November 3, 1996 in Sports

Cowboys Can Lean On Leon Dt Lett Puts Mistakes Behind Him While Becoming One Of Nfl’s Best

Jean-Jacques Taylor The Dallas Morning News
 

Fairhope, a town of nearly 10,000, is a sliver of America situated along the eastern shore of Alabama’s Mobile Bay.

It is home to a pair of natural phenomena.

The first - called a Jubilee - usually occurs in the wee hours of the morning sporadically throughout the year. Atmospheric pressure changes affect the bay’s oxygen level, sending all of its sea life surging to the surface in search of oxygen, creating an unusual sight.

About a century ago when people first noticed the strange happening, Fairhope’s citizens would shout “Jubilee! Jubilee!” to notify their neighbors.

Fairhope’s other enigma stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 291 pounds with a thick chest, broad shoulders and skinny legs. He generally appears on autumn Sundays wearing a metallic silver football helmet adorned with a blue star.

His name is Leon Lett, and he’s rapidly becoming the best defensive tackle in the National Football League.

In the past month, Lett has been particularly forceful with 21 tackles, including three tackles for losses, two forced fumbles, a sack and a NFC Player of the Week award.

In the process, Lett is changing his legacy. Before this season, Lett had been known more for his miscues than his football prowess.

People still talk about his fumble at the end of the Cowboys’ Super Bowl XXVII blowout, when he prematurely celebrated an apparent touchdown, and his mental error in the waning seconds of a 1993 game against Miami that turned what looked like a victory into defeat.

And last November, the NFL gave him a four-game suspension for violating its substance-abuse policy. This season, Lett has avoided controversy the way quarterbacks evade him.

Lett, who signed a five-year, $12.8 million contract extension last August, finds himself free from turmoil and in the midst of his finest season.

Doing so has created quite a dilemma for the shy six-year veteran, who finds comfort in anonymity.

He eschews media attention and has no desire to star in movies. Or shoot commercials. Or write an autobiography.

Deion. Michael. Troy. Emmitt. The Cowboys have enough stars.

Lett said he simply wants to play football and fade into the shadows when the game ends.

But he can’t. His talent is too immense.

“I feel like I’m a regular guy. I’m no different than anyone else just because I play football,” Lett said recently in a darkened meeting room as he watched game tapes for an upcoming opponent. “If a person set out to be a great player, it probably wouldn’t happen because you’d spend too much time dreaming about it instead of doing it. I don’t want that to happen to me.”

Basketball beginnings

Rachel Lett’s little boy has always been big for his age. And he has always been an athlete.

Basketball, a game of grace and beauty, remains his true love and seems a better fit for Lett’s soft-spoken nature than football, a game of aggression and contact.

Lett developed the speed, quickness and coordination that make him the prototype defensive tackle on the basketball court, where he received scholarship offers from schools like Georgia Southern and Samford.

He also liked music as a kid and wanted to join the school band. When his mother bought him a saxophone, her relatives laughed at the gift, she said, because they knew he was destined to become a professional athlete.

After high school, Lett wound up at Hinds (Miss.) Community College for two seasons. When his eligibility ended, he took a year off and worked in Fairhope before going to Emporia (Kan.) State to play football.

Larry Kramer, then Emporia’s coach, said Lett is one of the finest athletes he has ever coached.

“There were times we had to lean on him, but he always responded positively,” said Kramer, now Kansas State’s offensive line coach. “Leon is a good guy and a good person, and if he believes in you, he’s extremely loyal.”

One play remains fresh in Kramer’s memory.

“We were playing Kearney State and Leon sacked their quarterback,” Kramer said. “But he hit him so hard that it knocked the quarterback’s helmet off and pretty much knocked the guy out.”

Dr. Bill Quayle, Emporia State’s athletic director for the past 20 years, said Lett never liked to be the center of attention, even when his exploits on the football field made him the epicenter of campus.

When the national media began ridiculing Lett for his fumble in Super Bowl XXVII, many of Emporia State’s students and faculty wore T-shirts that read, “Lett Leon Alone.”

“That kind of loyalty makes it pretty evident what kind of person he is,” Quayle said.

Kramer said Dallas, Indianapolis, Chicago, Kansas City and Buffalo each made trips to Emporia State’s campus to scout Lett. Although Lett was not among 450 prospects invited to the NFL scouting combine, the Cowboys made him the 173rd player picked because scout Ron Mariniak had watched Lett dribble the length of the court for a dunk during a pickup basketball game.

Lett became the first defensive lineman drafted from Emporia State since Kansas City took defensive end John Lohmeyer in 1973 in the fourth round.

“When Leon got drafted, he called me and said, ‘Mama, do you believe it?”’ Rachel Lett said. “He always had some doubts about his ability, but I never did.”

Learning process

Charles Haley is the teacher; Leon Lett the pupil. It has been that way since the Cowboys acquired Haley in a trade with San Francisco before the 1992 season.

Veterans Michael Carter and Ronnie Lott taught Haley the nuances of professional football and he saw an opportunity to do the same thing with Lett, so he befriended the quiet, pigeon-toed second-year player.

Haley supported Lett during his suspension last season, and Lett calmed an irate Haley after a postgame tirade following a regular-season win over Green Bay.

Lett has said he wishes the two miscues that forced him into the national spotlight had never occurred. And Lett says he disappointed himself by getting suspended, but he chooses not to dwell on his mistakes.

“When I came back last year, I tried to put all of that behind me,” Lett said. “I made mistakes, but I learned from them.”

Owner Jerry Jones said he’s more impressed with Lett’s development off the field than he is by the tackles and sacks. Everyone, said Jones, would not have responded positively to the highly publicized gaffes Lett has been through.

When Lett returned last season, Haley told his friend to hold his head high and take out his frustrations and fears on the football field.

“I see a better young man, a more disciplined young man and a young man with more strength and resolve than I saw a few years ago,” Jones said. “Leon has been through a lot, but he has persevered, and that’s admirable.”

Lett said he spent his first few seasons emulating Haley, Tony Tolbert and former Cowboy Jim Jeffcoat.

They watched extra film, and so he did. They practiced hard, so he did. They studied the game plan until it was second nature, and so he did.

The reward for the hard work came after the 1994 season, when Lett earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl after recording 68 tackles, four sacks and seven tackles for losses. “Personal goals aren’t that important to me,” Lett said. “I made my first Pro Bowl the year we lost to the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. I want to win the Super Bowl again and then go to the Pro Bowl.”

Coach Barry Switzer said Lett has played this season with a fury and an urgency he didn’t always display.

“He has never played this way before,” said guard Nate Newton, who battles Lett in practice every day. “Charles showed him the light; now he has taken the torch.”


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email