo Ledohowski and his Canad Inns Corp.


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