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Football Commentary: Emotional trip looms for Lewis

Mike Gilloon | Friday, November 10, 2006

It’s written so often. The column about Army, Navy and Air Force – the wave-the-flag, thank-a-veteran story recycled every Memorial Day.

But it isn’t until you see a football coach’s watery eyes at a press conference that you realize what it all means.

Gregg Lewis could have been an engineer. He could have been a career military man. If all had gone well, he would have attained the rank of Air Force major this year.

All didn’t go well for him or his 11 buddies of the 66th rescue squadron that flew in two choppers on a training mission over the dark Nevada desert eight years ago.

The middle son of Notre Dame defensive backs coach Bill Lewis, Gregg Lewis died that early September night when the helicopters collided, killing everyone on board.

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Tough enough to walk on as a freshman at the Air Force, Gregg played in all of the Academy’s junior varsity games that season and “had a great time” his dad said. He didn’t make the varsity the next year and settled in as a team manager.

Tomorrow, almost a decade after his death, Gregg Lewis will be remembered. Both Notre Dame and Air Force will wear small stickers on the back of their helmets, in honor of the 1992 Academy graduate.

Gregg’s brother Geoff organized the project. He wrote letters to Irish coach Charlie Weis and Falcons coach Fisher DeBerry – both of whom were quick to agree.

That didn’t surprise Lewis. He says he agreed to come to South Bend – after a long coaching career that included three head coaching jobs and a stint as an NFL assistant – because of Charlie Weis.

“Charlie is one of the most caring people in the world,” Lewis said.

Lewis told about the day after Gregg died, when he was coaching the Dolphins in a game against New England. Weis, then an assistant with the Patriots, came up to Lewis before kickoff and gave his condolences.

“I’ll always remember that,” said Lewis.

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Hearing Bill Lewis’ voice quietly crack as he talks about his son, it’s as if Gregg died yesterday.

“There’s really no preparation for losing a child,” Lewis said. “It’s not something you ever get over.”

Wednesday, in front of a suddenly softened, normally cynical pack of reporters, Lewis held up the sticker that the Irish and Falcons will wear on the back of their helmets – a green foot with six toes, the “Jolly Green Giant” logo of Gregg’s squadron.

But the coach who smiles when he remembers a photo of his son that sits in his office, doesn’t want the remembrance to cause a distraction.

Twelve kids in all died that day, and the patch represents every one.

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Bill Lewis and his wife Sandy passed through Colorado Springs a few summers ago and decided to stop at the Air Force Academy. Near the campus chapel, Gregg’s name was engraved on a wall – a memorial to all Air Force graduates who died serving their country.

“It was something we wanted to see,” Lewis said.

Most never have to go through what Bill Lewis has endured.

But it’s part of life at Air Force, where many have given everything for their nation.

Gregg was an engineering student, a smart kid who loved football and his school.

He “didn’t hesitate a second” about choosing the strict Air Force atmosphere, Gregg once told his dad.

Like he always did on Thursday nights, Gregg talked by phone with his father. It was Sept. 3, 1998 and the two talked about the day and the training mission Gregg had that night. Barely an hour or so later, he was gone.

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Helicopters will fly above the forested mountains and over Falcon Stadium before tomorrow’s game.

Air Force players will run onto the field before kickoff, their last names stitched on the back of their blue jerseys.

Gregg Lewis’ is etched on a wall, not far from the Air Force sidelines he once roamed.

But for at least a few hours tomorrow, he’ll walk the visitor’s side of the field.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Mike Gilloon at [email protected]