"Look," he would tell her, "I have to wear it."
But he eventually became famous, for showing people what was under the helmet, for embracing how much he loved this sport and all its beautiful chaos. In 2003, when Tommy Lewis was an old man, Mal Moore, Alabama's director of athletics at the time, asked him to carry the game ball onto the field before kickoff against Kentucky, a thing reserved for distinguished alumni and VIPs. Lewis would later say he was not sure what to expect -- he thought they might boo. But the fans began to wildly cheer him; he almost choked to death, he told his wife, trying not to cry.
Today, after a series of strokes, he resides in an assisted living facility in Huntsville, Alabama. "He doesn't call my name anymore when I walk in the door," Helen told me. But when a teammate came into his room a few years ago, he sang out: "There's ol' ?No. 82." Science, maybe, can explain that, but not to Helen's satisfaction.
When Mal Moore died last year, I recalled the story he'd told me once. "When I was a little boy, the men in my family would go bird hunting on Saturday afternoons," he said. But he told me the birds often went unshot. The hunters would find the Alabama game on the radio, and there in fields of broom sage, their good dogs milling restless around their feet, they would stand at the open doors of their trucks and hang on every call, perishing one play, resurrecting the next.
"I can still hear it," Mal said, and those memories are what reminded him of how to fix Tommy Lewis' shattered heart, to remind Tommy that the game would continue on, no matter how many times we thought we'd broken it.
AND ISN'T THAT the only thing that makes it any damn fun, the stories, the unexpected of what might happen under the helmet?
Here, in the future, recruiting has become a science unto itself; peewee linebackers and running backs, still clutching their juice boxes, are groomed for greatness. Conditioning has not been left to the good Lord in a long time. Bodies are built, speed manufactured, stamina refined. There is even a way to cheat fate -- Jameis Winston will play with a $10 million insurance policy, to hedge his bet against injury.
Me, I'll be watching Jameis with the same breathless anticipation and dread that I watch Game of Thrones with. You just never know when someone is going to lose his head.
The sophomore quarterback, who has already conquered the world, is -- to mix metaphors -- kind of the Kevin Bacon of college football, never more than a few storylines removed from everyone. One of the first big games of the year will be played by quarterbacks who could not take his crown, or at least keep him from it. West Virginia's Clint Trickett and Alabama's Jacob Coker both left Tallahassee in part because they could not beat out Famous Jameis, and they play each other Week 1 in Atlanta. Although there is a whole universe of football to be played before such a prediction is not laughed at, Coker could wind up facing Winston in a national semifinal, or a final. Now, that is a human story. Roll Tide.