Sixty-six seemed to be the right age.
After all, Jess Lewis wore the number on his jersey. He figured he would be ripe for retirement.
A week ago, Lewis celebrated his 66th birthday.
On Monday, he celebrated his retirement with a large gathering of friends, family, former teammates and Oregon State fans in the Valley Football Center.
As the athletic grounds maintenance supervisor at OSU, Lewis was largely responsible for those immaculately groomed athletic fields sprinkled throughout the campus, including the soccer and softball fields, and the Tommy Prothro practice fields before artificial turf was installed.
“The plan was to do it at 66,” Lewis said. “That was my old football number.”
Lewis is retiring, but his plans have changed a bit in recent years.
He originally wanted to start a camp for troubled or disadvantaged youth in eastern Oregon.
Nike and some other sponsors lined up to help.
“The problem is, you get older and you run out of fuel a little bit,” Lewis said. “I still have the thought but I just don’t quite have the energy anymore, so I’ve kind of backed away from that.”
Lewis had his finances set with the help of his wife, Vickie, who passed away last year of lung cancer.
“She really helped me save money and be part of understanding how to take care of things,” Lewis said. “I miss her like crazy.
“She was with us (Monday). She didn’t like gatherings but she liked to be involved with people. She was a real people person.”
Lewis plans to travel and spend time with people in his retirement time.
He’ll also stick around OSU to help when needed.
He wants to catch some football games and wrestling meets when he can.
“I hope to. I won’t make them all, but I hope to do quite a few of them,” he said. “Hopefully I won’t have to work them all so I can enjoy them and spend some time with the old football players and the old wrestlers and with the spectators. I’m going to enjoy that.”
Lewis is a living legend in these parts, his story shaped primarily through written accounts and word of mouth.
Of course, Lewis was an all-American football player, a two-time national champion wrestler and Olympian.
The moment that has stuck in most memories was “The Tackle.”
O.J. Simpson and the USC football team was in town in 1967.
Simpson broke into the clear and seemed destined for a long touchdown run when Lewis chased him down in the open field to preserve a 3-0 OSU win.
Or so the story goes.
Lewis did make the tackle, but said he never would have been able to run down Simpson in the open. Instead, Simpson was slowed down while picking his way through traffic and Lewis was able to catch up
“O.J. had to get slowed down in order for me to catch him and there were a lot of people involved,” Lewis said.
Even so, Lewis enjoys the attention he’s received since the play and is taken aback that the legend has lasted over 40 years.
“Just the other day a lady came up to me and she says, ‘You know I was 11 years old and I remember you made my day when you got O.J. and took him down to the ground,’ ” Lewis said. “I’m amazed at how long it lasted, that game, that circumstance.
“It still feels good.”
Lewis was a leader on the football field and the wrestling mat.
His combination of talent and work ethic rubbed off on his teammates.
“He worked hard in the room, too, and he was very supportive of his teammates,” former OSU wrestler Roger Weigel said. “We all looked at him as a leader. We could really count on if we were really close in a match, most times he would get a fall. We really counted on Jess and won a lot of matches because of him.”
They also liked his fun-loving personality.
Former OSU wrestler Lauren Johnson said he was rooming with Lewis during a holiday tournament at UCLA in 1967.
Lewis and Jim Blackford decided to pull a prank on Johnson. They chased him down a hallway, hauled him to the room and scrawled a heart with an arrow through it with on his chest.
“Now, this was done with an indelible ink pen and the next day when I went to weigh in, I couldn’t erase it,” Johnson said. “Our coach Dale Thomas kind of gave me a bad look and when I wrestled my uniform came down and you could see half of the heart and the arrow, so it looked like I had a tattoo, which in those days nobody had a tattoo.
“Jess is just a great guy. He was always there when you were kind of down and when you were having fun he was always leading the pack.”
Another side of Lewis started seeping through as he wound up his athletic career at OSU.
He began experimenting with drugs.
“Popping a few pills, smoking a little dope,” he said. “A few things. We had a little alcohol involved.”
The problem grew as Lewis tried out for NFL teams.
He spent a season with the Houston Oilers in 1970.
“In certain training camps they’d have them available for you as helpers, they’d call them,” Lewis said. “Then to come down if you needed to.”
By the time Lewis quit pro football, he was beaten up and nursing injuries.
Drugs had helped him get through games and the habit stuck.
“I just continued my appetite,” he said. “That’s when I got into methamphetamines, which really just took hold of me.”
Lewis admitted he was hanging out with the wrong people and his will was drained.
He calls drugs the easy way out in that they allow you to escape reality.
It nearly ruined him physically and financially.
Slowly, Lewis was able to pull his way out of addiction with a lot of help. He had a strong support group and went to treatment and programs suchs as Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous.
“A big part of it was just the athletic department, getting back into and involved with sports,” he said. “I love sports and to be around the young folks and see the energy they had without the drugs.”
Lewis has used the experience for good in the years since.
He taught a class called Drugs in Sports at OSU for two decades.
“That’s what I talk to kids about now,” he said. “You never know what they’re going to do to you and you shouldn’t even experiment to try because there’s too many other better things. It takes the real meaning life away a lot of times. It’s so deceptive and false.”
At 43, Lewis started over.
He returned to school and eventually received a masters degree in education and a minor in counseling.
He needed work, and OSU hired him to work on the athletic fields.
“What it did is it gave me the opportunity to start over,” he said.
“I was able to use my farm background on the fields and that helped for aeration, fertilization, irrigation, whatever. And I really like doing that, working with dirt.”
He helped install a new rye grass field at Paul Lorenz Field, which is the same surface used in the 2010 World Cup.
Lewis is well aware that the movement has been going away from grass to artificial turf, but he wants to help in any way possible.
“I think we talk about the work ethic but it wasn’t just about getting something done. He wanted to get it done right,” OSU director of athletics Bob De Carolis said. “He wanted to get it done the best way he could get it done.
“He felt like this was his living room and he wanted to portray the best side of Oregon State that he could.”