COLUMBIA – The father began the circle, and his son completed it.
Leo Lewis II started his football career in St. Paul, Minn., played professionally for 11 seasons, and moved to Columbia after retiring. That's where his son, Leo Lewis III, continued the family tradition.
His father never forced Leo III, or his other two sons, Marc and Barry, outside to throw a football or to make a few catches; he only wanted them to do well in school. Football was something that came naturally to them, as if passed through genetics.
“I didn’t have to encourage Leo to do much of that,” the elder Lewis said in a phone interview. “He had the intestinal fortitude. I cannot remember going out a time or two and throwing the football. Leo was a good field goal or extra point kicker. He learned that on his own. He didn’t do a lot of it around the neighborhood. It was something in him. That was natural instinct.”
His son went on to quarterback a state championship team at Hickman, return punts for Missouri and play professionally for 12 seasons with the Minnesota Vikings.
About 60 years passed between Leo Lewis II starting his career and Leo Lewis III finishing his.
LEO LEWIS II, DEATH DELAYS A DREAM
Leo Lewis II grew up in St. Paul, Minn., and entered his senior year of high school with several college coaches hoping to add him to their teams. The University of Minnesota wanted him. Drake University, in Des Moines, Iowa, where he was born, hoped to add him, too.
Lewis turned them both down in favor of Lincoln University in Jefferson City. He knew the coach, Dwight Reed, well.
“He was a St. Paul boy,” Lewis said in a telephone interview. “I grew up with his in-laws and his family. I knew him right from the get-go. He was one of the things that encouraged me to go to Lincoln.”
But Lewis’ father died before Lewis finished high school in the spring of 1950, which pushed aside his plans for college. Rather than taking his scholarship at Lincoln, Lewis decided to stay home and help care for his mother and nine brothers and sisters. He took a job working at a St. Paul pharmacy.
Lewis was in charge of checking the incoming shipments and making sure everything arrived correctly. He worked from 9 until 5 or 6 every day. It wasn’t something he enjoyed, but he had to support his family.
“It was a very confining job,” he said. “I was inside all the time. I said, ‘Boy, I hope I don’t do this the rest of my life.”
He didn’t give up on football, however. After getting off work and before dinner, Lewis would go to a St. Paul track three or four times a week. He ran five or six miles each time, sprinting the straight-aways and walking the curves. If he felt good, Lewis would go for 12 miles.
Even in the icy, frigid winter of St. Paul.
“Oh, sure,” he said. “You dress properly, according to the weather, and you get out there and run. Once you dress properly, you start sweating and that warms you up. A lot of times, a person can breathe much better in the weather that’s crisp. I liked it when it was a little cool because I tried to build up a good sweat.”
Some days it dropped to 30 degrees below zero.
“Minnesota is one of the states that is the coldest,” he said. “If you go up there to live, there’s no fooling around. You gotta be prepared for the winter, especially if you gotta walk a certain distance or do things outside. People will go up there to live, and the first day, ‘My clothes are not warm enough’ and they go out shopping.”
Lewis stayed in shape in case a college coach wanted to give him another opportunity to play football. He talked with his mother about going to college to earn a degree and help the family that way. She said for him to do it, and Lewis quit working at the pharmacy after one year.
Reed offered Lewis another scholarship to play running back at Lincoln. Over his four years at the school, the team only lost five games. Lewis earned the nicknames “Lincoln Locomotive” and “Minnesota Express” while there. He still holds the school record for most touchdowns in one season with 22.
The Baltimore Colts drafted Lewis in the sixth round of the 1955 draft, but he decided to play in Canada with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Canadian Football League.
"At that time, they weren't paying ballplayers a lot of money, like they are now," Lewis said.
He thought he might only play pro football for a year or he might not even make the team, so he choose Winnipeg because, "I need to get the contract that was the largest. I didn't think I had the talent to play but a year or so."
Lewis missed the 1956 season with an ankle injury and played nine more seasons with Winnipeg, which won the Grey Cup – the championship trophy in CFL – six times, including four times over a five-year span. He retired in 1966.
One of his teammates with the Blue Bombers was Bud Grant, who went on to coach the Minnesota Vikings and won four NFC championships in 18 years.
Grant became an important figure in the life of Lewis’ son.
The elder Lewis was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and U.S. Collegiate Hall of Fame. Lewis has since lived in Columbia, where he raised his sons Leo III, Marc and Barry with his late wife Doris, who was a resident of Columbia when they were married during Lewis' senior year of college.
LEO LEWIS III, SON COMPLETES THE CIRCLE
Leo Lewis III learned much of what he knows on his own. It served him well because he didn't have much size. He was 5 feet, 8 inches tall and weighed 170 pounds during his NFL career.
He returned punts and played quarterback at Hickman. The Kewpies were 7-2 his sophomore year, 10-0 his junior year and 10-1 his senior year — a total of three losses in three years. Lewis helped Hickman win the state championship in 1974, his senior year. He feels the Kewpies could’ve won another.
“We were undefeated in my junior season but didn’t go to the state championship because of the archaic system determined by points,” Lewis said. “You were penalized for types of competition you played. So if your competition did badly, you were penalized for it. That was a detriment to us.”
Hickman defeated Rockhurst in the 1973 season as part of its perfect season. Rockhurst still advanced to the state championship game, where it lost 12-7 to Sumner. Hickman routed Sumner the next year in the Class 4A state championship 54-6.
That win might’ve changed the perception of Columbia schools.
“We had a lot of talent,” Lewis said. “I think four of us played professional ball, over 20 had scholarships. We were a talented group. We were considered country boys by the St. Louis and Kansas City schools who had a team in the state championship. We would always get that. Being in a small city, they didn’t think we were capable of winning.”
“Maybe we were (country boys),” Lewis said before laughing. “We could play some football.”
This perception was something his father also saw.
“They thought this was a country town,” the elder Lewis said. “They thought the only thing was go out to the farm and pick what we had to pick. They didn’t think we had the ability to play football.”
Leo Lewis III went on to Missouri, where he played some quarterback and wide receiver. He also returned punts, which he became famous for. Crowds would chant his name – LEE-OH, LEE-OH – when he lined up to field a kick.
“One of those things about Leo, he returned punts and kickoffs,” the elder Lewis said. “Once a game, he would return a long one. They (the fans) looked forward to it. When Leo had to receive a punt or a kickoff, they looked for him to return 20-25 yards or all the way.”
Lewis III was the kick returner in MU’s first game his freshman season. The opponent was No. 2 Alabama in Birmingham. The Tigers upset Alabama and their famous coach Bear Bryant, 20-7 on national television.
“Most people would probably remember me for returning punts,” Lewis said. “Most people would chant that (my name) then. It’s a dynamic play. I just happened to be good at it. It was the reason I played so long as a professional.”
He tried out with the St. Louis Cardinals football team in 1979 but didn’t make the team. Lewis then went to the CFL like his father, and he played one season there, only with the Calgary Stampeders.
That’s when Grant comes back in.
“Bud Grant, my coach at Winnipeg, became the coach of the Vikings,” the elder Lewis said. “Bud called me one day and said, ‘When is Leo going to visit with us?’”
The younger Lewis tried out for the Vikings and made the team.
“If it wasn’t for his believing in me,” Lewis III said of Grant, “it wouldn’t have happened.”
Lewis III worked 14 years for the Vikings after retiring in 1991. He still works in St. Paul.