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Second in a series of profiles of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's seven-member Class of 2010.
Early in his playing career, Dick LeBeau was told that "less than one percent of one percent" of all NFL players make the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
On Saturday evening, LeBeau, the Steelers' defensive coordinator, joins that very short list of players enshrined in Canton, Ohio, for his work as a Lions cornerback from 1959-1972. LeBeau, 73, is the 18th Lion to be enshrined, eight of whom were on Detroit's roster at some point during LeBeau's 14 seasons with the club. LeBeau's older brother, Bob, will present him.
LeBeau, who was nominated by the Hall's senior committee, which considers candidates whose careers concluded at least 25 years ago, is the 21st defensive back to be enshrined. Only five have more interceptions, but none started more consecutive games than LeBeau, who was in the lineup 171 straight games for Detroit. It's a mark he is proud of, and one illustrative of a "roll-up-my-sleeves" approach that has guided him throughout an NFL career that spans more than 50 years.
"I think that's reflective of the person I am," said LeBeau, who is in 52nd consecutive season as a player or coach.
A fifth-round selection of the Browns in the 1959 NFL draft, LeBeau was cut in training camp. He signed with Detroit and eventually worked his way into the starting lineup. His first start came against Pittsburgh on Nov. 8, 1959, and he would not leave the lineup until his final season in Detroit.
Along the way, he played with injuries, some more painful than others, as he recalled.
"Well, I played with broken ribs and a broken nose, which is a matter of tolerating some unpleasantness," he said.
LeBeau's consistency of production was also remarkable. He racked up at least four interceptions in 11 of 14 professional seasons in a Detroit secondary that never lacked for star power during his tenure with the club. Three defensive backs who played in Detroit's secondary with LeBeau — CB Dick "Night Train" Lane, S Yale Lary and CB Lem Barney — are also enshrined in Canton, and all made an impression on LeBeau.
Among defensive backs who played cornerback, only Rod Woodson — whom LeBeau coached in Pittsburgh — picked off more passes than Lane, whom the Lions acquired from the Chicago Cardinals in 1960. Lane, a seven-time Pro Bowler who intercepted 68 passes in his career, would be an exceptional player in today's game, LeBeau said.
"Quarterbacks feared him because they never knew what he would do," LeBeau said.
In addition to being an elite safety, Lary was an exceptional punter, a skill that LeBeau admired.
"After he got his timing (in training camp), he never missed a punt," LeBeau said. As a defensive back, Lary, who hauled in 50 interceptions in 11 seasons with Detroit from 1952-64, impressed with his intelligence, tackling and hands, LeBeau said.
Barney, whom the Lions drafted in the second round in 1967, wowed with his footwork.
"They say, 'Quicker than a cat'? Well, he was a quicker than a cat," LeBeau said of Barney, who had 56 career interceptions.
LeBeau, listed at 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, played in a zone scheme at Ohio State but transitioned to man-to-man coverage on the pro level. "I studied anybody and everybody," he said, employing a strategy he took with him to the coaching ranks years later: working diligently, discarding the ideas that did not work for him and applying best practices.
The work paid off, particularly against top competition. LeBeau intercepted Hall of Fame QBs Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas seven times apiece.
"I couldn't stop them always, but I had a pretty good feeling of what they were going to do," LeBeau said.
Another Hall of Famer, former Browns and Dolphins WR Paul Warfield, ranks as the most difficult receiver LeBeau ever had to cover.
"Paul Warfield was always so gifted an athlete that you couldn't tell when he was running fast," LeBeau remembered, adding that he preferred covering another Hall of Famer, Bob Hayes — an Olympic gold-medal sprinter — because Hayes at least gave a hint that he was speeding up, giving a cornerback a chance to get into chase mode.
"You didn't want to get too much space between you and him," LeBeau said of Warfield, "because you would never get him on the ground."
Of course, to have lasted as long as he did at a challenging position, LeBeau gave opposing receivers their share of problems.
Former Packers and Redskins WR Boyd Dowler, who faced the Detroit secondary twice a season throughout his career with Green Bay and later coached with LeBeau in Philadelphia, remembered LeBeau as a smart, instinctive player who didn't make many mistakes.
"You didn't beat him deep," said Dowler. "He didn't allow that to happen."
LeBeau, Dowler noted, gave receivers plenty of cushion, knew where his help was at all times and was a solid tackler, too, if not a thumping hitter. And he did not take many undue risks.
"He didn't gamble a whole lot," Dowler said.
But LeBeau, when the opportunity presented itself, knew how to close the deal when it came to snagging interceptions, a skill he showed throughout his career. He intercepted a career-high nine passes in 1970, his 12th NFL campaign. Also, LeBeau, Detroit's all-time franchise leader in interceptions, is the only Lions player to return both an interception and a fumble for touchdowns, having accomplished the feat against the Fran Tarkenton-led Vikings in 1962.
After his playing career ended, LeBeau moved right into coaching, taking a job as the Eagles' special-teams coach in 1973.
"That was an entry position in those days," he said, adding, "I took it because I wanted to coach, and I wanted to be a coach."
Eleven years later, he was the Bengals' defensive coordinator. Two stints in Cincinnati, highlighted by the Bengals' appearance in Super Bowl XXIII, coupled with a pair of stints and two Super Bowl titles with Pittsburgh, give him an impressive coaching résumé, too. His greatest contribution to the game may be the "zone blitz," a system designed to bring pressure from various angles while maintaining sound pass coverage on the back end.
Sound, steady play marked his playing career, and on Saturday, he'll finally be part of that less than one percent of one percent, something he calls "overwhelming."
"I don't think I can ever express the gratitude and humility I feel," he added. "It is just a tremendous honor."
Related link: Russ Grimm profile
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