The Legacy of Leapin’ Lewis
Story and cover art by Emme Franks.
Chad Lewis grew up jumping on the trampoline and cliff jumping at local lakes. He jumped over shopping carts and over cars. In high school, he was a high jumper for the track team.
But 25 years ago he wasn’t digging his cleats into the rubbery surface of a track, staring down a bar suspended over a crash mat.
This time Lewis stared down into the eyes of a safety who was dead set on stopping him in his tracks. His cleats didn’t dig into the surface of a track but sunk into the wet grass of Cougar Stadium. And no, Lewis wasn’t at the track, where he had jumped so many times before; he was on the football field at Brigham Young University, where he had walked on to the team just months before. He wasn’t meant to jump here on the football field, and he knew it. But he also knew this: if the ball came his way, he was taking it up the field. And he didn’t care if the way he got those yards was a little non-traditional.
Though this was the first time he would jump in a football game, it was far from the first time the idea had crossed his mind.
“I probably thought every day about jumping over someone. It got to be an illness. I wanted to jump over someone so bad. My dream was to jump over someone.”
It was the last home game of Lewis’ freshman season at BYU and the Cougars were playing UTEP. BYU’s quarterback John Walsh slung a pass to Lewis up the middle of the field which he caught before beginning to run up the sideline. UTEP’s safety came barreling in low to make the tackle but Lewis took a step in-stride, propelled himself into the air, and hurdled right over the top of him.
“It was the greatest moment of my football life by a magnitude of a million … and I ran around the field going crazy.”
Just like that, “Leaping Lewis,” was born. It wasn’t college football’s first hurdle, but when Lewis hurdled that day in 1993 he launched a legacy of hurdling at Brigham Young University that continues to this very day.
“I started in high school because I didn’t make the basketball team and I had to do something, so I started high jumping. In the first meet I jumped six feet and four inches. I had good hops but I didn’t have great form. I did that my senior year and I really enjoyed it,” Lewis said.
After graduating from Orem High School, Lewis was admitted to Brigham Young University. Admission to the university was no small feat, but Lewis needed to achieve something else to pursue his degree: he needed a scholarship. Shortly before he left to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1990, his father suffered a stroke and, as a result, the Lewis family had no money to help support him in school. Lewis was already working to put himself through school, but money was still going to be tight. In hopes of eventually earning a scholarship, Lewis approached the track and field coach and walked on to the team as a high jumper. However, after only a few weeks, several of his friends encouraged him to walk on to the football team as well.
“I was built more for a high jumper than I was a tight end at the time. It was really my mission companion who was on the team who came and told me, ‘You need to come and play football. I’ll stop bugging you if you just pray about it.’”
Lewis agreed to pray about the decision. “I took about a week and a half to pray about it and I prayed about it like my life depended on it. That’s when I received my divine answer to play football at BYU. So, I went and talked to Coach Chow and Coach LaVell and they let me walk on to the team.”
After a successful spring as a walk-on, Lewis was offered a scholarship at the beginning of his freshman season. “Coach Edwards changed my life. He gave me a scholarship. That meant everything to me. I was not paying for school anymore, and my parents didn’t have to worry.”
With a scholarship in hand, and a determination to win football games at any cost, Lewis’ dreams of hurdling defenders on the football field were finally brought to life, and after that first hurdle in 1993, the floodgates opened and he hurdled just about everyone who got in his way.
Not satisfied with just one hurdle against UTEP, later in the fourth quarter of the same game, Lewis caught the ball again and proceeded to run up the sideline. Again, the same safety came in on the attack. “I tried to jump him again, but this time he caught me and he tackled me in the air.” A photo taken of this moment, later dubbed “Bronco Rider,” was named the 1993 national photo of the year.
“At the end of that game I was sitting home thinking ‘I can’t believe it.’ I mean, I wanted to do that for so long, I’d been thinking about it, I’d been dreaming about it, and I realized during the game I didn’t even think about jumping over that player: it just happened. And I just said to myself, ‘OK, from now on I’m jumping over everybody.”
And so he did.
Lewis’ teammate, defensive back Tim McTyer recalls that “There weren’t too many guys that were hurdling guys like that you know? It kind of started here. You might have seen it a little bit just like instincts, but Chad, Chad was jumping over everybody already back then.”
In the Cougars’ very next game against Ohio State in the Holiday Bowl, Lewis caught a pass, saw the defensive back angle right, and hurdled over him. He didn’t, however, see the Ohio State linebacker come from the inside. The linebacker hit Lewis in mid-air and he landed on his shoulder, separating it. After the game, concerned about the risk of injury, Coach LaVell Edwards told Lewis to stop hurdling players in-game. Lewis agreed to stop hurdling and didn’t jump over a single player his entire sophomore season. After the 1994 season, BYU’s offensive line coach, Coach Roger French, pointed out to Lewis that now that he wasn’t hurdling players, he was only playing “good, but not great.”
Lewis remembers that “when he said that, I made a pact with myself going into my junior year that this is how I play the game … I’m going to jump over every person that comes in front of me if I can. I start jumping over everyone and had a great year and my senior year, same thing. I knew that if I was jumping over someone that I was playing with my heart and soul.”
Lewis’ decision to play with his “heart and soul” through hurdling led to a chain of leaping on the football field from BYU players. Itula Mili and Mark Atuaia, both of the 1996 team, started jumping over players. Taysom Hill hurdled players from Texas, West Virginia, and Utah State. Zach Wilson hurdled a Northern Illinois defender in 2018. Even today, sophomore fullback Masen Wake hurdles in seemingly every game he plays in since he first did so in 2020. And you’d never guess who inspired him to do so.
“I’ve known (Lewis) most of my life and I always heard about him hurdling. I looked him up because I knew he was a big name. It’s cool because the first ever hurdle I watched was probably him. Watching him as I grew up, I thought, ‘that’s something I need to add to my game.’”
At 6’1”, 250 pounds, Wake, not unlike Lewis, is no small guy. But Lewis says that being a bigger guy is to their advantage because the defender has to come at them lower to make a tackle which makes it easier to hurdle.
“When you’re going off one foot, you’re able to go in stride like a hurdler instead of like a power jam. Because of that, you’re able to keep that defender guessing, because if you’re going full-speed you can cut either way, run them over, or hurdle. There’s not a lot of time to make a decision and typically they’re just shooting low. A lot of times their head is down and they’re catching nothing but air because Masen is over the top of them.”
Wake agrees that being a big guy helps, but he confessed he doesn’t think about any part of the hurdle all that much: “I don’t even think about it; my brain just goes, ‘Oh! Hurdle, hurdle, hurdle, hurdle!’ I don’t even think about it at all. It’s a guessing game because you have to guess that they’re going low, but with my body they’re mostly always going to go low so I’m usually right most of the time … . If I see (a defender) full speed coming at me and he’s ducking his head, it’s just instinct.”
Wake’s hurdling instincts kicked in for the first time in his collegiate career last season during BYU’s game at Navy. “I actually got the ball against Navy and I broke a tackle and turned and I had no momentum and it was a weak hurdle. I kind of just jumped over but everyone was freaking out. Everyone was hyping me up and then I get to the sideline and Coach Lamb came up to me and said, ‘Oh let’s not do that ever again.’ But then Kalani came up to me he said it was pretty awesome.”
BYU fans, and college football fans in general, agree with the head coach that hurdles are “pretty awesome.” This is apparent in the roar of the crowd after one of Wake’s hurdles, as well as in the praise that follows on social media. Wake loves to hurdle defenders because it adds an element of surprise to his game and opens the door to extra yardage on a given play, but Lewis believes the fans love it for a completely different reason.
“It’s because there’s an element of danger. That was why LaVell said ‘Don’t do that, you’re going to get hurt.’ When you go up in the air like that, you’re doing something that a normal person would not even think about doing. You’re in the air so you’re completely exposed to a lot of danger and so it’s a reckless way of playing football, but for those who do it, it’s intentional not reckless. But when that happens, the response is always the same: the crowd goes crazy, and your teammates go crazy.”
Wake’s ability to bring energy to the BYU football team meant more than anyone could have ever predicted when during the 2020 season the team played the majority of their games without any fans present. After playing Louisiana Tech in an empty LaVell Edwards Stadium last season, Wake recalls, “It was super fun to be able to create that energy because we didn’t have any fans, so we just had to create our own energy and my teammates went wild.”
And Lewis agrees that a bonus of the hurdle is the burst of energy it creates: “What’s cool about Masen is he knows that he’s bringing energy to his team and the crowd every time it does it. That’s pretty cool that that’s your legacy as a player, that when you catch the ball people are sitting up in their seats.”
Just like Wake today, Lewis got people sitting up in their seats throughout his football career. After reviewing his college film over the years, he found he’d hurdled 17 times as a BYU Cougar and several more times in his NFL career. And it’s these spontaneous, instinctual hurdles on the football field, not his tactically rehearsed high jumps, that he remembers most.
“I’ve forgotten most plays in my life, but those ones, I think because of the fear factor, I think because of the energy they bring to a team, they are just burned into my hard drive. I can still feel them.”
Even now, years removed from his playing days, he hurdles obstacles as an associate athletic director at BYU. From hurdling the challenges of the 2020 football season, to leaping into an invitation to the Big 12 conference, one thing you can say for sure is Lewis has been hurdling his whole life.