Former Teammates Recall Dick LeBeau's Playing Career with Lions

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. —Motown Records was founded in 1959, and that's the same year the Detroit Lions signed a rookie free agent by the name of Dick LeBeau.

Detroit was a booming city at the time, the car industry thriving.

And at the age of 22, it's where LeBeau began his 14-year NFL playing career. Little did he know, it was also the dawn of an NFL career that's now in its 58th season.

"It was a great time to be in Detroit, and a great time in my life,'' LeBeau recalled this week. "Motown was coming on, songs were playing. The American automobile was absolutely king of the world. Everybody in Detroit was working assembly lines around the clock, and everybody had money. I have great memories of being there, playing for the Lions. I made a lot of life-long friends there. It was great."

LeBeau returns to Detroit this weekend, as the Titans face the Lions on Sunday. LeBeau, who turned 79 last week, is in his second season as assistant head coach/defense with the Titans, and in his 44th year as a coach in the league.

This week, Titans Online talked to several of LeBeau's teammates with the Lions, in addition to some who played against him during his Hall of Fame career. The players provided perspective on LeBeau's career as a defensive back, along with his mindset and personality, from 1959-1972. Those who shared a locker room with LeBeau praised him, while those he competed against talked about not only the challenges he presented, but also the respect they'll always have for a man who has made an impact on the NFL for six decades.

"What a great guy,'' former Lions linebacker, and coach, Joe Schmidt said of LeBeau. A Hall of Famer himself, Schmidt, who's now 84, was with LeBeau in Detroit for 13 seasons. "I played with a lot of guys and coached a lot of guys, but Dick LeBeau stands out.

"As a player, he was always prepared, always knew what to do. And Dick was a damn good ball player. But he's also a man of great character, intelligent, a great sense of humor, and he's always been that way. He was always laughing, always smiling. He was just a good teammate, and just a good guy. I can't say enough about Dick LeBeau."

LeBeau played in 185 total games during his Lions career, which currently ranks sixth in franchise history. He accumulated 62 career interceptions, which not only still ranks first for the franchise but also is tied for 10th in NFL annals. He intercepted three or more passes in 12 straight seasons, and recorded at least five interceptions in seven seasons. He was voted to three Pro Bowls. In 1970, he led the NFC in interceptions with nine, and his 62 interceptions at the time of his retirement ranked third-most.

In 2010, he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Those accomplishments perhaps explain why not everyone liked LeBeau quite as much as Schmidt, and the people of Detroit.

"Oh, I remember Dick LeBeau well,'' said Fran Tarkenton, a quarterback with the Vikings (1961-66, 1972-78) and Giants (1967-71). "I don't speak with a forked tongue, so I'll tell you exactly what I think: He was a great, great, great cornerback, and he played on the most dominating defense of the 1960s. In fact, that Lions defensive team in the 60s was the best defense I played against other than the Pittsburgh Steelers in their glory days. I mean they had an All-Pro at every position, and LeBeau was one of them.

"They were a nasty, nasty defense, a horror story. And Dick LeBeau was a great cornerback on a great defensive team. They were a nightmare.

"Dick was a great cover guy," Tarkenton, a Hall of Famer, continued. "But he was also a great tackler. He was a great, great cornerback. He had all the tools for being physical, for being fast, and for being able to cover and having instincts. He knew how to play. He wasn't a whole lot of fun to play against. None of those guys were."

Having LeBeau, who starred at Ohio State under coach Woody Hayes and was initially drafted by the Cleveland Browns before being cut, was like having an extra coach on the field, former teammates said.

Schmidt, in fact, said he talked to Lions management at one point about LeBeau becoming a player-coach, but it never officially happened.

Pat Studstill, a receiver, was teammates with LeBeau from 1961-67, and loved it. He recalled stories about LeBeau's smarts and toughness, and he also said he remembers him playing a guitar back then to lighten the mood.

Later, Studstill played with the Rams and Patriots.

"Dick was astute when it came to football,'' Studstill, 78, said of LeBeau. "He studied the game, and came up with solutions when he was playing. A lot of coaches would ask him questions. But he was also tough. I couldn't have my way with him. He could cover me like a glove, and I did pretty well with a lot of the other guys.

"I saw Dick hit some people. I saw him tackle Jim Brown. I saw him tackle (Alan) Ameche, I saw him tackle some of the big guys. Dick was a hitter, he didn't care. He wasn't afraid to stick his nose in there. He wasn't a dirty player, but he'd hit you. He was one guy I just didn't enjoy running patterns against, because he could cover you. For some reason I couldn't beat him. I could beat Lem Barney (another Hall of Fame cornerback with the Lions), but I couldn't beat Dick LeBeau. He always had me covered like a glove."

Jerry Reichow, a tight end who was teammates with LeBeau in 1959 before playing with the Eagles and Vikings, was also able to discuss LeBeau as a teammate, and competitor. Reichow was known as "Mr. Reliable' during his playing days, but LeBeau hurt his reputation, he said.

"When I was with the Vikings, I went up to catch a pass one time and all of a sudden Dick's hand snuck up there between mine and batted the ball away, and that was the first time that had ever happened to me,'' Reichow, 82, recalled. "I said, 'You ol' rascal, you.' And I thought, "Wow, this guy knows what he's doing back there.

"Dick was a good player, he had all the ability. But he was smart. But I tell you what a remember most about Dick—he's a great guy. We need more Dick LeBeaus in the game, and in life."

LeBeau smiled this week when relayed some of the compliments showered on him by old friends. Just last month, LeBeau lost a dear friend, Jim Gibbons, his roommate with the Lions. Gibbons, a three-time Pro Bowl tight end, died from double pneumonia at the age of 79.

"He was a good one," LeBeau said.

As a player, LeBeau said he always wanted to be known "as a good, honest, hard-working guy."

"I was blessed to have a 14-year career,'' LeBeau said. "I played with so many great players and friends, and I played against so many great, great players and great quarterbacks.

"The hardest guy for me to cover? I'd say it was (Hall of Famer) Paul Warfield. Now he was a glider. But I had to cover Raymond Berry twice a year, and you had to deal with quarterback Johnny Unitas, who was so accurate. The Green Bay receivers, and quarterback Bart Starr, he was so accurate, too. … The running backs, Jim Brown would dominate the league if he was playing today. And if you were going to start a football team, Jim Taylor would be the perfect guy to be the first pick because he was all football. He was a great player.

"But I played against so many great ones. I hate to just start naming guys because I don't want to leave anyone out. I played against some good ones."

LeBeau, of course, has excelled as a defensive coordinator since his playing days. He was the architect of the Steelers famed "Zone Blitz" and he coached five top-five defenses from 2004-2012 in Pittsburgh. He has a pair of Super Bowl rings from his days in Pittsburgh. The Titans enjoyed significant improvement on defense in 2015 when LeBeau joined the team.

When reached this week, LeBeau's buddies knew he was still working. They weren't shocked to hear he made his 7th hole-in-one over the summer, and they weren't surprised to hear he's still playing the guitar and singing either. They remembered him enjoying both hobbies back in the day, when he wasn't talking, or playing, football.

"A lot of us played the guitar and we all liked to sing,'' LeBeau recalled. "We would go to the river and have picnics and sing, and have a good time."

Two of LeBeau's long-time friends stopped to offer a joke, as if they were back in the locker room.

"He used to sing back then, but could he sing?,'' Studstill, laughing, said of LeBeau. "Well, let me put it like this: Dick thought he could sing. But he couldn't sing for (crap)."

"Heck, he's played about 7 million rounds of golf over the years,'' Reichow added with a chuckle. "He should end up making a hole-in-1 every once in a while."

As the conversations wrapped up, however, they all wanted LeBeau to know they still think the world of him, and wished him the best.

Schmidt, who still lives in Detroit, said LeBeau's always welcome. He remembers him with the heart of a Lion.

"I love the guy," Schmidt said of LeBeau. "He was one of my favorite teammates, and I still consider him one of my best friends. And Dick LeBeau, everyone who knows him is proud to call him a friend. Yeah, he was a great football player, and he's still a great coach now. But he's also a great guy."

A look back at Dick LeBeau's first three years with the Titans. (Photos: Donn Jones, AP)

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