TAMPA — It is a few days before Christmas and Dick LeBeau has the attention of every member of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense.
The room is quiet.
“Twas the night before Christmas . . .”
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Seriously, the coordinator of the best defense in the NFL treats his players to “The Night Before Christmas” the Saturday before every Christmas. And he does it from memory.
“He’ll have guys crying,” said Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel.
And by crying, Keisel means the old man has found the little boy in every player, from the biggest to the meanest.
The old man is 71 and said he’s coming back next season for his 51st in pro football. That is, LeBeau added, if the organization will have him back.
“You should get better every year,” LeBeau said. “Hopefully, that is the case.”
LeBeau is the Monte Kiffin of the north. He’s the author of the “fire zone,” better known as the zone blitz, which he thought up last decade to combat the high-octane offenses that were populating the NFL.
“You’re never too old for new ideas,” Steelers safety Troy Polamalu said.
With LeBeau, you’re never too old for anything.
He does push-ups on the practice field.
He strums a six-string guitar.
“Age is not an issue with this guy,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
Did we mention he writes poetry?
The bard of Pittsburgh is old enough to have tackled Jim Brown. He was teammates with Dick “Night Train” Lane.
LeBeau began his 14-year career as a Detroit Lions cornerback in 1959. He once played 171 straight games, which is an NFL record for cornerbacks. He had 62 career interceptions, including an NFC-best nine in 1970.
“He has no problems telling us how many picks he had back in the day,” Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton said. “He’ll tell the defensive backs to add all their picks up and together they still don’t have as many as him. If everybody on the whole team added theirs up, they don’t have as many as him.”
Some think LeBeau had a Hall of Fame career as a player.
His players think he’s had a Hall of Fame career as a coach.
Before the 2007 Hall of Fame Game, the members of the Steelers defense each wore a No. 44 jersey — LeBeau’s number as a player — to make a statement that LeBeau deserves a bust in Canton.
“I think people underestimate how important he is to the team,” Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith said.
“First and foremost, he inspires everybody on that defense just being around him with his personality. He’s such a football mastermind in terms of coming up with new schemes and plays to stop the opposing offense.”
The zone blitz was an effort to stop Warren Moon and the Houston Oilers’ run-n-shoot offense. LeBeau had been toying with the idea in the mid-1980s to slow the Cincinnati Bengals’ no-huddle offense.
“The players have always enjoyed the pressure schemes,” LeBeau said. “I move them, and they like to move.”
He moves them every December when he recites “The Night Before Christmas.” Actually, Dick LeBeau moves them by being Dick LeBeau.
This is what LeBeau tells his players every day: “It’s a great day to be alive.”
“For a man to be 71 and that lively, to watch him do pushups on the football field and talk about how good he is at golf, it’s just awesome,” safety Ryan Clark said. “I think that’s one of the reasons we play the way we play, because we have a guy like that who is so well respected and appreciates us so much.”
LeBeau is old enough to have played college football at Ohio State for a young Woody Hayes. He’s old enough to have chased down Gale Sayers and to have coached defensive backs charged with stopping Terry Bradshaw and Lynn Swann.
LeBeau is young enough to want to coach another year and maybe another year after that.
“I think these guys play defense pretty well, and it’s kind of fun to coach them,” he said. “They keep me young, there’s no question about it, and it’s the reason why. As long as my health holds up and people want me to work, I’d think it’s be pretty foolish to leave these guys.”
He keeps going because his players have found the little boy in Dick LeBeau.