7-25-03, 11:50 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
McDONALD, Pa. _ Snapshots.
We are now in the house where Marvin Lewis grew up.
The place where the Bengals' rookie head coach is known as "Marvin Junior." The place where the snapshots crowd the living room and kitchen like a high school football field on a Friday night or a church on a Sunday morning here in the woods and fields that drop into a two-deep zone 20 miles or so in front of Pittsburgh.
Only here in football-mad Western Pennsylvania could the aunt of one NFL head coach (Lewis) babysit another (San Diego's Marty Schottenheimer), 50 years or so before they are to meet in a game on Nov. 23, 2003.
Over here on the living room wall is the senior picture of the 1976 class president of Fort Cherry High School. The only thing piled higher than Marvin Jr.'s aspirations is his hair in vintage '70s fashion.
Over there on the refrigerator in the kitchen is the picture from June 8, 1957, as black-and-white as Marvin Lewis Sr.'s suit and Vanetta Lewis' wedding dress. The photographer is the grandfather who raised Marvin Sr., H.J. Lewis, McDonald's well-known photographer who chronicled everything from life to death through a large lens for a tiny burg of about only 2,000.
Three generations are linked by a note next to the picture. Scribbled recently by their middle child, Carol Joy, thanking them for looking after her four children briefly while she was on business, she ended it with an arrow and the words, "I'm so happy for that day."
Back there, in Marvin Jr.'s room in the three- bedroom ranch is a Pulitzer Prize display celebrating the family's oldest child. In a black-and-white shot, a nine-year old Marvin is on the sidelines in his first year of Little League football. No. 81 has his helmet off, his hands on his hips, and the photographer has caught the instant of a kid falling in love. His expression is frozen between wide-eyed excitement and a wary gaze, as if knowing there will be a heavy, but worthy price to pay to become a NFL head coach.
Next to that shot is a series of color photos taken by the same photographer more than 30 years later. He took them off the TV as Lewis took his Ravens' record-setting defense home to the Super Bowl title in early 2001.
It turned out the man who took that picture in the fall of 1967 was also on his way to a lifetime accomplishment. Eight years later, Marvin Jr.'s uncle and Marvin Sr.'s brother, Matthew Lewis, won a Pulitzer in feature photography for "The Washington Post."
"When you think about it," Carol Joy says, "we did have a legacy. We were raised not thinking twice that we were supposed to go to college and succeed. I think we have all done quite well in the world."
Fitting, really, since the Marvin Lewis Jr., story is pretty much black-and-white. From his predominantly white but tolerant small town that shaped him and boosted him despite having more nostalgia of a simpler time than population numbers. To his Chip Hilton High School career. To his rise through the ranks to become the NFL's third active African-American head coach, a job that begins in earnest Monday when the Bengals open training camp. The success has always been as clear as a Page 1 photo.
Marvin Lewis Sr. shakes his head. He is 68 and long retired after a heart attacked felled him 17 years ago. But he still has the powerful squat build and the yearn to tinker of a man who wrestled iron and the elements on the banks of the Ohio River for 31 years.
He can't tell you why his son never got in trouble, why he always did his chores, why he mowed the acre behind the house every week in the summer even while he worked other jobs, why he had a slew of friends that didn't resent his popularity or his color, why he took a football scholarship 2,500 miles away from home so his parents wouldn't have to foot the bill.
"Discipline, I think," Marvin Sr., says finally. "I think discipline is the difference. He always had it and he's got it now."
That's how he got it. He got it from watching Marvin Sr., live and work in a town where his grandfather helped start the First Baptist Church and raised him in a house with the photo studio that never slept in the back.
If Marvin Sr., wasn't chipping huge chunks of iron off steel at the Chenango mill on the Ohio in searing heat or numbing cold with a 20-pound chisel, he was helping his neighbor across Hudson Street, Floyd Edmonds, get started in the garbage and trucking business. If he wasn't helping Floyd do the garbage, he was helping his neighbor next door, the Thorntons, build houses. Like theirs and his. The Lewises lived in the basement until Marvin Jr., was about seven.
Or Marvin Jr., watched his mother, a nurse, go back to college, flying out on weekends for three months to New Jersey to earn a nurse practitioner's license. With Senior rotating shifts at the mill, he or she often arrived back from work in the driveway and left the car running so the other one could jump in and take off to work while the other watched the kids.
"There's one story about that and I can't remember which one of them it was," Carol Joy says. "But one of them went out to get in the car and found the other one sleeping at the wheel."
Which is why, Marvin Lewis Jr., always seems to be doing a playbook of things at once as the Bengals' young man in a hurry. He zipped so fast through school, church, football that it never dawned on him that black and white was supposed to matter. It still hasn't.
"I never saw Marvin Jr., get bothered by much of anything like that," Carol Joy says. "My brother is one of those people who is running his own race. We always said he pretty much went to the beat of his own drummer. People weren't jealous of him. He could always fit in with anyone anywhere."
Quarterback. President. Yes, he dated the head cheerleader, but even if you tried to hate him, they say you couldn't because he was always down to earth. **
Still is, they say. Last month, during his move from Baltimore to Cincinnati, he stopped here to not only visit his parents, but also friends, as well as his old high school coach. Word spread he didn't get on the road until well after his scheduled departure.
"He's risen above his roots," Vanetta says. "But he's still in touch with them. He comes back to speak at the high school or somewhere and they say, 'Same old Marvin.'"
Here's Lewis, a guy who last year sent an E-mail or two during the NFL season to one of Fort Cherry's defensive coaches, Bill Oliverio, while Oliverio ran his Chevrolet-Buick Dealership. In between trying to stop Tike Barber, Lewis was tying to help Oliverio adjust to some Friday night fronts.
"It might have taken a couple of days and I picked my spots," Oliverio says, "but he got back to me. What's that say?"
All three Lewis kids went off to college and while only one stayed around, they all stayed close like that. The youngest, Andrea, five years behind the 44-year-old Marvin, is an Allegheny County police officer after whipping through college in three years with a double major in psychology and criminology.
Carol Joy, two years younger than Marvin, matched his senior class presidency as a senior class valedictorian, just like her mother did some 20 years earlier at nearby Canonsburg High School.
While her brother left for Idaho State because of a scholarship offer, Carol Joy also opted to travel to Western New England in Springfield, Mass., because of a full ride in engineering. She lives in Akron, Ohio with her husband, a step away from becoming a sales director for Mary Kay Cosmetics. She's been out of corporate engineering for nearly a decade since she decided to focus on family.
If she and her siblings have that tenacious single-mindedness, is it a surprise? There is her father. Just the other week, Senior was lifting a new and rather large TV on to a shelf, and while the women were urging him to get some help (Tom across the street, one of the Thorntons next door?), Senior insisted he had a way of getting it up there and it ever so briefly fell on his head.
But Marvin Sr., almost always has the last laugh when it comes to conquering a household chore. Before he went to the mill at age 21, he knocked out fenders and bumpers for Ford, and he still can't walk by a car without wondering what it feels like to drive.
One of his two cars is 10 years old, has about 160,000 miles on it, and up until recently had a rust problem on the bottom of the frame running under the passenger side. Lewis Sr. heard prices like $400 and $100, and then simply reached up above his garage door, pulled down a rain gutter, and made the rust disappear with some sanding and attaching.
"Why shouldn't I do it? It got the job done," he says with a smile as he wipes his hand along the smooth surface. "Marvin Jr., heard about it and he said, 'Daddy, why not just buy a new car?" I never remember a repairman coming into my grandfather's house. . .When I came in after fixing that with the gutter, I said, 'H.J. is in the house.'"
The thing is, if Marvin Sr., wanted the help, it would come in droves. That's the way it's always been in his hometown. If you aren't related to them, then you're still close enough to call them "aunt," "uncle," or "cousin."
It's why he decided to stay after he got married, got drafted for two years by the army. and returned home from Germany to see his three-month-old son for the first time, and finished building on the property he bought on the hill just above town.
"It's a good place to raise kids," Senior says. "When we see how everyone turned out, we're so glad we stayed."
Jay Hayes has joined Marvin Jr. as the Bengals' new defensive line coach. But three decades ago he was dying to join his real older cousin Jimmy Perkins and his older close-as-cousin friend Marvin Lewis on the youth football team he followed like they were the Steelers, "The Little Rangers." But his parents never let him. It was one of the few disappointments of a happy time.**
"I love it there. I still miss it at times," Hayes says. "It's Mayberry. The people there are hard-working people. They go to their jobs, they go to church, they watch out for each other and each other's kids. You're so familiar with everyone there. They're always willing to help you."
Hayes grew up about five miles away in Bridgeville, but one of the centers of his family's life is the yellow brick First Baptist Church on North Street. His relationship with the Lewis clan was sealed years before he was born when H.J. Lewis and Hayes' grandfather helped start the church.
Hayes' father came from Muncie, Ind., and he was forever known as "Muncie." Muncie and Floyd Edmonds ran the Boys' Club at the church, where the fathers would gather and take the kids on trips to Forbes Field to see the Pirates, or into the city to swim at the YMCA. Hayes still remembers the steel folding chairs that surrounded the ring in the church basement where he learned to box.
It was Muncie who taught Marvin Jr., how to swim and it was Marvin Jr., who came back last September on that grim day to bury Muncie, and it was Jay, then with the Vikings, who knew the significance of the defensive coordinator of the Washington Redskins leaving his team for a day in mid-season.
"To me, Marvin was always my older friend who was really good in sports," Hayes says. "I still see him as the guy who was always the quarterback and the guy who was the superintendent of our Sunday School. A guy who was always leading."
Jay and his brother Jonathan ended up playing at South Fayette High School, but the church cemented the bond with Marvin. The parents are still looking out for their kids.
When Lewis got the Bengals' job back in January, Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Hayes were burning up the phone lines as the 40-year-old grapevine crackled. Not only did Marvin get the job in Cincinnati, he was bringing Jay and Jonathan with him as assistants, so the mothers called Jay at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.
That was great, Jay said, but he hadn't heard a thing from Marvin yet. And would Jonathan really leave college power Oklahoma?
"The mothers still know before anybody else," Jay says. "I think Jonathan came because if he didn't, Marvin told him, 'I'll tell your Momma.'"
Floyd Edmonds is 73 years old and still comes into his trucking company with a blue collar and a shirt with his name on it so he can slide under the trucks to see what's wrong if he must.**
Marvin Jr., knows him as "Uncle Floyd," and his wife is "Aunt Mary," even though they're not. But they are related by faith and, besides, it seemed like everyone in the Lewis family had a rite of passage picking up garbage for Uncle Floyd and his 16 trucks.
"He could run all day," Edmonds says of Junior. "That was back when you didn't put the garbage out on the curb. You had a big green can, and you would go in the back of three or four houses, dump the garbage into the can, put it on your shoulder, and run to catch up and dump it in the truck. He was usually on the truck that finished first."
Another snapshot in a scrapbook that is handed down.
Edmonds is a deacon in the church, where his mentor was H.J. Lewis. Edmonds passed on what he learned to H.J.'s great-grandson, and made him an assistant Sunday School superintendent before making him superintendent.
"H.J. Lewis could take 'The Bible,' and recite it all," Edmonds says. "If you said (the title of) a prayer, he could recite it for you. The entire scripture. Old or New Testament."
The superintendents helped with the curriculum and discipline and Marvin Jr., was what he was looking for.
"I never heard anybody say anything bad about him," Edmonds says. "He was always aggressive. He never started anything, but he didn't take anything either. He was fair and he had a religious belief. He had the background.
"This new job is fantastic," he says. "It took too long coming. He's dedicated." **
Marvin Sr.'s father dropped dead of a heart attack when he was 51, the same age when he had to have a triple bypass to save his own life. The two men knew each other and Senior may have followed him into the photo engraving field if he hadn't died. But after his parents split when Senior was two and they sent their three children to their grandparents, it clung to Marvin Sr. and drove him to be the best father possible.**
"I definitely didn't want that to happen to my kids," Senior says. "I don't know what happened to my father and mother. Those were hard, bad times. I was born in '35 and I know it must have been hard to raise kids then."
How good of a father is Marvin Lewis Sr.? Good enough to say the hard things. When Marvin Jr., came home from Idaho State and said he wanted to be a coach, Senior challenged him.
This was around 1980 and black head coaches in the NFL and college just weren't on the radar. Remember, this was a good eight years BEFORE Doug Williams threw four touchdowns and destroyed for good the myth of black quarterbacks before the halftime of a Super Bowl. It was also nine years BEFORE Art Shell became the first African-American head coach.
Just how far did Junior honestly think he could go as a black coach?
He said, 'Daddy, you go to that mill every day and you hate that job. I want to do what I like to do,'" Senior recalls. "I did hate that job, but that took care of the family. I didn't like school. I didn't go to college. If you don't get it from the ground up, it's so hard to catch up."
Vanetta Lewis smiles a 46-year smile, knowing they raised three children who got college scholarships.
"I tell him he's got a degree in education, engineering, psychology, and criminology," she says. "I even went back to school and got a degree."
Bob Cook quarterbacked Fort Cherry in the Watergate Babies fall of 1974, the year before Lewis took command. One was black and the other was white, but that was probably the only difference because Lewis spent a lot of time hanging out a few streets down at Cook's home.**
They both played quarterback. They both wrestled. Their fathers worked in steel mills. Their mothers were and still are active around the boosters.
"You knew whatever he was going to do, he was going to succeed," Cook says. "He was that type of kid. He was level-headed. I don't think I ever heard him say a bad word about anybody."
But he was just nutty enough as a teenager to join Cook and play pickup football down the road against a tough crowd from Carnegie. They had a linebacker type who wasn't as big as he is now named Bill Cowher and while the game always started out as two-hand touch, that only lasted one play before it went to tackle.
"That's just the way it is," Cook says. "Kids play football anywhere. They love it here."
Football has a field-goal hold on Western Pennsylvania. Theories abound. Jay Hayes says its because the people work so hard, they need a release just as passionate. Vanetta Lewis says it's because there is no pro basketball, no college lacrosse, and baseball has just never been as popular. Maybe football really is a religion, because that's the only thing that competes with it. **
John Somsky also has a theory. He's nearly 10 years older than Lewis and grew up not a half mile from Hudson Street. Another McDonald guy who caught the coaching bug. Probably just like how Lewis caught it. From Fort Cherry coach, Jim Garry.
"There are good, solid kids and they build their way into that. There are certain values around here that fit the game," Somsky says. "Coach Garry built a tremendous tradition. When you went out for the team, he made sure you stayed out. He developed you. He gave you an enjoyed of the game."**
Somsky, recruiting for Purdue, saw those qualities in Lewis even though he was shut out for a ride at Pitt, West Virginia, and Temple. Somsky could only offer him a spot as a walk-on as Lewis eyed an engineering degree.
"He was a tweener," says Somsky of the prep quarterback/linebacker/safety. "Not big enough to be a defensive end, probably not tall enough to be the quarterback."
As fate would have it, Somsky moved to a similar job at West Virginia as the Lewises prepared for the eight-hour drive to West Lafayette for him to start school. During one of his first hours at Morgantown, Somsky got a call from Division I-AA Idaho State looking for good, smart athletes shut out in Division I.
"I told them about Marvin," he says, recounting the conversation. "He's an outstanding defensive player with good resilient strength, good agility, and very tough-minded. They ended up giving him a scholarship sight unseen. I called his father and told him I had good news and bad news. The good news was he got a scholarship. The bad news is its two-thirds across the country."
The next thing Vanetta knew, Marvin Junior bought a college football preview magazine, read where the Bengals (yes Bengals) were on the way up, and in two days an eight-hour ride turned into a 2,500-mile plane flight.
Junior never really told Senior why, but Senior heard from friends he had said, "I don't want my parents to have to pay."
There were immediate signs it was the right move. On the quick shopping spree at the Pittsburgh institution "Honus Wagner's," Vanetta couldn't resist a great buy for eight pairs of black-and-orange socks. And besides, it would remind him of home. When they showed up at ISU, it was all orange and black.
"They thought he was white. They didn't even know he was black," Vanetta says. "They apologized for giving him a white roommate and he told them, 'I've always had white friends.'"
Friends like Cook, now working a Delta ticket counter at the Pittsburgh airport. One day he checked through Rod Woodson, back when he was playing for Lewis in Baltimore.
"How's my man Marvin Lewis doing?" Cook asked.
"He's going to be a NFL head coach pretty soon," Woodson told him.
But Cook already knew that.
It was always as clear as black and white in a hometown newspaper filled with snapshots.