Frank Lewis was as quiet as he was deadly proficient in the game of football. And, in many ways, the Houma native remains just that unassuming.
Until you get him to talking about his college alma mater.
“There’s something about Grambling,” he said. “It’s a small school in a secluded area. But if I had to choose again — even as big as things are in today’s world of college football — I’d still go to Grambling. I’d want that same experience. It’s unforgettable. I don’t think you could trade that for anything.”
That passion, which led to a league championship at Grambling and then a pair of Super Bowl titles in the pros, will be recognized Saturday when Lewis joins the Grambling Legends Sports Hall of Fame. The class also includes former Super Bowl winner Everson Walls, former NBA champion Larry Wright, former Pro Bowl MVP James “Shack” Harris and College Football Hall of Fame coach Douglas Porter, among others. Ceremonies will be held at 6 p.m. at the Fredrick C. Hobdy Assembly Center on the Grambling campus.
Lewis, though used exclusively as a wideout in the pros, was a prolific rusher in Grambling’s fabled Wing-T attack of the 1960s, where he helped his late coach Eddie G. Robinson to the 1968 Southwestern Athletic Conference title.
“When Frank was right, Grambling was right,” Robinson once said. “He was one of the most gifted and versatile athletes I’ve ever seen. He’s definitely in the running as one of our best athletes.”
As a junior, the brilliantly versatile Lewis was GSU’s leading receiver (with 31 catches for 607 yards) and rusher (145 attempts for 786 yards). He then led all receivers with 25 catches for 411 yards as a senior.
“Everybody had talent and everybody was capable of playing on our Grambling teams, whether you started or not,” Lewis said. “Some of us were fortunate enough to start, but the others were capable too.”
A three-time All-SWAC wingback, Lewis finished with 42 touchdowns at Grambling. Over his final two seasons alone, he scored 28 times. That led to his prior inclusion in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
“He was one of the most modest and quiet individuals that you will ever be around,” said Porter, offensive coordinator during Lewis’ 1968-70 tenure at Grambling, “but as a competitor, he had a heart as big of a lion. He made it look easy. Frank was probably one of the smoothest and most fluid runners you will ever see.”
That convinced Pittsburgh to select Lewis in the first round of the 1971 NFL Draft, No. 8 overall. He arrived as the Steelers were coming off a dismal 5-9 season, but the young team had talent and ambition. Over the next seven seasons, Lewis would play — quietly, of course — an integral early role that jump-started an NFL powerhouse in the 1970s. Lewis was the Steelers’ leading receiver by 1974, playing on two AFC championship clubs over the next three seasons — and winning two Super Bowls.
“I feel good about being part of turning something like that around,” said Lewis. “We started a dynasty, and improved the franchise from something that for 40 years hadn’t won a championship.”
But the best, at least statistically, was yet to come. After a 1978 trade to Buffalo, Lewis made 28 or more catches in every one of his five seasons with the Bills — and twice had more than 1,000 yards. His Pro Bowl season in 1981 included 70 catches for 1,244 yards. Lewis would be named All-AFC, breaking Buffalo’s single-season record for receptions and receiving yards.
“Most people relate my career to Pittsburgh, because of the Super Bowls, but with Buffalo the memories are still very fond,” said Lewis, who helped lead the 1980 Bills to the playoffs for the first time in six years.
Lewis’ career NFL totals were 397 receptions for 6,724 yards and 40 touchdowns. He would become the first player in league history to gain 100 yards receiving in postseason games for two different clubs. And this from a guy who played just a single season of high school football at Houma — and not as a wideout, but at fullback, defensive back and punter — before being signed by Robinson to play at Grambling. Lewis thought of himself as a basketball player in high school. Some, like former teammate Harris, say he could have made it in the major leagues, too.
“Grambling had a lot of great athletes, so it’s hard to say who would be the best athlete we’ve ever had,” said Harris, a teammate on that 1968 league championship squad. “Whoever that may be, he would have to be compared to Frank Lewis. There has never been one any better.”
Lewis averaged 30 points playing hoops as a prep senior. Several programs, including Nicholls State, actually recruited him as a basketball prospect. Robinson saw something else, taking careful note of Lewis’ team-leading mark in Houma for interceptions — something he did even while averaging more than six yards an attempt as a fullback. Lewis averaged nearly 20 yards every time he caught the ball at Grambling, and a first down (10.8 yards) every time he ran the ball — primarily as part of either a signature sweep or the timeless “26 Counter.”
“He gave us the dimension of the big play,” Robinson would say. “The BIG play.”
GRAMBLING LEGENDS 2011 INDUCTION CEREMONIES
» When: 6 p.m. July 16
» Where: Fredrick C. Hobdy Assembly Center on the Grambling campus.
» Tickets: SOLD OUT.
» More info: GramblingLegends.net.
» Quote: “Grambling had a lot of great athletes, so it’s hard to say who would be the best athlete we’ve ever had. Whoever that may be, he would have to be compared to Frank Lewis. There has never been one any better.” — Teammate James ‘Shack’ Harris, also 2011 Grambling Legends inductee