Just one peek into the football history books at Clinton High School would leave any casual sports fan mesmerized. Championships are hard to come by, yet, the Dark Horses have five of them to go along with five other appearances. Four of those championships came with Bob Lewis at the helm.
The Clinton Dark Horse football program is a dynasty, dating back to the early 1990s and 2000s, thanks in large part to the philosophies and wisdom of Lewis.
Lewis’ love for the game goes all the way back to childhood. In high school, he played three sports, baseball being the one at which he was arguably his best. As a left-handed pitcher, Lewis was able to spend some time as a walk-on at Campbell University. But it was football that was always his passion. He recalls watching games on his family’s black-and-white TV as a kid, fascinated by the game.
His love and fascination for the sport was tested in a big way in the fall of 1960. Lewis was the senior quarterback on his football team at Burgaw High School.
It was the first quarter of a game against Elizabethtown when Lewis dropped back for a pass as the defense stormed the line. Unable to get the pass off, he decided to run the ball, but the defense got him.
The aftermath of the collision was a horrific leg injury that saw Lewis rushed off the field and to the local hospital. In one fell swoop, Lewis’ playing days were over, as the severity of the injury nearly led to the amputation of his wounded left leg.
There was a driving force behind the man who would lead Clinton football from a team with just one championship appearance into the powerhouse it has become.
“Sports, football in particular, is all I’ve ever known,” said Lewis. “From a young age, when I was a small boy, I was always fascinated by it.”
“I played every sport I could play, and I was probably a better baseball player,” Lewis conceded.
That is where the road leading to Clinton High School began to be paved. Lewis reflected on playing college baseball at Campbell. It was there that he continued his football journey. His wrecked knee may have robbed him of the ability to play football, but the game didn’t relinquish its hold on his imagination. If anything, it made his passion grow stronger.
Through Campbell University, Lewis did his student teaching at Clinton High, where he spent each afternoon watching football practice. On Fridays, he’d make the trek back to Burgaw to watch his younger brother play.
Lewis launched his coaching career at the middle school level in Clinton before heading to East Bladen for his first high school job. In 1973, Lewis claimed his first state championship, winning the 3A crown.
Lewis departed East Bladen and spent six seasons at Pender High in the early 1980s before finding his way back to Clinton in 1986. Once there, he served as an assistant to coach Bobby Robinson. Two years later, Robinson retired and Lewis took the reins of the Dark Horse program.
When questioned about some of the highlights of his career, it didn’t take long for Lewis to reflect on those moments.
“In my time I’ve won six state championships, so of course those are all highlights,” he said with a smile on his face. “I coached in the old North/South games, the East/West games in Greensboro, I’ve coached the Shrine Bowl twice, once as an assistant and once as the head coach.”
“There’s three other times we’ve played for the state championships and didn’t win, but those are milestones for me too,” he continued, offering the accolades modestly. “I’ll be the first one to tell you that I’ve been lucky. I’ve been in the right place at the right time and I’ve had great coaches and great athletes and I’ve been able to accomplish some things with them that I wouldn’t even have dreamed I could do. It’s been a fun thing for me. It’s been exciting and I hope I’ve left some sort of legacy.”
But, before the highlights of a highly successful coaching career, Lewis had to endure some pretty stunning lows, particularly at a young age.
When asked about a motivator, someone in his life that made an impact, the answer wasn’t his parents. In fact, it wasn’t a relative at all.
“I grew up without a father. My mother raised myself and my brother after my mom and dad divorced,” Lewis reflected.
Alcoholism led his father, J.R. Lewis, to leave his wife and kids when Lewis was in the fourth grade. He was an occasional presence in his sons’ lives until he left Burgaw for Florida when Lewis was in high school. He died of cirrhosis of the liver in Tampa, Fla., when Lewis was in college.
“I had one coach in Burgaw that actually came the year after I graduated. With me being so interested in sports, he and I connected almost immediately and I’d say he almost became sort of a father figure to me. I looked up to everything he did and he tried to give me some guidance.”
That coach’s name was Hershey Hipps and Lewis had nothing but great things to say about his mentor.
“He was the kind of person that a lot of people strive to be but never quite are. For whatever reason, young athletes were drawn to him because of his personality,” Lewis recalled. “His house was always full. There were times I’d come home from college and go to his house before even going to mine. He’s the guy that had more of an influence on me than anyone else.”
Looking toward his own future and that of the Dark Horse football program, Lewis said he is taking it day by day and acknowledges that he will know when the time to hang it all up comes.
“Right now, it’s still fun,” he said. “Most people by this time have walked away from it. I did a couple times, but I missed it. I’m at the age now, though, that I know when I stop again I’m done coaching. I try to take care of myself, my health is good, and as long as I stay in good health and I keep having fun, I’ll be around a while.”
Reach Daron Barefoot at firstname.lastname@example.org.