Skip to comments.Cotton Bowl benchmark moment won't rest(50th anniversary of Lewis tackling Maegle from bench)
Posted on 01/01/2004 9:04:14 AM PST by Diddle E. Squat
Fifty years later, Tommy Lewis remained afraid of being booed.
Lewis is best remembered as the Alabama player who came off the sideline to tackle Rice's Dicky Maegle in the 1954 Cotton Bowl. Even today, as Mississippi and Oklahoma State prepare to meet in Friday's SBC Cotton Bowl Classic, that act is remembered as the most famous play in Cotton Bowl history and one of the most bizarre events in any sport.
Maegle has enjoyed a lifetime of fame because of the play an instant conversation piece. Lewis has suffered lifelong grief and embarrassment.
Only this fall did Lewis find relief. In September, Alabama athletic director Mal Moore extended an invitation to Lewis, a former fullback, to carry the ball to officials at midfield during a home game, a pregame ceremony reserved for the school's distinguished alumni.
"I about choked to death," Lewis said.
But there was Lewis, nervous and standing in the tunnel inside Bryant-Denny Stadium before the game against Kentucky. He didn't know what kind of reception to expect. .
"I took off out on the field and the place erupted," said Lewis, 72, his voice resonating with passion. "They brought the house down. It was one of the biggest, happiest moments of my life, being asked to do that."
The play that linked Maegle (pronounced MAY-gul) and Lewis began with Rice at its 5-yard line late in the second quarter. Alabama trailed, 7-6. Maegle, a junior, took a handoff and raced up the sideline in front of the Alabama bench.
As he stood on the sideline, Lewis said, he saw the Rice halfback headed for a touchdown. That's when Lewis, a senior, made his move. "I saw this guy crouching down ... then I thought, did this guy drop his headgear or is he coming off the bench to tackle me?" Maegle said. "I took one big step to my left to kind of cushion that blow. He hit me from the side. It was a good shot, don't misunderstand. But ain't no telling what could have happened. I could be in a wheelchair with a broken neck or a broken back."
The ambush surprised the 75,000 in attendance and countless more watching on television, along with those on the field. Confusion took over. . The impact knocked the wind out of Maegle, who remained sprawled at the Alabama 42-yard line. Rice coach Jess Neely confronted Alabama coach Red Drew.
"Red! Red! What prompted you to send that boy off to tackle ma boy?" Neely demanded in a thick Southern accent.
Drew replied: "I didn't have anything to do with that. He did that on his own, believe me."
During the commotion, the Rice cheerleaders pointed at Lewis as the player who made the tackle. Meanwhile, officials huddled and discussed what to do.
"First, there was this, not booing, but just absolute, total shock," said Felix McKnight, then The Dallas Morning News managing editor who was in attendance. "Then, when the boy [Lewis] went back to the bench, he sat down and he was leaning over, holding his head and everything. He was embarrassed, and the crowd sort of fell in with him from disapproval to approval. They suddenly realized how competitive he was. That was the spirit that took the stadium over. He wound up with standing applause."
The officials awarded a 95-yard touchdown to Maegle. Soon after the game, the Maegle rule was instituted to award a touchdown to any player tackled off the sideline. As for Lewis, with tears in his eyes, he apologized to Maegle at halftime. Lewis, already racked with guilt, feared for his safety.
"I've read all these Wild West books about Jesse James and Texas," Lewis said. "I'm worried they're going to string me up by the goalpost."
Rice won the game, 28-6, behind the greatest rushing performance by any player in a bowl game to that point. Maegle finished with 265 yards and three touchdowns on 11 carries.
Thing is, Maegle's performance has been whittled to a strange tackle.
"Every New Year's Cotton Bowl for the last 20 or 30 years, they show that play on the television," said Richard Chapman, a former teammate of Maegle's who lives in Dallas. "My friends and my acquaintances bring it up that they saw it on television. It's a shame. He was such a great football player."
The play commanded national attention. Two days after the Cotton Bowl, Maegle, Lewis and Neely were flown to New York and appeared on Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town variety show.
On the air, Sullivan asked Lewis what possessed him to make such an error.
"Well, I was just so full of Alabama, and I couldn't stand to see him make another touchdown," Lewis said. "I lost my composure and tackled him."
After the show, Sullivan offered a room for Maegle and Lewis at the Waldorf-Astoria. Maegle said he approached Sullivan and asked for a separate room.
"He just jumped off the bench to tackle me," he told Sullivan. "I don't know how stable he is. He may have a nightmare and might want to throw me out the window."
Life after the stunner
Lewis and his counterpart slept in different rooms that night, on different floors. They've rarely spoken since.Maegle, 69, said he doesn't harbor ill will toward Lewis. "He did what he did to help his team win," Maegle said.
Maegle earned All-America honors as a Rice senior. A first-round draft pick, he joined the San Francisco 49ers. He earned a trip to the Pro Bowl in his rookie season as a two-way player. His career included a stint with the Pittsburgh Steelers before he retired as a Dallas Cowboys defensive back in 1962.
For years, he owned a couple of hotels near Rice Stadium. Comedians such as Don Rickles, Bob Newhart and Jonathan Winters played at the hotels. Maegle still lives in Houston and is a bond trader.
As for Lewis, who scored Alabama's only touchdown that day, he served two years in the U.S. Army after college. After playing two years for the Ottawa Rough Riders in Canada, he coached high school football briefly in Tallahassee, Fla., and Gadsden, Ala. At the latter stop, one of his players came off the bench and tackled an opponent in an eerily similar play. Lewis gave up coaching shortly thereafter.
Lewis became an insurance agent for almost 40 years. He retired two years ago and lives in Huntsville, Ala. He remains an Alabama season-ticket holder. Half a century later, his closest friends don't bring up the wayward play, but those who don't know him provide constant reminders. Lewis said that if he could take back one thing in his life, that play would be it.
"I think he's always had this feeling that because of what he did, he was always going to be on the outside," said Huntsville Times sports editor John Pruett, who has known Lewis for 35 years. "When Mal Moore asked him to do this, I think it took all of that away. I think he thought, 'I'm going to be accepted by the Alabama family.' I think I saw a tear in his eye that day."
Lewis still feels a sting at the mention of Dicky Maegle and the Cotton Bowl. The night of the game, Lewis' wife, Helen, had a miscarriage. They went on to have three children.
"She didn't need to be put through what I put her through," he said.
He hasn't been back to the Cotton Bowl. He said he doubts he would return even if invited.
The applause he received this fall from Alabama fans is all he needs.
"I'm a pessimist, OK?" Lewis said. "I was thinking that a lot of folks would boo me for the Cotton Bowl thing. That thing won't go away. I was thinking, 'Well, they're going to give me hell, but I'm just going to carry it out.'
"I never had such an ovation. That made me so happy and proud. I'll carry it to my grave. That's what Alabama football means to me."
Nice that some of the sting of that game has been washed away for him.
Alabama's Tommy Lewis (second from left) looks to stop Rice ballcarrier Dicky Maegle from racing down the sideline in the 1954 Cotton Bowl.
Happy New Year to All...