If at First You Don’t Succeed…
has been involved in professional football for more than a half century as both a player and a coach. It was his success as a player that earned him a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2010. However, his vast knowledge and experience he has gained throughout his NFL tenure and has passed on to his players as a coach ensures that the game’s history, traditions, and techniques will be adopted by another generation of pro football players.
Playing under the tutelage of legendary head coach Woody Hayes at the Ohio State University, LeBeau was a key member of the Buckeyes’ 1957 National Championship team. Dick played quarterback as a freshman at Ohio State and though he threw the ball fairly well, he was even better at running the ball. When he reported to the varsity squad, Coach Hayes wanted to get him out in space where he could run the ball more effectively which is why Dick was moved to halfback. As a senior, LeBeau’s role changed once again and he found himself throwing his 6-1, 185-pound body around as a blocking back for Don Clark.
LeBeau also displayed his toughness as a solid tackler in the defensive backfield throughout his college career. Unfortunately, Ohio State’s defense rarely played man-to-man coverage, something teams would want Dick to do at the next level.
As a professional player, nothing in LeBeau’s 14-year career came easy. But for the boy who grew up in London, Ohio cheering for the it couldn’t have started any better than when the Browns selected him in the 5th round (58th overall pick) of the 1959 NFL Draft. This was a fairly high pick considering the ’59 draft had 30 rounds. The Browns had just come off a 9-3 season in which they lost the Eastern Conference playoff game to the New York Giants 10-0. That defeat came after Hall of Fame Head Coach had led Cleveland to seven NFL Championship game appearances in eight years from 1950-57.
The Browns were not short on talent, but LeBeau was confident he could make Cleveland’s squad. While roster sizes were much smaller than they are today with only 36 players on an active roster, LeBeau’s intelligence, speed, toughness and versatility made him an intriguing prospect. LeBeau received much playing time in the defensive backfield in all six preseason games.
Dick made it to the final day of cuts but was waived by the team. Unfortunately, in that era, the players who were among the final cuts rarely had an opportunity to sign with other clubs since those teams had also just finalized their rosters.
Obviously upset, Dick began searching for a new team. He phoned his old friend from Ohio State, halfback Howard “Hopalong” Cassidy, and asked if the Lions had any openings at defensive back. “No chance here, we’re loaded.” Cassidy replied.
LeBeau then set his sights on the Baltimore Colts. Although the Colts didn’t signed him to their roster they wanted to put him on their “taxi squad” and invited Dick to join the team on the sideline for the Colts regular season home opener against the Lions. During warm-ups before the game Cassidy spotted LeBeau on the field wearing street clothes and informed him that the Lions now had space on their roster and he should inquire about signing with them. Since he still hadn’t been signed by Baltimore, Dick walked across the field and introduced himself to the Lions. Detroit inked him to a deal shortly thereafter.
After spending the first six weeks on Detroit’s taxi squad, LeBeau was shocked when his defensive coach Buster Ramsey told him he would start at safety against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, November 8, 1959. Dick played well and spent the final five games in the starting lineup although he played mostly on special teams.
The next season, with an entire training camp under his belt, LeBeau won the Lions’ starting left cornerback position. Although he made many mistakes at first, he learned from each one, and made the most of his opportunity to start. Dick ended the season with four interceptions and began a streak of 12 seasons with three or more interceptions.
The following season LeBeau locked down the right cornerback spot. He remained at that position for the next 12 seasons. He started 171 consecutive games which was a Lions’ record at the time of his retirement.
Kendle is a researcher at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He joined the Hall of Fame's staff in 2006.
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