By DAVID MITCHELL — firstname.lastname@example.org
It seems a story fit for Hollywood, though no one seems to be writing it. Perhaps, the story seems a tad far-fetched: A man born without a right foot goes on to use that leg to punt a football, earning All-America honors at Auburn University and even spending time in the National Football League along the way.
Even the man who lived the story, Phenix City’s Lewis Colbert, finds the experience hard to believe.
“It’s kind of one of those things that just came about that kind of blows your mind,” Colbert said.
Colbert was born with a club foot, a deformity that had doctors questioning when he was born whether he would ever be able to walk. Sports, it seemed, were out of the question.
Colbert had other ideas.
After being cleared by doctors, he played his senior season at Glenwood School as a punter, averaging 42.1 yards per punt. He walked on at Auburn the next year, eventually earning the regular punting job as a redshirt freshman in 1982.
Over the next four years, he became arguably the most successful punter in the school’s history, earning an All-America nod in 1985.
He was selected in the NFL draft the following year and played three seasons as a professional with the Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers.
And on Saturday, he will be inducted into the Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame at the Columbus Convention and Trade Center along with Willie Bowman, Charles Ragsdale, Eugene White and Joe Lee Dunn.
Looking back, Colbert takes note of all the things throughout his life that put him on that path. He discusses this in his book, “The Unlikeliest Auburn Tiger.”
“I talk about fate and things that are meant to be, and that God has a plan for us and sometimes we aren’t listening,” he said.
Because, whether it was circumstance, luck or a higher power, Colbert says, something was pushing him toward football.
Twists of fate
Colbert loved football, but wasn’t allowed to play.
Though he tried early in high school, the sport became too dangerous for a child with his condition.
“He would take a beating in practice,” said Sammy Howard, a coach with Glenwood during the late 1970s when Colbert attended the school. “Finally, we just said we couldn’t do it anymore. Lewis was really upset about it.”
It was another setback for an individual who had suffered ridicule and the inability to do things he would like in his life.
Fate, it seemed, had dealt him an awful blow.
Colbert was admittedly angry.
At what? Life or God, perhaps, for making him different than others.
Still his love of sports was too strong to keep him away from fields of play.
He became Glenwood’s manager for football and played baseball in the spring. He was pretty good at both, too.
“He was a great football manager,” said Leo Ellerbee, one of Colbert’s coaches at Glenwood and a longtime coach in Columbus. “He enjoyed it, and I enjoyed helping him with it.”
As a pitcher on the baseball diamond, Colbert had plenty of success. A disability that prevented him from playing a game centered around violent physical action did not hold him back on the mound.
In fact, in retrospect, Colbert notes that baseball was the sport that he would have expected to play at the next level. That was his plan, at least.
Until fate, again, reared its ugly head.
He tore his rotator cuff his senior year of high school, leaving him on the bench during a season in which he could have made a play for a college scholarship. At least, that’s what the doctors told him at the time.
“A couple years ago, I fell off a horse and tore tendons in my right arm,” Colbert said. “Doctors asked me if I had ever done something to my shoulder. I told them I had torn my rotator cuff, but they said that was fine.”
Even that twist of fate, that his injury had been incorrectly diagnosed, seemed to be pushing Colbert toward football.
“(I was angry) that I was different, that I couldn’t do things like everybody else,” he said. “Being asked to do things and basically having your hands tied behind your back. After awhile, it gets really frustrating. You ask yourself so many times: What could I do if I had two good legs?”
Now, Colbert wonders what he couldn’t have done if he had two good legs.
“I could sit here and say that if I had a normal leg, things would have been 10 thousand times better,” he said. “But if I had a better leg, I don’t know that any of these things would have happened.
“Would I have punted, or would I have tried to play another position? Did it hold me back? Yes, conditioning was difficult. I had to do things differently. The running was excruciating. I had to work twice as hard. It was something to overcome, and I probably wasn’t as good as I could have been. But without the disability, that never would have happened.”
Working it out
It wouldn’t have happened without a lot of extra work, either.
His work began in his junior year of high school, during which he would stay after practice to learn to punt with coaches and other teammates.
At the time, he didn’t have a place on the roster. He was still just the manager.
Ellerbee, who was “fairly fresh out of college and young enough to have the energy,” was one who would work with Colbert.
“We’d stay after practice and work and work,” he said. “We worked on his drop, and he stuck with it. All of the sudden, he got pretty good.”
Good enough that the coaches were willing to see if doctors would clear him to play for his senior year.
“They cleared him, but we had to stress that he wasn’t allowed to run the ball or anything like that,” Ellerbee said.
Things, as Colbert could already attest, don’t always go according to plan.
“One game, there was a bad snap,” Ellerbee said. “Next thing we know, there goes Lewis running with the football. I think every coach was out on the field to stop him by the end of the play.”
But, somehow, despite the club foot, punting was something that came naturally to Colbert.
He averaged 42.1 yards per kick that year as a senior, but never considered the possibility of playing at Auburn until Pat Dye, who was the Tigers head coach at the time, reached out to him to give him the opportunity.
The work, of course, got more difficult.
Colbert had never lifted weights and hadn’t been able to condition as the other players had. He faced plenty of competition right off the bat when 17 other punters and kickers walked on to the team as well.
The key to his success down the road, Colbert said, was staying healthy.
“I kept persevering. Others gave up, but I wouldn’t quit,” he said. “Even through the pain and the difficulties. I was in pain, but I was never injured.”
He didn’t win the job as a freshman.
Instead, he was redshirted and spent a year in the system, running and kicking. Going into spring, he kept getting stronger and more consistent. During the next spring, the next punter in line got injured making a tackle, and Colbert moved up to first string.
“After I got first string, I just worked that much harder to get that scholarship to pay for my education, which is why I was there,” said Colbert, who was the first in his family to receive his diploma. “That feeling was unbelievable for me. It was Auburn University, and I was the starting punter. It probably took that entire summer for it to soak in.”
Colbert was happy to do the work, or at least willing. He never wanted to be treated differently growing up, and that included how much he had to work in practice.
“He never used it as a crutch,” Ellerbee said. “He ran just as hard. He was one of the guys. That’s all he was.”
Dye described in the foreword of Colbert’s book how much he was like the others.
“To tell you the truth, I never really looked at Lewis as having a disability,” he wrote. “When he was the punter on our Auburn teams in the early 1980s, he never talked about having a handicap. I didn’t even know it at the time.”
“He had the greatest attitude,” Ellerbee said. “He acted so much more mature than so many people. He worked hard.”
Spreading the message
The story could have ended there and been just as incredible.
He didn’t need to average an Auburn-best 45.8 yards per punt in 1985, including a 77-yarder against Southwest Louisiana, and become the only All-American punter in the school’s history.
He didn’t need to be selected in the eighth round of the 1986 NFL draft by the Kansas City Chiefs or punt 99 times as a rookie, averaging 40.7 yards per punt.
But, perhaps, it was fate.
Today, along with his day job in supply chain management with Exel, Colbert uses his inspirational story to help others overcome difficulties in their own lives. He released his book in 2011, chronicling his difficulties and relentless work to pursuing a dream. He began writing it when faced with a severe bout of pneumonia.
Perhaps that was fate as well.
“Writing the book was something I wish I had done years ago,” he said, “but several people told me that there’s no way I could have done it. I had to be broken down before I could even think about talking about it, but it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”
One of his greatest keepsakes from his college days is a plaque that was given to him from Dye in his senior year, listing him as a team captain.
“I was voted team captain,” Colbert said, almost in awe.
It was a sign, of course, of his leadership then, which he uses to help others today.
“I try to utilize my story to help others,” he said, referring to speaking engagements he attends. “I was very fortunate and very lucky. I worked very hard, but I can think of plenty of reasons none of that should have happened.
“(Speaking) is beneficial for me, and I know it’s been beneficial to some others through their emails and calls and speaking in person.
“That’s the part that makes me smile.
“It’s all about what I can do to make a difference in someone else, and I get more satisfaction out of that than anything else.”