Dick LeBeau will be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend, but it seems like his success as an NFL coach might have overshadowed what he did during his 14-year playing career with the Detroit Lions.
We've been talking for so long about what a tremendous coach he is -- as the grandfather of the zone-blitz defense -- that maybe we've forgotten how good he was as a player. That's unfortunate. But I believe that anyone who is a true football fan, a historian of the National Football League, knows how good he was. All the players who have played under him, they know, too.
If they don't, he'll remind them. And I'd like to remind everyone else that when LeBeau enters the Hall of Fame, it will be as a player.
Despite playing in an era when teams only threw the ball about 30 percent of the time, LeBeau still had 62 career interceptions. That's outstanding. I would think his ratio of interceptions to passes thrown is probably higher than any other player in NFL history.
What made LeBeau special on the field was his hand-eye coordination and his knack for the football. There is a saying that applies perfectly to LeBeau as a player: The harder you work, the luckier you get. He was a tireless worker. He maximized his ability on the field with his work ethic off the field and in the meeting room.
On the field, LeBeau was always in the right place at the right time. A lot of people might say that's luck. I don't agree. I think when you work your tail off to learn the game and be in the right position you find yourself with the ball. His 62 career interceptions weren't by mistake.
One of the reasons why it took LeBeau so long to get into the Hall of Fame was due to the fact he played his entire career next to Dick "Night Train" Lane, Yale Lary and later Lem Barney. But people who know about LeBeau know how good he was.
At the same time, I don't want to diminish what LeBeau has done as a coach, either. Over the last decade, he has consistently put defenses on the field that are Top 10 year in and year out, if not the best in the league. Don't forget he helped lead the Bengals to the Super Bowl as defensive coordinator more than 20 years ago. He also helped the Steelers win two Super Bowls in the last five years. Let me tell you, the reason they won those Super Bowls was because they had LeBeau.
I played for LeBeau for five seasons, and have known him for many more, but I'm not sure there is a single memory or story that epitomizes who he is and what he stands for. Over the years, I've realized he holds an attitude toward life that kind of reminds me of my father. That attitude is to take your profession seriously, but not to take life too seriously.
That's how LeBeau is with everything.
As a coach, he has been even-keeled throughout his career. He was always pretty easy-going on the sidelines and wouldn't get too riled up on game days, no matter how things were going, good or bad.
LeBeau was a father figure to his players in other ways, too, because he treated us as his own children. As players, we loved playing for him. He cares about players beyond what they do on the football field. He cares about their families, their children and their lives away from football. He asks about those things first, and then he will talk football. I think so many coaches around the league put football in front of everything else.
With LeBeau, it's the opposite. Even though football has been good to him, he puts family first -- always has -- in his life.
I think sometimes you can impact people through simple, everyday life. There doesn't have to be one impactful moment that defines a person or a relationship in order to leave a lasting impression. I'll always remember the way LeBeau treated my family. The way he picked up my kids as though they were his own kids, the way he talked to my wife. Even when I speak to him now, the first thing he asks is, "How's Nickie doing?" He then goes down the line with each of my five kids.
That type of relationship has a lasting impact with players. It's what makes LeBeau special. You won't find too many coaches in your life who care about their players and families as much as he does.
If they had a Hall of Fame for human beings, Dick LeBeau would be in that one, too.