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Former star athlete offers cautionary tale about drugs


Former college athlete and Olympian Jess Lewis captivates students at Brookings-Harbor High School with his tale of drug use and subsequent recovery.

In the storied career of Oregon college football and wrestling standout Jess Lewis, the year 1968 sticks out in his memory.

Lewis, who was then a sophomore at Oregon State University, was selected to represent the United States as a wrestler in the summer Olympics. At only 20 years of age, he found himself competing against wrestlers 12 years his senior.

That, Lewis said, was special, as was being in the Olympic Village and meeting athletes from around the world.

On the way back from Mexico City however, his teammates felt that Lewis was too uptight and offered him some marijuana to relax. Lewis accepted and began what would be come a 20-year battle with drug addiction.

"Is marijuana a gateway drug?" Lewis asked. "I know it has some medical value, but what it did for me was it started a journey of acid, meth, and everything but heroine."

On Thursday, a clean and sober Lewis, now 70, stood in the auditorium of Brookings-Harbor High School, sharing his story as a cautionary tale.

In Lewis’s case, his drug use did not keep him from excelling in athletic endeavors, as he was named the football team’s MVP the following year and won back-to-back NCAA wrestling championships from 1969-1970. However, Lewis, who already won a NCAA title in wrestling in 1967, noted the experience was lacking.

“It wasn’t the same sweet victory,” Lewis lamented. “It wasn’t the same; it was tarnished, it was artificial, it was false, it was a lie.”

Lewis’s drug use escalated and, by the 1980s, he retreated to Detroit, Oregon, to hide his addiction from others. It wouldn’t be until his wrestling coach, Dale Thomas, tracked him down in 1990, that Lewis, along with his wife Vickie, decided to seek treatment.

“Surround yourself with people and friends who don’t use, because there’s a good chance of you trying to experiment with these drugs in that light and being around your friends,” Lewis advised students. “Choose your friends wisely. Somebody that really cares and will support your efforts.”

He added, “I had to fight really, really hard to not use (drugs) again.”

The students asked him many questions after he concluded his presentation — “What’s the hardest part about quitting?” “What made you want to get sober?” — all of which Lewis patiently answered.

“If you could do anything to understand (drug use), fight against it,” Lewis said. “Be prepared for it; it is a feather in your cap.”

Following Lewis’s presentation, BHHS Assistant Principal Alex Merritt urged students not to let drugs get in the way of their ultimate goal: graduating.

“(The teachers and I) all only have one wish, and that is for you to be successful in life and succeed in all of your dreams,” Merritt said. “I can tell you a very, very true fact: This is my fourth year as assistant principal, and the number one reason people fail in high school is drugs and alcohol. The number one reason they drop out is marijuana and alcohol. The more you use, the more you will abuse. That’s a fact.”