The last time Dick LeBeau was in Canton, Ohio, a handful of his defensive players put on his No. 44 Detroit Lions throwback jerseys and posed with him on the Fawcett Stadium field before the 2007 Pro Football Hall of Fame game.
Nothing is definite yet, but the next time LeBeau is in Canton, a roster full of present and past Steelers -- let alone the usual horde of fans -- might line that same field next summer to watch him, after a 37-year wait, humbly enter that Hall as a member of the Class of 2010.
"It's my favorite picture of all time," LeBeau said yesterday about the 2-year-old freeze frame of James Farrior, James Harrison, Deshea Townsend, Ike Taylor, Casey Hampton and others gathering around their defensive coordinator, father figure and group conscience. "I got them hanging on a couple of walls."
50 years in the NFL, 36 as a coach and 14 as a player.
171 consecutive games played for a cornerback, still an NFL record.
62 career interceptions is currently tied for seventh all time in the NFL.
3 Pro Bowl appearances as a player.
10 coaching jobs with four NFL teams, including three seasons (2000-02) as the Cincinnati Bengals head coach.
6 times the Steelers' defense has finished the season ranked in the top five in the NFL in LeBeau's seven years as coordinator.
2 Super Bowl championships as Steelers defensive coordinator.
LeBeau's bust being erected inside the Hall's walls seems a strong possibility, what with him and longtime Denver halfback Floyd Little being nominated yesterday as the two senior candidates for consideration -- along with 15 undetermined modern-day finalists -- for voting at Super Bowl XLIV near Miami. Each finalist must receive an 80-percent minimum of the selection committee's votes for enshrinement. Often, one senior nominee makes it, and, by late yesterday afternoon several national-correspondent voters already were offering rousing support for LeBeau.
His reaction when coach Mike Tomlin huddled the team on the South Side fields before practice yesterday and broke the news? The usual modesty. And emotion.
"Old Faithful Dick LeBeau," Farrior teased of the 71-year-old defensive coordinator, who counsels players about life and family, recites "The Night Before Christmas" regularly every holiday and holds deep feelings for what he calls his men. "I didn't even see his face, but I'm sure he was pretty moved. I think [a nomination] has been a long time overdue."
"Deep down, it'll be even more moving when he makes it," Townsend said. "He's deserving."
"Well, 'senior' is certainly the category I belong in," said LeBeau, honored by the Steelers last season for his half-century of NFL service as a player and a coach -- each areas where his resume merited Hall consideration previously.
"It's very humbling. I'm not sure it's hit me completely. Coach Mike just announced it on the field. I must confess, it was the last thing I expected to hear. It's a great honor to get this far, no matter what the outcome will be. It's a great day. It really is. I'm not going to turn it back in."
LeBeau's senior candidacy has been an open secret around the NFL for a couple of years, and one of his former pupils brought it to the forefront last month: Rod Woodson stumped for LeBeau in his induction speech 17 days ago. "Seriously, I hope the voters get it right," Woodson said from the Fawcett Stadium stage. "First of all, he belongs in as a player. Secondly, if you don't want to put him as a player, you put him in as a contributor, because he did so much for the National Football League. ..."
For one, LeBeau's boss agrees.
And Tomlin does not routinely sit in on meetings where the defensive coordinator half-kiddingly drops into conversations his 171 consecutive starts at cornerback, believed to be an NFL record for that island of a position, and his 62 interceptions, the seventh-most all time. LeBeau's reputation precedes him.
"In my humble opinion, Dick LeBeau is a Hall of Famer," Tomlin told media after practice yesterday. "This guy has had really two distinguished careers. It's well documented what he's done as a player. Few people realize the number of consecutive games this guy played at corner in the NFL and how far out that record itself is. The interceptions ... He has legitimate numbers that speak to a Hall of Fame career as a player. He's quite a defensive innovator as a coach[, too]. You couple all of that into one human being -- not only the fact that he's an awesome person -- and he's a Hall of Fame guy, in my opinion."
Humble perhaps does not aptly describe an Ohio farmboy raised 150 miles southwest of Canton. He was a standout at Ohio State and, for 14 seasons, with Detroit. He was a stand-in for actor Michael Caine in a movie. Then, in coaching, he invented the most popular defense of modern football.
When an out-of-town reporter inquired before the Steelers' playoff game in January against San Diego about LeBeau inventing the zone blitz, this 36-year coaching veteran became noticeably uncomfortable, almost embarrassed upon taking such credit. "Call Jerry Glanville," he advised the reporter. "Or..."
Asked to cite his accomplishments yesterday, LeBeau talked proudly of never missing a workday with the Lions as a player or with the Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers, Cincinnati Bengals, Buffalo Bills or Steelers as a coach. The same as his father, an auditor who retired at 73. "Gotten in a harness and tried to pull my share of the load," the old farmboy said.
LeBeau will turn 72 the day before the Steelers' Sept. 10 opener. Though he has considered retirement, he enjoys the work, revels in his men. And vice versa.
Mike Logan, a defensive back who retired after the 2006 season, echoed many fellow alumni, when he said: "I still confide in him."
"We have an usual group of guys here. Both sides of the ball. They just play," LeBeau said. "Proud of them. There's no question [this Steelers defense] kept my name current, with what they've done. They've gotten all of us, myself included, two championship rings. This is just one more honor.
"It makes you think you did something right somewhere along the line."
Chuck Finder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published August 26, 2009 4:00 AM