Kamas couple Jerry and Cathie Lewis, the lifelong Wildcats super fans
On Friday, Jerry Lewis, 72, recalled what it was like to live in the Kamas Valley when his family and many others made their livelihoods through farming – when he worked the land with a horse, milked cows by hand, and had chores from dawn until dusk.
“My days were shot,” he said in a gravelly voice as he looked out from his dining room table over the land that has been in the Lewis family for 150 years.
But at least that lifestyle brought people together.
Since then the valley community has grown by leaps and bounds – becoming more populous, if not necessarily tighter knit. Between 1970 and 2016 the population of Kamas alone more than doubled, growing from 800 people to 2,100.
He sometimes laments the passing of the age of agricultural work and the community intimacy it founded, as the world around changed to one built on automation.
But there are some threads that tie that time to this one, like sports. While so many cultural institutions have been swept away in the current of modernity, high school athletics remain a common rock where people gather, and few have been stewards to the Kamas Valley’s portion of that rock like the Lewises, who were long visible on the sidelines of South Summit football games as part of the chain gang.
In February they were awarded the Super Fan award by the Utah High School Activities Association. And while it was given for the 2018-2019 academic year, it might as well be a lifetime achievement award.
The two have watched South Summit High School’s athletes together since before they were married 49 years ago.
“That’s our entertainment,” Mrs. Lewis said. “It’s something we enjoy together.”
They watch all kinds of Wildcat contests – football, volleyball, wrestling, basketball, you name it.
They are such avid fans that some of their relatives won’t carpool with them to games because the Lewises arrive too early – catching junior varsity warmups and staying through the last varsity whistle, buzzer, bell or bout.
Their schedules revolve around sports, with the exception of Wednesdays. Those days, they wake at 2:30 a.m. and drive down to the Salt Lake, where they volunteer until just before 11 a.m. with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, when they come home to prepare for games again.
“During the school year, our schedule goes with the kids,” Mrs. Lewis said.
They don’t have specific rituals, and Mr. Lewis doesn’t bring a lot of paraphernalia – “I just go to enjoy the game, not to carry blankets and seats,” he said with a laugh.
The Lewises can hardly remember when they started working as the chain gang, though.
“I would think it was right around ‘79 or ‘80,” Mr. Lewis said of the start.
On Friday, they honed in on a time frame by tracking through life events – working backwards from Mrs. Lewis’ retirement date from the school district after managing its food services for 27 years, or the start’s proximity to the birth of their son, Kasey (preceded by Jody and Sandi) – but the exact date remains unclear.
“I think it’s been over 31 years,” Mr. Lewis said. “Because we’ve got kids that’ve grown up, got families, and they can remember when we were on the chain gang when they were playing football.”
Mrs. Lewis said there are schoolteachers in the district who they’ve seen play football for the Wildcats.
But the fact is, both Mr. and Mrs. Lewis were South Summit Wildcats from the beginning.
Mr. Lewis graduated in 1964 with a class of about 30. He played football his freshman year, but work on the farm kept him busy through the rest of his high school years. Back then, Utah high school sports had no options for girls, so Mrs. Lewis played on a county softball team.
She graduated in 1968 in a class of 60, and remembers going to games against Park City High School when Prospector Park was still a heap of mine tailings, and the football games were held on the field beside what is now the library, which is slanted. Teams would play uphill one half, and downhill the other.
After graduation, they cheered on the sidelines at games as their siblings went through the system, then cheered for friends, then friends’ relatives, then their children. Then cheered on their own children from 1992 – starting with their daughter, Sandi, until 2000, when their youngest, Kasey, graduated. But even after that, they have stayed committed to the green and white – and any color that their friends and family wear on the field.
Football coach Mike Grajek said the Lewises belong to a small group of dedicated South Summit fans.
“I think it’s huge,” he said of the supporters’ effect on the players. “I say to kids sometimes, if you guys fought as hard as your moms scream and yell, we wouldn’t have to worry about the outcome or the result.”
Whenever it was they started marking downs and hauling the chain, they did so because the South Summit principal at the time said there was a need for it, and Mrs. Lewis recruited Mr. Lewis, and the both simply kept doing it ever since.
“It’s so much fun, because you’re right on the line,” Mrs. Lewis said. “You’re right there.”
When Mr. Lewis got off from work from Kamas Valley Lumber or Leavitt Lumber, where he worked for a combined 30 years, or, later, Albertsons in Park City, where he worked for another 20, he would join Mrs. Lewis on the sidelines to mark the downs and settle just where, exactly, the nose of the ball had landed.
They could always find someone to cheer for, whether it was the children of their friends or family, or simply an up-and-coming South Summit athlete.
“They didn’t get ‘super chain gang’, they got ‘super fans.’ You see them at volleyball games, wrestling matches, you see them everywhere,” Grajek said. “Their award was well deserved.”
Mrs. Lewis said she never considered quitting the chain gang, and Mr. Lewis only retired two years ago because, at 70, he was worried about falling while on the job.
Over his years as a fan, Mr. Lewis said he has watched the South Summit team go from a small collection of boys who had to play “iron man” football to a complete roster.
“Ninety percent of the kids played both ways,” he said of previous Wildcats football teams. “You would play these bigger schools who would have an offensive team, a defensive team, a special team and they would just wear you down.”
Now, the Wildcats are big enough that few players need to play both sides of the ball. And they are more protected from the game, which has seen major change in recent years as the effects of brain trauma are better understood.
“Now, if you blink the wrong way they pull you out because you have a concussion – which is great, I appreciate that,” he said. “But it was tougher, a lot rougher when we grew up when it is now. Now, it’s hard, but they are just so much more advanced equipment-wise and coaching-wise, that’s a big difference. A real big difference.”
The two have also seen every kind of coach, and, standing on the opponents’ line, heard all kinds of language, and seen some of the more horrific sporting accidents in the area’s history.
Mrs. Lewis recalls seeing injuries both gruesome – like when a football player sustained a compound fracture of his leg on the field – and tragic, like when a boy was paralyzed from the neck down during a game.
“The thing that came out of his mouth was, am I going to be able to play basketball,” she recalled of the boy who suffered a compound fracture. “It wasn’t anything else.”
Mr. Lewis straddled the boy so he couldn’t see his bone jutting from his lower leg.
“But that was his big concern,” Mr. Lewis said. “He didn’t want to miss basketball because that was his life.”
In both instances, they remember the outpouring of community generosity that resulted from the incidents, how schools and their students from the Wasatch communities to southern Utah donated money to help the families pay for medical bills.
And through their years watching games, standing on rainy soccer sidelines and in dark, noisy wrestling gyms, the community is what keeps them coming – whether they’re hoisting the yard-markers or not.
“Our granddaughter goes with a kid who wrestled for state champion,” Mrs. Lewis said. “It’s just fun to watch them. See, they’re not related, but they are still part of this valley.”
Mr. Lewis said many kids in the valley learn some of life’s hard lessons from sports, and when they do, the teams ensure there are people around the kids can look to for advice, answers and comfort.
“It just feels good (as a player) to have somebody that you can look up to, like a community,” he said.
“And that’s what I think kids get from it. They don’t have one mom, they have 20 mothers, 20 dads, who try to guide them. And that’s what I like about it. It’s just, we’re all one big family.”
Being part of that big family, the Lewises never expected to be singled out for their dedication to the sports community.
But in 2017, after South Summit won the 2A state football championship over Beaver, football coach Mike Grajek surprised Mrs. Lewis with one of team’s the commemorative rings, bearing her surname on one side.
Then, this February, their daughter, Sandi, who works at the school district, said they needed to visit athletic director Shad Stevens.
“I feel like I’m going into the principal’s office,” Mrs. Lewis told her husband.
Stevens presented them not with a detention slip, but with a letter from the UHSAA saying they were to be honored as “super fans” at the Class 3A state basketball championship at Utah Valley University’s UCCU Center.
The two were flattered, if a little uncomfortable – they like to make others feel like they are under the limelight, not stand in it.
“It was scary,” Mr. Lewis said on Friday in a confiding whisper.
They were introduced at during halftime of the Class 3A state girls basketball championship game, between Emory and Grantsville on Feb. 23, which they were thrilled to be a part of even though neither of South Summit’s teams had made the cut. But many members of their family had come, and they felt the appreciation of the crowd that they knew perhaps better than they thought they did, even if not by name.
“It was cool,” Mrs. Lewis added, her eyes welling with tears of joy. “It’s something you just never expect, then you go out there and have the state high school athletic association honor you for something you’ve just enjoyed your whole life.”
They have also been invited to a UHSAA luncheon on March 21.
“We’ve just enjoyed it,” Mrs. Lewis said. “We really truly have enjoyed the sports, the kids and parents that we’ve gotten to know.”
On Friday, they sat in their dining room alcove, which is adorned with a sign that reads, “Families are forever,” and reminisced about how the town used to look.
Their home, a ranch house with walls adorned by family photos, stood where the chicken coop used to be.
The Lewises once knew every person on the street from Peoa to Marion. While the local kids move out to search for jobs, the primary newcomers are from Salt Lake City – or are Californians looking for a second home.
The times certainly have changed, and the valley along with it.
But when the Lewises go to games, they’re keeping pace.
They’re keeping their community close.
The Park City High School girls golf team took second in the Class 4A state championship tournament on Thursday. It was the team’s fifth consecutive time as runner-up.