There’s the old showbiz joke — you need two comics to tell it — that identifies what it takes to make a good comedian. The first guy says “What you really need if you want to tell jokes…” and before he can finish the set-up, the second guy interrupts by blurting out “timing!”
That evergreen has some application when considering the recent elevation of former Lions defensive halfback Dick LeBeau to the National Football Hall of Fame. Controversy swirled around LeBeau’s status — both during the long period when he was blocked from Hall admission, and again now that his longtime coaching record afforded him a second chance via a Senior Committee recommendation of the Lions #44 to the Hall.
Much of the debate centered around the influence of his coaching career, a multi-faceted five team resume that began immediately in 1973 after the culmination of his 14 years patrolling the Lions defensive backfield. The issue raised here does not address his coaching possibly adding weight to his candidacy. Let’s instead take a look at LeBeau’s record and Hall qualifications and compare them to another Lions defensive back, Jim David, another controversial Hall “nominee” (an unofficial term; as with LeBeau many have touted the late David as Hall worthy), and see how time played a crucial role for both.
Dick LeBeau put in an amazing 14 seasons with the Lions, 185 games from 1959-72, showing amazing resiliency for a corner. He was a three time Pro Bowler (Lions fans may recall him stepping out of a starting lineup to do the “Twist” once when he was introduced in Hawaii), and a member of a famed backfield contingent, the “L” boys of Lane, Lowe, Lary and LeBeau. His best credential would surely be the 62 interceptions he rang up in his career. He lacked blazing speed, but at 6’1 and 187 pounds he was a real ‘gamer’ providing steadfast play for the Lions.
But then there’s David, who has not made the Hall, and for whom the term “gamer” might have been invented. If the legendary “Hatchet” wasn’t the meanest man in the NFL, he was surely the toughest 5 ’10 back in the history of the league. He threw his paltry 178 pounds around with reckless abandon, earning Pro Bowl recognition in SIX of his eight years with the Lions. (David’s backers would tell you he should have been selected seven times, but was barred in 1953 after he ended Y.A. Tittle’s season — and the 49ers title chances — with an “accidentally” applied knee-to-jaw tackle when the QB made the mistake of trying to dive into the Lions end zone on the Hatchet’s side.) David compiled 36 interceptions over 96 games, and — maybe the highlight of HIS resume — he played on three World’s Championship and four division championship teams in Detroit.
And as LeBeau played with the All-L backfield, David was an integral part of the “Chris Crew,” the defensive backfield headed by Hall of Famer Jack Christiansen and later anchored by HOFer Yale Lary. In fact, both players ran alongside greatness. Besides Lary, LeBeau partnered with Dick “Night Train” Lane and later Lem Barney in Detroit, two more legendary Hall choices.
So why LeBeau, and why not David? Like the joke about telling jokes, it’s all in the timing. And timing eventually worked for LeBeau in overcoming the glare given off by his famous backfield mates. While David and LeBeau seemed evenly matched by averaging roughly 4.5 interceptions per season, a working theory was that both failed to receive initial Hall support because they would have been the third of their backfield “teams” — the L Boys and the Chris Crew — to gain admittance. Surely some voters, at the time of David’s and LeBeau’s original consideration, figured that elevating three of four backfield starters from the same team would have been a bit much. Thus did both fail to gain entrance when first eligible.
But when LeBeau’s candidacy was considered the second time around, sparked by his long coach’s service and recommended by the Hall’s Senior Committee, the bright and apparently blinding light cast by Lary and Lane and then Barney had long worn off. And thus voters were able to consider his candidacy outside of his starry backfield affiliation. It makes it seem possible, if not likely, that a new consideration of Jim David — on his own instead of as the third Chris Crewman — could yield similar results.
Sound goofy? Possibly. But it’s an argument that makes sense to many.