• Houston Sports Awards

Houston Sports Hall of Fame 2020: Carl Lewis' legendary journey began at UH

First in a series

He made a career out of brilliant moments.

A man who took your breath away as he glided down a track, then found another gear just as he crossed the finish line; an athlete whose combination of grace and power had you shaking your head as he launched himself into the air and floated across sand to another improbable finish.

Yes, we’re talking Carl Lewis.

The man who patented the impossible. A multitalented superstar who equaled Jesse Owens’ four Olympic gold medals on his first try; an athlete whose career spanned more than two decades, four Olympic Games and nine gold medals.

An athlete so dominant, he was named Sports Illustrated’s Athlete of the Century.  A man who thrived on being as mysterious and enigmatic off the track as he was unbeatable on it.

It’s hard to imagine that Lewis, a member of the Houston Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2020 presented by PNC Bank who will be inducted Jan. 21 along with Mary Lou Retton and Rudy Tomjanovich, was ever shy, yet that’s how he describes himself as an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Houston.

“I’m from a small town in New Jersey and there’s zero percent chance that I could have ever thought my career would be what it was,’’ Lewis said.

“Even the dreams that I had, I exceeded it tenfold. And to think that I came here as an 18-year-old young man very, very shy with big dreams and was able to get into a big city like this, make a difference, become a part of it and it has become a part of me so much so that people walk up to me all the time in stores and place and say, 'What high school did you go to again?'’’

He laughs.

“If I didn’t come here, you wouldn’t know me.’’

It sounds funny, but he’s right.

If his dream school UCLA hadn’t ignored him. If Arizona or Tennessee or Kansas or Villanova had felt right. If a coach at UH named Tom Tellez hadn’t seen something special in him. And if the Cougars’ coach hadn’t shown him a way to adapt his jumping technique to solve a painful knee injury….

Lewis’ entire career turned around during his junior year of high school. A late bloomer, he called himself. A skinny kid who had yet to win a state title, he wound up running 9.3 in the 100 and jumping 25 feet, 9 inches in the long jump at an Age Group Nationals meet in Memphis.

“That was the time when I said I could get to the next level,’’ he said.

A year later, he was sitting in Tellez’ office.

‘I kinda knew what I wanted but as a kid at that age, you don’t really say 'I want to break the world record; I want to be the greatest of all time,'’’ Lewis said. “I talked to him about the jumping. Of course, he’s never seen me. There’s no video. No nothing. All he knows are my times and what I jumped.

“He started showing me video of other jumpers and that’s what impressed me. The other schools I went to talked about the school, how great it was. I had amazing visits, but it wasn’t about me, it was about them. So, when he said that, it made the decision extremely difficult because now (UH) went from not even thought of to that really might be the one. But Houston was so far off the map that it wasn’t even close. They had no program. The facilities were a cinder track. It was like there’s no way you’re going there.’’

But on Easter Sunday of his senior year in high school, he decided to sign with UH. There, he took his gifts and redefined himself by pushing the limits of what most thought was impossible.

A few months later, Tellez was heading the U.S. Nationals and convinced Lewis, who was supposed to run in another meet, to sign up and come along.

Lewis had finished his senior year by winning a state title and setting a high school record. At nationals, he was in second place in the long jump going into the sixth round when another jumper passed him.

The top two finishers made the Pan Am Games team. Before his final jump, his mother told him it would be OK no matter what happened. He said no, it isn’t OK. He was going to Pan Ams.

“It wasn’t even like confidence,’’ he said. “It was like this kid was given a toy and they said give it back and I’m like, 'No, you’re not taking it back.'

“So, I went down there and passed him and made it. At the time, it was more being naïve more than anything. It just happened so fast, I didn’t have time to stop and think look how great I am.’’