LeBeau is where he belongs

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Dick LeBeau still performs "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," every year, and he still gets teary at the end of "The Wizard of Oz," because, well, "It's the whole concept of the movie: You can go a lot of ways, man, but it's not too bad right where you are." He is a joy to be around in every circumstance and setting, and in a business teeming with ego and hubris, he always conducts himself with dignity and class.

But never let any of that – nor the warm eyes, or the grandfatherly tone – camouflage one of the man's undeniable characteristics. Dick LeBeau is a competitor. A fierce competitor. Golf, ping-pong, poker, whatever, and it's never about the stakes. He may not be much for bragging, but LeBeau always plays like he wants to own the rights.

Football is LeBeau's best game, and when it comes to that sport he is most widely known today as a brilliant defensive coach, the inventor of the zone blitz, a scheme that has its principles used in some form or fashion by every team in the NFL. But what happened in South Florida on the weekend that reached a crescendo with the matchup of the Indianapolis Colts and the New Orleans Saints told the football world something else.

Dick LeBeau could play, and more than just a little bit.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2010 was voted upon and announced last Saturday at the site of Super Bowl XLIV, and LeBeau joined Emmitt Smith, Jerry Rice, Floyd Little, Rickey Jackson, Russ Grimm and John Randle as enshrinees.

While he's known to fans – and loved by the ones whose favorite team is the Steelers – as a coach, this Hall of Fame vote was about LeBeau as a player. Specifically, as a cornerback for the Detroit Lions.

Drafted by the Cleveland Browns and then cut before the start of his rookie season, LeBeau quickly was grabbed up by the Lions, where he played 14 seasons. He still holds the NFL record for consecutive starts by a cornerback with 171, and he finished with 62 interceptions, a total that still has him first in Lions history and seventh all-time in NFL history.

If those numbers aren't impressive at first glance, consider them through the prism of these mitigating factors:

An NFL season was 12 games in 1959-60, 14 for the rest of his career that ended in 1972, and in addition to fewer games per season there were fewer opportunities for interceptions per game. Exactly how many fewer is something for someone more patient to determine, but suffice it to say LeBeau the player never saw an opponent line up in the shotgun and go empty-set on third-and-1. Back in those days, coverage generally was man-to-man, all over the field for a whole game, so if you bit on a double-move and the receiver caught the pass for a touchdown, everybody in the stadium knew where to point the finger. And LeBeau shared time in the Lions secondary with Hall of Famers Yale Lary (1952-64), Dick "Night Train" Lane (1960-65) and Lem Barney (1967-77), and all three of those guys were competing for their share of the big plays, and yet none of them finished with more interceptions than him.

"Dick taught me to be able to understand what offensive coordinators would try to do to you as a defensive back," Barney told The New York Times. "Dick was a very astute defensive ballplayer, and with his insight and his intuition, he was almost like a coach out there playing."

Back in the days when LeBeau played professional football, coaches believed in practicing in pads with full contact for multiple hours every day, and during the season, too. There were no workouts in shells, no walk-throughs, or standing around taking mental reps with a tweaked hamstring, because in the 1960s it wasn't called an injury unless it was broken. There was hitting, there was scrimmaging every day through every week of every NFL season, to say nothing of the training camps that lasted for six weeks and preseasons that contained no fewer than five games. There also was winter, and there was real winter in Detroit and Green Bay and Chicago and Minnesota.

"My consecutive games played record – I think that says I was a guy who would come to work and played every week and didn't have to be in perfect health to play," he said. "I'm very proud of that. In fact, that's the only thing from playing I ever talk about."

Now, think again about 171 consecutive games and 62 interceptions.

LeBeau's teammates in Detroit remember him reading scouting reports and watching film. "People would try to pick on him," said former Lions tight end Charlie Sanders, himself a member of the Hall of Fame's Class of 2007, "because, at 6-feet-1, 185 pounds, he didn't have all the physical attributes that most guys had in the secondary. But the fact that he was as smart as he was and studied as much as he did, that's what made him excel — that's why he had the numbers. He was ahead of the quarterback."

Joe Schmidt, another member of the Hall of Fame who was the middle linebacker and captain of the Lions' defense until 1965, said, "I called defensive signals, and Dick dropped information to me in the game that was helpful to me and helped our defense. And he had that information because he studied more than anybody else on the team."

When the Hall of Fame recently had asked all of its living members to write in with the names of players who had been overlooked for induction, Barney said it was Dick LeBeau's name that headed the list.

Finally, that wrong has been righted. And the Pro Football Hall of Fame is a better place as a result.

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