Friends, former teammates honor LeBeau
LONDON, OHIO — He returned home and showed he has never strayed far from the small Ohio town that sprouted up amidst the cornfields that still frame it.
He signed one autograph after another at the high school where he is seen as a legend by everyone except for probably himself. Dick LeBeau may not like to be the center of attention, but the Steelers' defensive coordinator couldn't avoid it Saturday night.
More than 400 people, including a handful of his former college and NFL teammates, packed into the gym at London High School for "A Night with the Coach." They were part of a fundraising effort that is expected to produce a new building that has already been christened the LeBeau Field House.
They were also part of an evening that celebrated the man who is going into his 51st season in the NFL.
"When you're growing up, you don't expect to have your name laying around anything on your high school," LeBeau said. "That's really a sincere honor that I don't take lightly."
Among those who were at the dinner and ceremony that followed were Buffalo Bills coach Dick Jauron and Bengals coach Marvin Lewis — both are LeBeau proteges — as well as LeBeau's mother, Beulah, who is in her mid-90s.
No Steelers were in attendance — a video message from coach Mike Tomlin was played during the ceremony — and part of that could be attributed to one of the few ground rules LeBeau set for the fundraiser.
He did not want any of his players contacted about it so they would not feel obligated to attend it while they have down time before the start of training camp next month.
That, in a nutshell, is LeBeau.
"He's the best," said Jauron, who played for LeBeau in Cincinnati from 1978-80. "Anything anybody told you about him, if it was good, it was true. I'm just really thankful I know him."
LeBeau had a decorated playing career. He is also widely hailed as an innovator of the zone blitz that has made the Steelers' defense one of the most feared units in the NFL during his two coaching stints in Pittsburgh.
Of course, calling LeBeau a football coach is like saying nearby Ohio State, where he starred before embarking on a 14-year NFL career, is just another school to residents of the Buckeye state.
He is a man of many interests and talents.
LeBeau, 71, routinely shoots his age if not better in golf. He regularly plays the guitar — music runs in the family as his older brother, Bob, is a professional saxophone player — and he is a history buff as well.
That he hasn't let football define or consume him may explain why LeBeau looks like he is in his early 50s.
Of LeBeau's good health, Bob LeBeau chuckled and called him a "freak of nature."
Indeed, LeBeau played in 171 consecutive games for the Detroit Lions from 1959-72, and that is still an NFL record for cornerbacks.
"Dick on the football field was a different man," said former Pitt star and NFL player Bill Priatko, who roomed with LeBeau at Browns training camp in 1959 before LeBeau got cut, and is still close friends with him. "Off the field, he's a gentleman. On the football field he would hit you. He was tough, he was aggressive, he was smart as a bugger."
LeBeau is tied for seventh on the NFL's all-time interceptions list with 62. And he amassed all of those interceptions in an era when teams didn't throw the ball nearly as often as they do now.
His body of work has long made him a curious omission from the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
His players made a statement that he deserves to be immortalized in 2007. They wore Lions throwback jerseys bearing LeBeau's No. 44 when the Steelers played the New Orleans Saints in the Hall of Fame game in Canton.
While they are among the many who have lobbied for LeBeau to get into the Hall of Fame, he has made anything but a fuss about it.
"He is his usual humble self when it's mentioned," said Priatko, who lives in North Huntingdon and attended last night's fundraiser with his family. "He just smiles at me and says 'Billy, who's to say who should be in there and who shouldn't?' He's humble in that way."
His humility is such that LeBeau may have been a tad bit uncomfortable with all of the attention lavished on him last night.
"He shies away from this stuff," said Daryl Sanders, a former LeBeau teammate who served as the evening's master of ceremonies. "By the same token, it's necessary to do. If you just let him run it, he would just go off into the sunset, but you can't just let a guy do that because of all that he's contributed to everybody's life and the game of football."