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TRIBUNE PHOTO: KERRY EGGERS - Jess Lewis (seated), one of the greatest athletes in Oregon State history, chats with friends Wednesday at the Lebanon Rehabilitation Center.LEBANON -- The story isn't so much about the miracle of recovery, though Jess Lewis' escape from his date with mortality has been nothing short of that.

It's not so much about the advancement of medical care, though that has been a real part of it, too.

Maybe it's more about the healing power of loved ones, the will to live and an opportunity for a rebirth at the ripe old age of 68.

"When you have a heart attack, it gives you a chance to start over," Lewis said Wednesday at the Lebanon Rehabilitation Center, his voice choking with emotion. "I get a chance to start over. I think I'm going to do it right this time."

On Aug. 14, the former Oregon State football/wrestling great suffered a stroke after being admitted to Good Samaritan Hospital in Corvallis. In the aftermath, family members and friends were deeply concerned. Then it got worse.

Nine days later, Lewis had a heart attack that took him perilously close to the pearly gates.

"He flat-lined," says Craig Hanneman, his former teammate and close friend. "We very nearly lost Jess."

Lewis was revived through cardiopulmonary resuscitation. On Aug. 26, he was moved from Good Sam to the Lebanon Rehab Center to begin the road back.

A week later, he looks like the old Jess again.

He is getting around with a walker, undergoing speech and physical therapy, and greeting a flock of visitors with a smile and a bear hug.

"Jess is really doing well," says Mike Gleason, a cousin who has been instrumental in helping Lewis with his recovery. "It's been just great to see."

Lewis is showing his old sense of humor about the turn of events.

"Well, you know what they say, Mike," he told Gleason. "You only live twice."

The irony of the Lewis' recent medical emergency is striking. When his late wife, Vicki, was still alive, they both signed advance directives asking that they not be revived in a catastrophic situation. Fortunately, the medics attending to Lewis during his heart attack weren't aware of the directive.

"After the heart stopped, they did the CPR -- broke my ribs doing it, too -- and put the paddle on me," Lewis says. "At some point, the hospital administrator became aware (of the directive) and told them to stop, that they had to honor my wishes. I was just about in a body bag.

"But they found a little pulse, and they resumed. And here I am. It's crazy."

Lewis has since relaxed the directive. And he marvels at how far he has come since that day he first was taken to Good Sam.

"It's amazing how fast you can get better with good hospital attention and care," he says.

His speech is clear and fluid. His physical well-being is improving daily. His color is good, and his spirits even better.

"They brought him back to life," Hanneman says. "One of the nurses told me she was amazed he could be flat-lined and doing as well as he was 48 hours later."

During my two-hour visit at the Lebanon Rehab Center, he greeted about two-dozen well-wishers. There were Hanneman and Gleason and Sharon Hanson, his high school sweetheart. "The first love of my life," Jess says.SUBMITTED PHOTO - Former Beavers (from left): Craig Hanneman, Dale Branch, Rich Brooks, Jess Lewis, Bob Josses and Scott Freeborn. All played together at Oregon State, when Brooks was the defensive line coach.

There were former wrestling teammate Phil Frey and Oregon State assistant wrestling coach Kevin Roberts and ex-Beaver wrestling greats Len and Darrel Kauffman. There were current Beaver wrestlers Devin Reynolds and Ali Alshujery, whom Lewis has invited to live at his house during the upcoming academic year. There was OSU trainer Ariko Iso, who viewed all the visitors and told Lewis, "You're a rock star."

Don't think Lewis' friends haven't made him feel that way.

"I call it circling the wagons," Lewis says through some tears. He says wrestling coach Jim Zalesky and baseball coach Pat Casey and several assistant football coaches -- ''even though I don't know them very well" -- have stopped by to pay their respects. Jeanna Baker, daughter of Jess' football coach, Dee Andros, drove down from Portland. Athletic director Todd Stansbury sent flowers.

"It makes you feel good that people care," Lewis says. "It really does. Everyone has circled the wagons, come together to show me support. I'm very thankful."

Lewis thinks his rehab is going "OK."

"Maybe not fast enough. but I need to take it slow and easy," he said. "Mine was a stress-related heart attack. The wonderful care I've received at Good Samaritan and this rehab place … it's no joke. They do a tremendous job. They keep you safe."

Lewis will be released from the Lebanon Rehab Center next week and return to his Corvallis house with home care.

"I have a chance to start over," he says. "By that, I mean some things I needed to do over again, I'll have a chance to do over again. Maybe one thing is the Lord. It wouldn't hurt. I like the peace people have with prayer."

Lewis is a protestant but hasn't been a religious person through his life. He thinks that will change now.

"There are spirits out there," he says, his voice choking again. "Maybe they've been looking over me."

Lewis' problems began with the death of Vicki, his wife of 19 years and partner for about three decades, from cancer in 2012.

"I knew I'd miss her, but I didn't know I'd miss her this much," Lewis says. "I got some grief counseling and some personal therapy, but I didn't act upon it very much. I figured I'm a tough guy; I can handle it. I'm not very tough anymore."

In July 2013, Lewis retired after 19 years as Oregon State's athletic grounds maintenance supervisor. The idea was he was going to continue working part-time, but it's been a bit more than that.

"I thought I was going to retire, but I've been working quite a bit -- a little too much," he says.

Lewis has kept busy with a host of other activities. He has been involved in fundraising for the OSU wrestling program. He has committed himself to a variety of community service activities, including mentoring high school students. He has worked on the Lewis family farm in Aumsville with his brothers, Jim and Ed.

"They let me come and go pretty much, but I like to be there in the harvest, and I've cut myself a little thin," Lewis says. "Can't handle it, I guess. I've created my own anxiety over getting things done. I need to take it down a tone. The stress isn't necessary."

Soon came the physical ailments. Last year, he developed a staph infection in a finger from a sliver while wood-cutting -- "there's another thing," he says -- that required a pair of surgeries to fix. During the early summer, he fell while getting out of bed in the middle of the night and hit his left eye on a dresser. It was a serious injury that sent him to Oregon Health & Science University and has left his vision impaired. The visits to OHSU stopped with the stroke.

"What caused some of the stroke, they took me off blood-thinners because of the eye," Lewis says. "I can see some out of the eye now, but not a lot."

The name "Jess Lewis" is synonymous with Oregon State sports. He is the greatest wrestler in school history, a two-time NCAA heavyweight champion and 1968 Olympian who learned Wednesday from Kauffman that he has been nominated for induction into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

Lewis was an All-America defensive tackle for the famed "Giant Killers" of the late '60s. He went on to play a year with the NFL's Houston Oilers before a knee injury curtailed his career far too early.

Before that, he was a farm boy and three-sport star at Cascade High. Lewis grew up in Aumsville, four miles from Turner, Hanneman's hometown. They played a year of varsity football together at Cascade, Hanneman two years Lewis' junior.

"Seven grade schools fed into Cascade Union High," Hanneman says. "I went to Cloverdale; Jess went to Aumsville. Mine was a three-room school for eight grades; his was four. "

Hanneman idolized Lewis.

"If you looked up 'Man Among Boys' in the dictionary in those years, there'd be a picture of Jess Lewis," says Hanneman, also an All-America D-tackle at OSU who went on to four years in the NFL. "It was great having him as a teammate, but it was a bitch having to go up against him in practice every day. And at Oregon State, he remained a man among boys."

Lewis is most remembered by old-time Beaver fans for the play that saved the 3-0 upset of No. 1-ranked Southern Cal in 1967, tackling O.J. Simpson from behind as the Trojan star was racing toward paydirt.

"That's a play only the best can make," Hanneman says. "You have to have your engine running at full speed all the time. You have to be in the right place. And you have to never give up, which Jess didn't. He had that extraordinary burst of energy and strength to catch (Simpson). Only the great ones can do that. The rest of us can only dream about it."

Lewis has told me more than once that his performance on that play was exaggerated, that he only got to Simpson because he "had an angle" in his pursuit.

"Well, that's Jess," Hanneman says. "The most boastful thing I've ever heard him say -- and it was an attempt at humor while speaking to a group -- was, 'Well, the cops couldn't catch O.J., but I did.' I've never met anybody who accomplished as much on the athletic field who was more humble relative to his accomplishments than Jess Lewis."

Lewis' OSU wrestling teammates loved that about him.

"He had a lot of good friends on the football team, but Jess treated all the wrestling guys the same," says Frey, a Pac-8 champion and All-American during his wrestling days. "There were no airs. He was humble. He had fun with his wrestling buddies. He didn't make us ever feel like we were second-class. And Jess was a superstar."

After Hanneman signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Lewis had played a season with Houston, they both bought motorcycles and went out for a couple of months on a tour that took them to Mexico and back.

"We spent a couple of months driving everywhere and having a good old time," Hanneman says.

It was the beginning of a time in Lewis' life when things spiraled downward. He got hooked on drugs and was a lost soul for years until former OSU wrestling coach Dale Thomas staged an intervention "that saved my life," Lewis says.

Lewis went through a treatment program, returned to OSU with a part-time job in athletic grounds maintenance, got a master's degree in education, was hired full-time and then went about giving back to his alma mater.

For nearly 20 years, he helped teach a class called "Drugs in Sports," offered to the general student body as well as the school's athletes. He spent time counseling many Beaver athletes on the pitfalls they could encounter off the athletic fields.

One of those students was baseball player Mitch Canham, who had lost his mother to drug addiction. This week, Canham paid tribute to Lewis through Twitter: "Praying for my Hero Jess Lewis. The most loving and inspirational man many have ever met. He taught me how to live and share my story. #JL."

Canham went on to become a fixture and leader of Oregon State's national championship teams of 2006 and '07. He was just one of many affected by the magic touch of Jess Lewis.

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Jess Lewis (right) gets a visit from Rich Brooks, former defensive line coach at Oregon State.Lewis has always been quick to offer help to those in need.

"If he has one weakness, it's his heart, which is so big, he can't so no to people," Hanneman says.

Lewis won't stop doing that, but he will attempt to ease his load.

"I want to have some peace," he says.

There have been periods of severe depression since the loss of his wife. He has let himself go physically, and has had a difficult road spiritually, too. He has kept to himself more often, shutting out friends and family at times, taking the burden on himself.

The heart attack has snapped him to attention, he says.

He wants to make the most of his new lease on life.

"I'm not going to isolate, which I call 'hermit-ize,' " he says. "I'm going to start eating right. More exercise.

"And religion. I think I'm missing something there. I'm missing something good. Not just because of what happened. It's just something I need to do. Something I've needed for a while."

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Twitter: @kerryeggers

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