Featured Stories

Other Pamplin Media Group sites

A life worth saving

• Olympian Jess Lewis thrives at OSU after being rescued from drugs

CORVALLIS

It has been 12 years now. Twelve years since the last drink of alcohol. Twelve years since the last rush of methamphetamine. Twelve years since Jess Lewis got his life back after nearly 20 years as a drug addict.

It is a very good life. At Oregon State, Jess Lewis makes a difference, whether it is in his duties as director of athletic maintenance and counselor, or just as a person everybody knows and likes.

'I respect Jess so much more for having beaten that old booze and drugs thing than I did for all his athletic achievements,' says Dale Thomas, Lewis' wrestling coach at OSU. 'I have just seen so many people fail.'

Caught fame and O.J.

There was a day when Lewis seemed to have it all. One of the most accomplished athletes in Oregon State history, he was an All-America tackle in football and an NCAA champion and Olympian in wrestling.

In three unforgettable seasons, Lewis amassed an 89-1 record as the most feared college heavyweight in the nation, losing only the NCAA championship match as a sophomore. Fans came in droves to OSU meets, many arriving just before the final match of the evening featuring Lewis. He pinned just about everybody. If an opponent lasted a minute, it was a moral victory.

But if OSU fans remember one moment of Lewis' greatness, it was when he chased down O.J. Simpson from behind to prevent a second-half score and preserve the Beavers' 3-0 football upset of No. 1-ranked Southern California in 1967.

'People always tell me, 'The L.A. cops couldn't catch O.J., but you did,' ' Lewis says, laughing. 'Hey, (SC offensive tackle) Ron Yary blew me off the ball so far, I was already in the secondary. All I had to do was run over and get in front of him.'

After three seasons as a 235-pound blend of size and speed for some of the best teams in OSU history, it was on to a short-lived pro football career.

By then, things had begun to unravel for the farm boy from Aumsville, a rural community 40 miles north of Corvallis.

'I can try this, no problem'

Lewis finished sixth in freestyle wrestling at the Olympics in Mexico City, a draw with the eventual gold medalist from Turkey costing him a spot in the round robin.

Disappointed at missing out on a medal, Lewis, only 20, returned to Corvallis for a final season of football and wrestling, to be greeted by the temptations of the drug culture of the late '60s.

He first tried marijuana. Soon it was on to 'cross tops,' or speed.

'Somebody said, 'Just try it,'' Lewis says. 'I never thought I would get hooked on anything. It was, 'I can try this, no problem.' But then you start relying on it. I tell people the truth Ñ I liked it. I did. It led to other things. After a year or two, I tried acid. I tried everything but heroin. I'm not proud of it, but it's the truth.'

That winter, Lewis won his second NCAA heavyweight title, 'but nothing was ever the same after that Ñ how you feel about things, how excited you are about training, how excited you are about life in general.'

A 10th-round draft pick by Houston, he made the Oilers as a linebacker, spending most of the 1970 season playing on special teams. The next year, he was traded to New Orleans, then quit the week before the regular season.

'First time I ever quit on anything,' Lewis says, 'but my heart just wasn't in it.' He landed a job with Winnipeg in the Canadian Football League but didn't last the season.

Trying to maintain

Lewis returned to the family farm in Aumsville, to his parents and four siblings, big boy lost. He got married, but that lasted only five years. He started hanging around with friends who cooked up methamphetamine, which ultimately became his drug of choice. Gradually, he began to lose control.

'I was trying to farm, trying to maintain, but the drugs pretty much take your life over,' he says. 'Farming kept my drug appetite going. My family was saying, 'He is just going through a phase; he will get over it.' I tried an outpatient treatment program, but it didn't work.

'I would go through $100 worth (of drugs) a day, and it kept getting worse. The farm gave me a quarter of a million dollars in stocks over a period of years, and I blew all of it. I didn't know any way out, but frankly I didn't care.'

Lewis' live-in girlfriend, Vickie Hayes, was a family friend who had grown up in Aumsville. She also had become a heavy drug user.

'I used a lot of meth and marijuana,' she says. 'Jess and I, we were lost souls.'

Lewis' family was appalled. In 1987, they asked him to leave the farm.

'We can't stand to see you kill yourself,' they told him.

Jess and Vickie took off to live in the woods near Detroit Lake. For three years, they continued to use drugs heavily. Lewis stayed away from family get-togethers at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

'I was embarrassed and ashamed, but hooked,' he says, 'and I saw no way out.' He earned a meager living cutting woods and clearing high-power lines with chain saws.

Finally, Thomas re-entered his life. Lewis was being considered for the OSU Sports Hall of Fame, but electors were made aware of the downward spiral of his life. When Thomas learned of the situation, he decided to do a one-man intervention.

'Dale's intervention was, 'Come on, we're going,' ' Lewis says, grinning. 'He was the right person to come along.'

Family intervention

Thomas, now 79 and battling liver disease, drove to Lewis' humble living quarters.

'I talked to his parents, and his dad said to me, 'You know this won't do any good,' ' Thomas recalls. 'I said, 'We are going to give it a full shot anyway.'

'I got to Jess' place and told him, 'I don't care what you say or do, I'm not going to give up on you.' At first he said, 'I need a little more time.' '

Vickie had no misgivings.

'I knew it was Jess' opportunity to get a grip on his disease,' she says. 'I didn't know what was going to happen to us (as a couple), but I knew I wanted Jess to get help. I prayed in my heart and mind, if any good at all came out of it, Jess would have a chance. I knew I would be all right also.'

Jess and Vickie hopped into their truck and followed Thomas to the family farm in Aumsville. Thomas had been given instructions by Milestones, a family recovery program for substance abusers.

'I went through all the steps with him,' Thomas says. 'The family sat around the kitchen table, and each had to write a letter about how Jess had hurt them. That was hard for everybody. We were all bawling before we were through. His dad had to leave to go to another room.'

The Lewis family wrote a $6,000 check for Jess' treatment. He spent 28 days at Milestones, 'but it probably took me a year to fully clear my head,' he says.

A month after Lewis' stint at Milestones, Vickie entered the program. Neither has had a drink or used drugs since. They have been married since 1993.

A new job

Soon after his release from Milestones, Lewis was hired to help with grounds maintenance at OSU. Former coaches Dee Andros and Paul Valenti, both working on emeritus status, created the position to help out a person in whom they believed.

'Knowing that only one of three people are successful going through rehab, there was some concern about hiring Jess,' recalls Mike Sandego, OSU's athletic trainer for the last 19 years. 'But we met with him, and as we talked we began to understand his desire to live again.

'You could see him emerging as a person wanting to give back, not only to the university he loved but to Dale Thomas for the faith he showed in him Ñ not wanting to let him down. His commitment was so sincere and genuine, there was no question he was going to make it.'

Lewis earned a master's degree in education, left for a year to serve as a counselor at Milestones, then returned to head the maintenance department and serve as a counselor to OSU athletes. Now 10 years into the job, he has a full-time staff of five and up to 40 part-time student workers helping him maintain the school's athletic stadiums, fields and buildings.

But running the maintenance crew is only part of Lewis' contribution. He helps teach a class called 'Drugs in Sports,' using his personal experience to full advantage. And he counsels Beaver athletes on pitfalls they encounter off the field.

'I feel I was born to do this,' says Lewis, 54. 'I had a little success in sports, a little success in farming, a little success in landscaping, and, of course, a history of drug abuse. It's a perfect fit for me to be around young folks, to encourage them to go in the right direction, to show people how to work hard. I just love this job.'

Hard work, soft soul

Any discussion that Lewis has with a student-athlete remains confidential.

'We had a rash of marijuana use a few years back,' he says, 'and we just try to get the kids back in the right direction. The drugs out there now Ñ designer drugs, for instance, but marijuana, too Ñ are more powerful than ever. You can get into trouble and change your life. When you use drugs, it dampens the spirit in you. I don't want them to go through what I went through.'

There may not be a more popular member of the OSU athletic staff than Lewis, and certainly no harder worker.

'Jess' lone fault in being our maintenance guy is letting some of the coaches take advantage of him,' says Mike Corwin, associate athletic director. 'He doesn't know how to say no. He burns himself out sometimes.'

Says Valenti: 'Jess is a working fool, but he is a farm kid who was brought up that way. He wants to help people, that's all. He is so appreciative for what he has now.'

Sandego appreciates the Lewis soul.

'Jess is so genuine,' Sandego says. 'He is all heart and all compassion, because he knows the pain of going down the wrong road. He loves life. There is no such thing as bad weather to Jess. If it's sunny, it's good for so many things. If it's raining, it is feeding all the plants, and he doesn't have to put the sprinklers out that day.'

A wonderful life

Former OSU Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart, who was Lewis' boss for the last 4 1/2 years, was so impressed that he agreed to speak to Lewis' 'Drugs in Sports' class every year.

'Jess is an absolute blessing to have on the staff,' Barnhart says. 'You wish you had 100 guys like him. He is one of those guys who comes to work early and leaves late. If everybody cared as much as Jess Lewis, Oregon State would do nothing but win Pac-10 championships.'

Lewis long ago made up with his family members. His mother, Dorothy, 84, still cooks on the Aumsville farm several days a week. His two brothers still run it. He visits often.

Vickie was able to renew a relationship with her sister, Sharon, who died of cancer on April 2. 'I couldn't tell you where I would be without the support I got from Jess,' she says. 'He is such a loving and giving person.'

It is an exciting time in Lewis' life. He and Vickie just bought a home in northwest Corvallis Ñ the first in his adult life. Once 305 pounds, the 6-foot-1 Lewis has lost 40 pounds, gained 10 back, but is determined to get down to 240.

Not long ago, Thomas spoke with one of Lewis' brothers.

'You realize you saved Jess' life,' ' he told Thomas.

For a dozen years, Jess Lewis has proved it was a life worth saving.

Contact Kerry Eggers at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..