A phone rings, and the writer answers. A voice on the other end says, "This is Coach LeBeau. You wantto talk about the zone blitz?" It was hard to tell if there was a question mark at the end of the sentence.Maybe his words were a statement rather than a query, but the topic on the table was, indeed, the zoneblitz. A request had been made through the Steelers' media-relations department. There had been e-mails and phone calls. All declined. LeBeau didn't want to talk about himself. Finally, there had been aletter -- old school -- sent to LeBeau's office. It was the letter that prompted the phone call."I felt like I should get back to you," says LeBeau. "The problem is, I want to write my own booksomeday, and I'm afraid I won't have anecdotes left." That was amusing, and a little poignant too. If anybody has a football book in him, no matter how many stories he's already told, it's Dick LeBeau.He continued, "Plimpton took all my good anecdotes." Of course he had. George Plimpton, the iconic journalist-author, essentially invented the genre of participatory sports journalism with
,published in 1965. It was a brilliant, funny, self-deprecating account of Plimpton's experience as a"quarterback" at the Detroit Lions' '63 training camp. More than the personal recollection of an erudite,Harvard-educated writer,
drew back the curtain on the world of the professional footballplayer. While far less scandalous than Jim Bouton's
, the bawdy baseball memoir published in'70, it was every bit as insightful.When Plimpton arrived at the Lions' camp in 1963, LeBeau was already established as one of the bestdefensive backs in the NFL, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound starting right cornerback (a position he would hold for171 consecutive games, from '59 to '71). He was a part of a Lions team that had gone 11-3 the previousyear and finished second to Vince Lombardi's Packers in the Western Conference of the premerger NFL.LeBeau was also part of a truly outstanding defense that included future Pro Football Hall of Famers JoeSchmidt at linebacker, Dick (Night Train) Lane at cornerback and Yale Lary at safety, along with multi-time Pro Bowlers Alex Karras and Roger Brown (tackles), Wayne Walker (linebacker) and LeBeau himself.LeBeau had come to Detroit from London, Ohio, by way of the Ohio State Buckeyes, where he started onWoody Hayes's 1957 national championship team. He was also just a little different from the averageprofessional football player, as Plimpton observed in
LeBeau was from Ohio, with a pronounced midwestern twang, nasal and slow, which made the songs he put to his guitar quite incomprehensible, though fetching: gentle songs full of melancholy and poverty,one supposed, and love unrequited. He himself had a lady-killer reputation. Thin-hipped, built like a highschool basketball player, his hair worn longer than most of the others', he was called Ricky, less adiminutive of Richard than derived from a crop of teenage movie stars and singers of the time, all of that name, whose manner and attitude he seemed to cultivate.
LeBeau was different on the field too. He played at the opposite corner from Lane, one of the greatestand most instinctive defensive backs in the history of the game, whose 14 interceptions in his rookieyear of 1952 as a member of the Los Angeles Rams still stands as an NFL single-season record (what ismore remarkable is that Lane did it in 12 games). LeBeau, meanwhile, was more of a thinker, analyzingoffenses and offensive players long before he began coaching against them. Plimpton describedinterviewing Lane about LeBeau's propensity for reading the strides of long-legged receivers and quotedLane's response: "Well, that's Dickie-Bird for you. He's complex. He confirms and thinks on it aboutreading the receivers."That reputation for cerebral play was validated in LeBeau's first year of retirement, when MikeMcCormack, head coach of the Eagles, hired LeBeau, 36, to coach special teams. He spent three years inthat role before moving to Green Bay in 1976 under Bart Starr to coach defensive backs and then toCincinnati under Forrest Gregg in '80 in the same capacity. The Bengals of the early '80s were a premierfranchise, losing in the Super Bowl at the end of the '81 season to the 49ers 26-21 and then winningseven more games in the strike-abbreviated '82 season.