Craig Donovan Lewis was once touted as the greatest athlete to ever grow up on the mountain. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound talent was unstoppable on the football field and basketball court as a freshman, but the rising star’s life was tragically cut short in 1987 by a house fire that claimed his life just six days before his 16th birthday.
Now, one day before what would have been his 51st birthday, Lewis will be posthumously inducted into the Grundy County High School Sports Hall of Fame.
Born Aug. 7, 1971 to Joe and Lynn Lewis, Craig was a natural in all he did. In his one season as a Yellow Jacket, Lewis was a starter on both the football and basketball teams and was an all-district selection on the gridiron, but that came as no surprise to anyone who watched him play during his elementary school years.
Whether it was football, basketball or baseball, Lewis excelled in every sport. Before donning his purple and gold No. 34 jersey, he was named the Most Valuable Player of the Babe Ruth baseball league and led Tracy City Elementary School to a Big 8 title as an eighth grader.
James “Duper” Ladd was the Eagles’ coach during the 1985-86 season. Any time it looked like TCE might be in trouble, Duper had one play that never failed - get the ball to Lewis.
On the diamond, his future high school basketball coach, Jody Hargis, remembered Lewis launching home runs during youth baseball games in Tracy City.
“He could hit it out of the big park behind Flury’s when he was a kid,” Hargis said. “That was something you didn’t see anyone do back then.”
Tony Richards, the son of Hall-of-Fame coach Ricky Richards, was Lewis’ basketball teammate and best friend. When the two weren’t playing sports at a campus court or field, they could be found at the Richards family’s house playing sports.
“We played baseball with a tennis ball at my mom and dad’s house, and we had all of these special rules like all kids do when you play backyard baseball,” Richards said. “Although we were playing with a tennis ball, you didn’t want him to hit one back at you. Even that was scary because he was just so good.”
When he went to high school, he made an immediate impact on coach Steve Medlin’s football squad. Lewis’ height and athleticism made him a perfect target at both wide receiver and tight end, and he was just as dangerous on defense as a defensive back.
“He was the best athlete I’ve ever been involved with - from playing to coaching and scouting,” Ted Ladd said, who coached the Jackets’ defense. “He had the size. I mean, his hands were just so large. And he was agile, fast, could jump, catch, throw… just anything. He was like Benji Graham in that he could do and play any sport, but he was just a freshman.”
Before the 1986 season even started, Lewis turned heads in a scrimmage at Tullahoma High School with his defensive prowess against a future SEC standout and third-round pick.
“Antonio London, who went on to play at Alabama and in the NFL, was playing slot receiver for Tullahoma,” Ladd said. “THS had a pretty good football team, but Lewis dominated London, and we beat them by four or five touchdowns. Every time they threw to London, Lewis was there to intercept the ball or make a tackle.
“Then, on offense, whenever we threw it to Lewis, they couldn’t bring him down. It was a true testament to how good he was at that level.”
Lewis helped Grundy County to a 4-8 season, improving its record by two wins from the previous year. He was named the Herald’s Player of the Week following the final game of the season on Oct. 17 when he totaled 99 yards on five catches against the Warriors despite a 28-7 loss. Following the season, Lewis was named to the All-Sequatchie Valley Conference Team.
Once the football season was in the books, Lewis turned his attention to basketball. Because he was not able to participate in preseason practices due to football, Lewis spent many opening tips on the bench in the early goings, but he made the most out of his playing time and soon earned a spot in Hargis’ starting five.
“He gave our starters fits in practice, and that earned him playing time,” Hargis said. “He was able to hold his own against anyone and he wasn’t intimidated by any team we played.
“In his very first game, he came off the bench against Cannon County and scored 10 points with 19 rebounds. When Craig was in the game, Cannon didn’t get a single offensive board.”
Aside from his physical attributes, Lewis’ mental maturity was remarkable for a freshman. In a regular-season game at AAA Coffee County, a defensive adjustment suggested by Lewis helped AA Grundy grit out a win over a Red Raiders team that Hargis said the Jackets had no business beating.
In a back-and-forth battle in the fourth, Lewis was playing center with four fouls, and Gerald Grimes was playing forward with just two fouls. CCCHS had a long, lanky center who could not miss in the paint. Lewis, playing in foul trouble, could do nothing but go straight up and hope it was enough to coax a miss, but it wasn’t working.
“During a timeout, Craig came to me and asked me to switch him with Gerald, who had a little more length. I trusted him, so we did. Gerald had about two or three inches on Craig, and he altered the guy’s shot just enough that he missed a few shots in a row. We hit some free throws down the stretch and wound up winning.
“I remember telling John Nixon that move made me look like a defensive genius, but it was all Craig’s idea,” Hargis said.
His 10 points and 10 rebounds per game in his rookie year helped GCHS end the season in second place behind Marion County with a 17-11 record.
Despite his talent on the diamond, Lewis didn’t play baseball at Grundy County. Richards said Lewis had grown tired of the sport, but believed he would have played as a sophomore. Ladd believed he would have, as well, and Lewis was very close to the program. He could often be seen at baseball games, cheering on his fellow Yellow Jackets, and had even planned on missing the first week of football camp to go to Augusta, Georgia with the team for the Dixie League World Series after GCHS won the summer league’s state championship.
“[Chris] Pickett had picked up the bus, and all the parents and players were meeting at his house to leave,” Ladd said. “Lewis showed up with a Green Bay Packers gym bag and was ready to ride with us, but as we were pulling out, he told Pickett to stop the bus. He was so excited about football practice starting the next day that he decided not to go on the trip. Pickett and I tried to talk him into going, but he didn’t want to miss the first day of practice.
“That turned out to be the night of the fire.”
Football practice was scheduled to begin Saturday, Aug. 1 at John A. Anderson Field, but just hours before the Yellow Jackets were to begin preparation for the 1987 season, a fire engulfed the house Lewis and his mother were sleeping in on Lakes Road. Reports say Tracy City Police Chief Jim Nunley spotted the fire around 3:15 a.m. while out on patrol. By the time firefighters arrived at the residence, the flames had completely swallowed the home.
“The news just gutted us,” Ladd said. “We were just in disbelief, and then we had to tell the team - filled with many of his football teammates - about what had happened.”
Richards and fellow freshman Monte McBee were in the hotel pool when Ladd and Pickett learned of the tragedy.
“I’ll never forget it,” Richards said. “Coach Ladd came around the corner and said, ‘On the bus now’ very sternly. Monte and I thought we were in trouble, but I think that was just Ted’s way of handling it. He was upset.
“When we got to the bus, Coach Pickett was in the driver’s seat crying. I thought something had happened to his wife or something like that. We sat down and Coach Ladd told us what happened. I can remember seeing him standing at the front of the bus, and I was sitting near the middle of the bus on the aisle with my knees pointed out. I don’t remember anything after he told us the news. I just remember sitting there until my dad came and got me.
“I am 50 years old now, and I don’t know that I’ve ever cried so hard in my life. He was like a brother to me.”
Nearly 200 people attended the funeral and burial of Lewis and his mother at Cumberland Funeral Home and Pryor Ridge Cemetery. His fellow Yellow Jackets served as pallbearers and donned their jerseys in honor of the 15-year-old.
Some of his teammates, including Richards, were not in attendance.
“We stayed in Augusta and played in the World Series because that’s what we all thought Craig would want us to do, but we were in no shape to play,” Richards said. “All I could think about was how I had just lost my best friend.
“We weren’t able to be at the funeral, and it was probably for the best, but I still sometimes wish I could have been there. When I got home, my mom had clipped all of the stories and obituaries out of the papers for me. I just remember sitting on the floor looking at them and crying.”
Lewis’ legend survives through friends, family, coaches and teammates, and what could have been of his athletic career still mystifies many.
Richards, who went on to play baseball at the University of the South, was one of many who thought Lewis had “major league” talent.
“Of all of the guys I ever played with, Craig would have been the one to go pro,” Richards said. “He had the talent to play both baseball and football at a high college level and professionally. He would have been a Deion Sanders type who could have had his pick of sports.”
Ladd corroborated the sentiment and saw an athletic career well beyond high school for the triple threat.
“He had all the tools to be a catcher at the collegiate and pro baseball levels,” Ladd said. “If his future wasn’t in baseball, he was an amazing outside linebacker and wide receiver in football.”
Hargis, who saw Lewis just days before his death, expected him to play baseball his final three years of high school and be drafted.
“A week or two before he died, I gave him a ride from the Dari Delight to the ball park,” Hargis said. “It was amazing just how much bigger and stronger he had gotten over the summer. I had a little Chevy Sprint, and he absolutely filled up the front seat. He told me about how much he was looking forward to football, and that was the last conversation I had with him. I just know he would have gone on to do something special.”
Lewis and the Class of 2022 are set to be inducted into the GCHS Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday, Aug. 6. The annual banquet and induction ceremony will be hosted inside the GCHS cafeteria. Social hour begins at 4 p.m., dinner will be served at 5 p.m. and the awards ceremony will follow. Tickets will soon be available for purchase in advance at a discounted rate from members of the GCHS Sports Hall of Fame Committee for $20. The discounted ticket deadline is July 23. Tickets will be available for purchase at the door the night of the banquet for $25.