Hall of Fame induction is '10,000 dreams come true' for LeBeau
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau still has a hard time believing he is bound for football immortality.
"I get up in the morning and pinch myself and say: 'I guess I'm not dreaming.' " LeBeau said. "It really hasn't hit me. I'm not sure that it ever will. It's 10,000 dreams come true."
It may seem to LeBeau that just as many people are there for him Saturday night when he is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Steelers are taking six buses to Canton, Ohio, for the induction ceremony. Former high school, college and NFL teammates will also be among the crowd at Fawcett Stadium.
The ripples of the beloved LeBeau finally getting into the Hall extend so far that they caused Norwin High School's Class of 1980 to reschedule its 30-year reunion.
It had originally been set for Saturday. When LeBeau got voted into the Hall of Fame, class president Dan Priatko told his fellow Norwin alums that the date of the reunion had to be moved. (It was held in June.)
Priatko is the son of Bill Priatko, who roomed with LeBeau at Browns training camp in 1959 and is still a close friend.
"He told Coach LeBeau, 'There's no way I'm going to miss seeing you inducted,' " Bill Priatko said.
LeBeau's contributions to the game as a coach are well documented.
He is widely credited with inventing the zone blitz, and he will go down as one of the best defensive coaches in the history of the NFL.
But LeBeau is going into the Hall of Fame as a player, and there are many who wonder why it took so long for him to get there based on what he did during a 14-year career with the Lions.
"He was a hell of a football player," said Pro Football Hall of Famer Mike Ditka, who played in the same era as LeBeau and against him twice a season as a Chicago Bear. "I remember the scouting report (saying) how good he was at getting to the football. When the ball was run or thrown, he got to the ball pretty darn good."
LeBeau had more interceptions than all but two players in NFL history when he retired in 1972. He still holds the NFL record for consecutive starts by a cornerback (171), and that is the accomplishment of which he is most proud when it comes to his playing days.
"I think it's a reflection of the character of the individual," said LeBeau, who signed with the Lions in 1959 after the Browns cut him. "I think everyone can identify with the fact that of all those games there had to be several where you didn't feel much like playing football. I'm just proud that I could go out there and play and that it was important for me to be on the field. Do what you can do to the best of your ability on a daily basis. I think that is what life is all about."
The irony of LeBeau becoming a football lifer is that he has so many interests outside of the sport.
He is a history buff who once visited Bushy Run Battlefield in Penn Township before a Steelers preseason game.
He is an accomplished golfer, and folks who play with him swear he would have been good enough to make the Champions Tour had he gone that route.
LeBeau is also a music enthusiast along with his older brother, Bob, who will introduce him at the Hall of Fame enshrinement.
A life outside of football is not all that has kept the rigors of coaching from beating down LeBeau, who is 72 and could easily pass for 52.
He has never taken himself or life too seriously - as former Lions teammates Mike Lucci can attest.
After returning home from one road game, Lucci recalled, he and a group of players that included LeBeau discovered that someone had stolen the tires off of Lucci's car.
The others razzed Lucci about his bad fortune, and the Ambridge native was still steaming when he later got a call from LeBeau.
"Hey, Looch," LeBeau said, "you got the last laugh. I came home and they robbed my apartment.' "
"He had that kind of sense of humor," said Lucci, who will be at LeBeau's enshrinement.
What also endears LeBeau to people and especially his players: a temperament that is as level as a yard stick.
To a man, Steelers players and coaches say he is the same person all the time.
"He's my favorite guy ever," Keisel said. "I love the guy to death."
Three years ago, the Steelers' defensive players wore throwback No. 44 LeBeau jerseys to the Hall of Fame game to make a statement that had nothing to do with fashion.
They will again pay tribute to LeBeau in Canton tomorrow night.
And their presence at his enshrinement is one of many reasons why LeBeau may get emotional during the speech that so many have waited so long to hear.
"It's probably been the most humbling experience of my professional career the way my players talk about me and the way that this particular group of defenders treat me and react to me," LeBeau said. "It is absolutely the highest compliment I've ever had."
By the numbers
Here is a look at the playing career of former Lions great Dick LeBeau, who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame Saturday in Canton, Ohio.
Selections to the Pro Bowl (1965-67)
LeBeau's NFL rank in career interceptions when he retired as a player after the 1972 season
LeBeau's current NFL rank • he is tied with Dave Brown • in career interceptions
Interceptions LeBeau had in 1970, when he led the NFC in that category
Career interceptions LeBeau had while playing from 1959-72
Consecutive games started by LeBeau, still an NFL record for a cornerback
Interception return yards LeBeau had during his career
What they are saying
Steelers players and coaches weigh in on defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame:
• 'Dick LeBeau is the best to coach this game, in my estimation. He'll probably be the best guy I will ever work for. I would walk through fire for Dick LeBeau. I'll have tears in my eyes when he walks across that stage to give that speech.'
• Associate head coach/defensive line coach John Mitchell
• 'To me, it's long overdue. He hasn't coached me personally, but we have a great relationship. We have a lot of talks and a lot of fun, and he's just a great guy. If I ever played defense, he'd be the guy I want coaching me because I see what he does for the defensive players.'
• Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger
• 'He's got that gift that makes the person he's talking to feel like they're the most important person. That's a gift. He's got that common touch that makes you believe you're the most important person that there is.'
• Defensive backs coach Ray Horton
• 'Of course, I'm going to shed a tear for him. I love coach LeBeau. I look at him like a father figure. He's a walk-on-water type guy.'
• Cornerback Ike Taylor
• 'I'm glad he's getting his just due. He's definitely at the top of my list for one of the most awesome people ever. I love to be around him and the environment he creates. He's big time, but he's going to make you feel that you're big time.'
• Inside linebacker Larry Foote