When Rodney Lewis was growing up, his parents used to tell him, "Be the best you can be." If that sounded like a commercial for the military, well, it's just as well. Everything else about Lewis is a walking, talking recruiting poster anyway.
Be all that you can be . . . ? Well, let's see. Lewis is a good student, packing a 3.0 grade point average. He's held a couple of heady leadership positions at the academy. He's earned all-conference honors playing fullback for the academy football team. He attends church on Sunday. He sings in the Academy choir. He doesn't drink or smoke. He's courteous, friendly, gregarious, quick with a handshake, and a smile . . .When players from the Western Athletic Conference came to Colorado Springs last August for the WAC Football Media Day, Lewis took it upon himself to play the role of host. "It's our town," he explained, "so I felt I ought to show them around town." Afterward, Lewis took the players to the officers club, where Hawaii quarterback Garrett Gabriel bought the drinks - but nothing stronger than Coke for Lewis, thank you.
During interviews with the media the next day, Lewis sat ramrod straight in his chair, answering questions expansively and ethusiastically - and sounding very much like a commercial for the Air Force. To wit: "If you like a challenge, I always say come to the academy." Or, "I've always had a sense of duty. Being at the academy has increased that. I've taken an oath to die for my country." Or, when asked how long he planned to stay in the Air Force, "I'll have to see if I like it, but from what I've seen so far it's looking like it'll be 20 years."
In the meantime, the Academy's slumping football team will count on Lewis and running mate Jason Jones when it meets the University of Utah Saturday and nationally ranked BYU the following week.
Regardless of what happens, Lewis has left his mark at the academy both on and off the football field. A year ago, Lewis rushed for 1,063 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 5.6 yards per attempt and earning second-team all-WAC honors. With only three offensive starters returning from last year's 8-4-1 team, the Falcons - and Lewis - have struggled this season. Air Force is 3-4, and Lewis has rushed for a so-so 309 yards and 1 TD on 79 carries - a 3.9 average. He alternates regularly with Jones, who has rushed for 358 yards and 4 TDs on 70 carries - a 5.1 average.
"They're both equally good," says one Air Force official. "That's why they alternate. Also, it keeps the fullbacks fresh. They are such a big part of our offense."
Meanwhile, back at the academy, Lewis has served as a group staff leader, which, according to Coach Fisher DeBerry, "is one of the highest ranking positions you can have at the academy." For three weeks last summer Lewis also was commander of the Combat Arms Training and Maintenance Program, which means he was in charge of some 100 people working with live weapons and ammunition.
"Rodney is a model cadet," says DeBerry. "He's a tremendous young man. He's happy, he's sensitive to other people, he's a fun guy to be around. He'll be a great leader in our air force and in our country. He's what you want your son to be like. I have as much respect for Rodney Lewis as anyone who has come through here."
Lewis, a senior from Oklahoma City, originally planned to attend the University of Oklahoma rather than the academy. Those plans changed after Lewis attended his high school's college recruiting night. Approaching an Air Force recruiter, Lewis asked for information about the academy. The recruiter, initially skeptical, began to question him. Lewis says the conversation went something like this:
"The recruiter said, `But you have to be a good student to attend the academy.' I said, `I've got a 3.8 GPA,' and his eyes got a little bigger. Then he asked, `Do you belong to any special organizations?' I said I was president of the junior and senior classes, president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, president of the high school choir. Now his eyes are really getting big. Then he asked if I participated in athletics. I said I went to state three times in wrestling and rushed for 1,000 yards in football. His eyes were getting bigger and bigger. A couple of days later one of their (football) coaches called."
Lewis, saying he's ready to see the world, plans to pilot cargo airplanes after finishing his engineering degree, which suits him fine.
"I wanted a good education," he says. "I wanted it to be my priority, not football. I'm going to be the first in my family to take a college degree. I'm breaking new ground in my family."