Lonoke County: Jim Lee Howell

by Bob Reising

“There is no pretense in Jim Lee, perhaps the most honest man I’ve met in sports,” concludes Murray Olderman, speaking of Lonoke County native Jim Lee Howell in his 14th published book, “The Draw of Sport,” appearing earlier this year. Not only do the nationally acclaimed sportswriter/cartoonist’s words communicate sparkling praise, but they also appear in a volume containing only 118 portraits, chosen from the approximately 6,000 treating the “greatest sports personalities of the last seven decades” that the 95-year-old has created since beginning his award-winning career in 1947. 

Comfortably lodged mid-point between “A” for Hank Aaron and “Z” for Babe Zaharias, lies the drawing of “Shorty,” the nickname Jim Lee acquired in boyhood because of his 6-foot-6-inch height, followed by the essay explaining why he belongs among the elite of the sports world.

 

At every level of athletics, he enjoyed success. A premier high school performer in basketball and football, Shorty earned three letters and All-Southwest Conference honors in each at the University of Arkansas. He completed a baccalaureate in mathematics while serving as student body president and later earned a master’s degree in education administration. 

In 1937, he launched a six-decade relationship with the National Football League’s New York Giants, punctuated by a three-year World War II stint in the U.S. Marine Corps. During his eight seasons as an NFL wide receiver and defensive back, he performed solidly in 74 contests, snaring 61 passes for 921 yards and seven touchdowns while intercepting one enemy toss. During those eight seasons, he also helped to lead New York to four NFL Championship Games, the Giants claiming the league title in one of them, the 1938.

Retiring in 1948, Jim Lee assumed the head football coaching position at then-tiny Wagner College on Staten Island, N.Y. He also “moonlighted” with the New York franchise as a part-time assistant coach until 1954, when, although a dark-horse candidate, he was offered the Giants’ head-coaching post. He accepted it only after gaining assurance that two little-known coaches could join him as assistants.  Before moving on to NFL teams they led to Super Bowl championships, the now-legendary Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi aided Jim Lee in compiling a seven-season head-coaching record of 53 wins, 27 losses and four ties, a .663 winning percentage. The trio guided New York to three NFL championship games, including the 1956 title-winning 47-7 shellacking of the Chicago Bears, coached by the iconic George Halas, co-founder of the NFL in 1920. Six future Professional Football Hall of Famers whom Jim Lee had drafted were New York stalwarts during those seven seasons, including Frank Gifford, later a popular television personality for 27 years.

Two years after claiming the NFL championship, Jim Lee and his talented aides gained even greater fame by contributing to a championship contest that the Giants lost. Forever known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” the fiercely fought 1958 fray was not decided until 8 minutes and 15 seconds into a “Sudden Death” overtime, the first NFL championship game to require OT. Featuring 17 future members of the Professional Football Hall of Fame, the televised spectacle became enshrined in NFL history because of its unique and dramatic finish and its unprecedented contribution to the NFL’s emerging popularity as a spectator sport.

Jim Lee left coaching, but not the Giants, after the 1960 season. He served as director of player personnel until 1979 and then as a team consultant and scout until retiring from professional football in 1986. Although a fixture in New York, he was not unhappy about being able to spend full-time on his sizable Lonoke stock farm and to lead a less hectic life with his boyhood sweetheart, the former Ada Susan Campbell, another Lonoke County native, whom he married in 1953, when he was 39 years old. Nor did he object to never again hearing a question that had become commonplace in decades past on the infrequent occasions his home-county friends encountered him: “Well, Shorty, how did you enjoy your vacation in New York?”

Jim Lee passed away Jan. 4, 1995, yet he will always represent athletic excellence in Lonoke County and the 501.

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