Thursday, May 16, 2013

Leo Lewis II transitions from the NFL while obtaining Ph.D

Every turn he took they said he was too small.  They said he was too small to play college football.  He excelled. He was much too small to make it in the NFL.  He played 13 seasons.

Leo Lewis III wasn’t heavily recruited out of high school after winning the state championship for Columbia Hickman High School in 1974.  He didn’t get drafted after playing football for the University of Missouri.  He’s only 5-foot-7.  When he played he only weighed 167 pounds.

It’s hard to measure the size of a person’s heart.

Maybe it’s something in the gene pool.  Leo Lewis, Jr., his father, is a legend of the Canadian Football League.  He was a running back with the Winnipeg Bombers and was named All-Pro six times and earned a spot in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1973.  The older Leo had an 11-year career and rushed for 8,861 yards, and averaged 29.1 as a kickoff returner.

Pops has another son, Marc Lewis, who played professionally for the USFL Denver Gold and the CFL’s Oakland Invaders.  All three were too small to play.  All three have big hearts and a determination not to be ruled by the narrow limits people use to measure possibilities.

Leo III was cut or released five times – three times by the Vikings and one each by the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cleveland Brown.  He returned each season to play for the Vikings.  When he retired in 1991, he had played in more games than any Viking wide receiver and was the team’s all-time leader in punt returns.  He outlasted three head coaches.

He kept coming back. He also kept going back to school.

 “I took classes every year after leaving Missouri,” the younger Leo told me.  In 1985, he obtained a Master of Science degree from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.

He knew his stay in the NFL would be short.  Younger, faster athletes kept vying for his spot on the team.

“You have to prepare for life after the NFL,” Lewis says.  “It can end anytime.”

He now holds a Ph.D.

 In 1997, Lewis earned his Ph.D. in Kinesiology from the University of Minnesota. His work focused on the social and psychological dimensions of sports. 

Lewis was appointed the Director of Player Development for the Vikings in 1992.  He managed the team’s personal and career development programs that included encouraging personal growth in the areas of continuing education, financial management, alternative career exploration, and family assistance.  In 2000, the program was awarded the most outstanding in the NFL.

In 2006, he was appointed associate director of athletics and student athlete development at the University of Minnesota. Lewis prepares student/athletes for the realities that face professional athletes.  He preaches the message that life must continue after the helmet, shoulder pads and cleats are placed in the locker the last time.

Lewis teaches his own story.

“Things are much harder for athletes today,” Lewis says.  “They have so much more expected of them than when I played.”

There’s more time spent preparing to play.  There’s more time spent in the classroom.  There’s more time spent on the road.  Today’s athletes are expected to do so much more.

“We have to stress the importance of academics,” Lewis says.  “It’s what keeps so many from being unable to play.”

Athletes come to college with a variety of needs.  Lewis is developing a program that tailors the student/athlete.  It’s a holistic approach that keeps many from falling through the cracks.  Some enter college prepared for the transition.  Others lack the tools needed to conform to the expectations of college life.

Then there’s the influence of parents. Lewis says his parents stressed the importance of academics.  It’s what kept him going back to take classes - one summer at a time, until he was ready to write his dissertation.

“I had people in my life that steered me in the right direction.  I had parents who reminded me of the importance of education.  It’s important to have people to guide you through making the right decisions,” Lewis says.

Lewis was the little Viking that refused to go away.  He was too small to play.  He had just enough to play.  Just enough to keep coming back.

Maybe it’s because Lewis understand life is more than a game.  Maybe it’s the balance between the field and the books that makes for the rearing of a man.  Maybe it’s there within the balance that true strength emerges above the rest.

Lewis said no to limitations.  He also said no to compromise.  He kept coming back, every off season, until he walked across the stage one last time.  He walked as a man defined by his own will to rise above the fame of football.

There are few better suited to teach young men what it takes to become a man.

Way to go Dr. Leo Lewis III.


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