When Carl Lewis was an eight-year-old living in Willingboro,
N.J., he drifted over to a football field to watch his cousin's
Pop Warner team. One of the players got plastered and lay
crumpled on the ground, inert. "Be tough!" yelled the boy's
coach. "Get up! Be a man!" Lewis was repelled. "Right then," he
says, "I knew the sport wasn't for me." And so he drifted off.
He returned to the gridiron last Saturday during halftime of the
University of Houston's home game against Pitt. Rather than take
the field, the 36-year-old Lewis circled it on a track he had
donated to his alma mater. Billed as the nine-time Olympic gold
medalist's "final race," the exhibition 4x100-meter relay was
more of a final trot. Before an applauding crowd of 17,000,
Lewis ran the anchor leg unopposed, in sneakers, bringing the
baton across the finish line in a decidedly uncompetitive 47.66.
"I wanted to run fast enough to look good and slow enough so it
didn't end so fast," Lewis explained, his dreadlocks swishing
like tassels on a mortarboard. "I was more nervous today than I
was at big races. If I had dropped the baton, that would have
been it. There's no tomorrow tomorrow."
As valedictories go, this wasn't up there with Lou Gehrig's
farewell at Yankee Stadium or Larry Bird's at Boston Garden. It
was closer to Dynamite Lady's blowing herself up between halves
of an Edmonton Eskimos game: sad but somehow fitting. Sad
because, to ensure a turnout, the send-off had to be held at a
football game. Fitting, because Lewis's relationship with fans
in the U.S. has always been slightly uneasy. Beloved in Europe
and Asia, Lewis has never been fully embraced by the American
public. Part of the coolness toward Lewis is attributable to a
Stateside ignorance of track and field, part to Lewis's knack
for undercutting his success with a kind of vain smugness. While
winning the long jump at the 1984 Olympics, he got booed for
bagging his final four attempts--and any chance at a world
record--in an effort to save his legs for other events. Despite
winning the 100 in world-record time at the '91 World
Championships, Lewis snubbed Mike Powell, who had beaten him in
the long jump by breaking Bob Beamon's 23-year-old standard.
Lewis even sullied his dramatic ninth gold medal, which he won
last year in the long jump at Atlanta, with crass politicking:
He maneuvered to anchor the 4x100 relay though he had skipped
At the midfield ceremony after the run, Lewis thanked his
family, his coach and his teammates. Then he quoted Frank
Sinatra. "I did it my way," he said, "and it felt pretty damn
After a victory lap, Ol' Brown Eyes held forth in a tent near
the south end zone. He sat for about half an hour and talked. He
answered questions, he explained, he expounded, he conversed
with the sportswriters assembled before him. Sometimes he
argued. Sometimes somebody argued back. "Physically, I feel I
could still jump well and run well," he said. "Mentally, I feel
it's time to move on. The desire to compete isn't there
anymore." Asked if he would change anything in his career, Lewis
stared straight at the questioner with an eye that caught his
inquisitor like a fishhook. "No regrets," he said. "Nothing
different. You go out and do what you think is right."
Retirement plans? "I've got lots," Lewis said. "Conducting track
clinics for kids, acting, writing fitness books, promoting an
indoor-outdoor mountain bike and my own line of dress clothes...."
Slowly, the light began to leach out of the blue Houston skies,
and a BBC reporter asked Lewis to say goodbye to his fans in
England. A faraway look came over Lewis as he grabbed a U.S. and
a University of Houston flag and waved them at the camera. "U of
H, USA, U of H, USA," he chanted. "See you later, world. Cheers."
And then he drifted off.