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LeBaron: A big man in NFL, USA history

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The Sports Xchange

While sorting through heights, weights and details of potential future stars in the 2015 NFL Draft, the passing Wednesday of Eddie LeBaron, a hero of historic proportions in the NFL and USA, was a reality check.

LeBaron was a quarterback at College of Pacific from 1946 to 1949 and led the Tigers to an undefeated season (11-0) as a senior, when he finished sixth in voting for the Heisman Trophy.

But based on the data used to rate players today he would not be among those considered for the draft. At 5 feet 7 and 168 pounds, he wouldn’t measure up. In reality, draft prospects and even current NFL stars of much larger proportions should aspire to measure up to LeBaron.

“Eddie was a great American hero on and off the football field,” offered Tom Flores on Thursday from his home in Southern California.

Like LeBaron, Flores was a quarterback at Pacific and in pro football.

“Not many people know or remember, but he was only 16 years old when he became a starting quarterback and safety at Pacific,” Flores said. Heck, he punted, too. A 60-minute player who was only 5-foot-7, at most.

“After college he earned a Purple Heart as a Marine in the Korean War, then played 11 years in the NFL, including the first starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys when the Washington Redskins forgot to protect him in the NFL expansion in 1960.”

Flores’ warm memories of LeBaron are not merely based on being fellow alums at Pacific. It was LeBaron who recommended Flores in 1960 to Eddie Erdelatz, first coach of the Oakland Raiders. Without that recommendation, Flores probably would not have become the Raiders’ first starting quarterback.

“Eddie was an amazing person,” Flores said. “After playing football, he worked with CBS as an announcer, earned a law degree, was general manager of the Atlanta Falcons. He was a quiet guy, but always doing something, and often it was for somebody else.”

That is exactly what LeBaron was up to — doing something for somebody else — when he approached me at the Oakland Coliseum in the late 1990s before a Raiders game. He wanted to talk about the Pro Football Hall of Fame because he wanted to set something straight. But it wasn’t about him not being selected.

“Ray Guy belongs in the Hall of Fame,” LeBaron told me. “I heard something about him not getting in because Sammy Baugh was already in as a quarterback and he had great stats as a punter, too.”

LeBaron knew Baugh well. In 1952, LeBaron took over for the great Slinging Sammy Baugh, as both quarterback and punter for the Washington Redskins.

“Look, Sammy was a great, great player, but punting was a far different thing in those days,” LeBaron said. “Sammy had some of his best yards punting on third-down quick kicks when nobody was back to receive. So did I. The ball would roll and slide for 20 extra yards in the mud.

“But Ray Guy was the best pure punter who ever played. His punts didn’t roll in the mud; they stayed in the air five seconds or more. He was the first and best of a new breed of punters. So you tell that to the selectors, OK?”

We told LeBaron’s story several times at selection meetings and finally Guy made the Hall of Fame last year.

As for LeBaron, he was almost overlooked in the 1950 draft, when the Redskins finally took him in the 10th round with the 123rd pick. Before joining the team, LeBaron went to war as a Marine and earned both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for acts of heroism on the front lines in Korea.

Amazingly, when LeBaron joined the Redskins in 1952, he was still only 22 years old. He was selected to the Pro Bowl four times. He retired as a player after making the Pro Bowl in 1962 because a 24-year-old Don Meredith was ready to become the Cowboys’ starting quarterback.

LeBaron was 85 when he died of natural causes Wednesday in Stockton, Calif. He is survived by his wife of 61 years, Doralee, their three sons Wayne, Richard and William, and five grandchildren.

–Frank Cooney, founder and publisher of The Sports Xchange and NFLDraftScout.com, is in his 50th year covering football and is a selector for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.


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