Jack Leftridge, on Father and Former Steelers Fullback Dick Leftridge (1966)
Jack Leftridge, on Father and Former Steelers Fullback Dick Leftridge:
First, as the first African-American to receive a football scholarship to play for a major college in the South, do you recall any of your father’s stories on how he became that first player? What about him made him the first and did he want to play at WVU?
My father becoming the first African-American to receive a scholarship to play major college sports in the south seems to be simply a timing thing. His eventual coach at WVU (Corum) is on record as saying that he tried to recruit African-Americans to WVU even before my father.
My father did not want to go to WVU initially. He was heavily recruited by Woody Hayes at Ohio State. He really liked it there and really wanted to go there. WVU however promised my father and his family that he would be well taken care of (financially) and he was.
My father was also urged by his high school coaches and local boosters and the WV NAACP to break the color barrier at WVU as a black West Virginian. The WV governor at the time also urged my father to attend WVU. He sent representatives to talk to my father and dubbed my father a WV natural resource. Furthermore, WVU promised to give my father’s best friend and high school team-mate a scholarship to be a team manager and to be my fathers roommate however that deal fell thru when my father’s eventual roommate and team-mate Roger Alfred (also African-American) signed to attend WVU.
How did West Virginia University accept him?
My father seemed to be accepted reasonably well at WVU. He was an instant celebrity of sorts. One of his proudest moments was his first WVU practice and the whole team clapped their hands and yelled J.B. for him as he approached the practice field….J.B. stood for Jim Brown. It was the 60’s…right in the middle of the civil rights era.
Man to man he really didn’t experience much hatred or dislike, however…he was not accepted in most public places (bars/movies/restaurants). He also received death threats if he ever took the field. The entire team was turned away from a motel in Wheeling WV due to my father and Mr. Alford being black.
He was never accepted into the WVU Hall of Fame. Why?
This is a question I think is best suited for WVU to answer. As near as I can tell it is as a result of a feeling that my father threw his football career away by remaining severely overweight. There is also the issue of him dating Caucasian women and the pregnancy of a Caucasian co-ed (by my father at WVU) who was the daughter of a major WVU contributor.
This man actually came to my father’s home (in Hinton WV) with two other men and talked with my father’s mother. He stated that if my father wasn’t so popular that he would hurt him but that there are other ways to get him.
He was the third overall pick in the 1966 draft by Pittsburgh but signed to less money than most first round picks did that year. What happened?
My father was taken to Pittsburgh on draft day by a WVU booster. This booster had known and been taking care of my father (financially) at WVU for years and had befriended my father. This booster kept my father (and mother) in a motel room in Pittsburgh. He kept the T.V. off and guarded the phone. They attended a football game which was Jim Brown’s final game in Pittsburgh and then went to a meeting at the Steelers office in the Roosevelt Motel. There they met with another WVU booster and college financial supporter of my fathers along with Steeler representatives (coaches and Dan Rooney).
The WVU boosters told my father that the Steelers wanted to sign him at about the fifth or sixth round. My father trusted these men and signed right there. He didn’t know until the following day that he was a first round selection.
Did he ever relay any stories of the other players he befriended on that ’66 team? What players helped him as a rookie or stood out as characters, did he say?
My father really liked and respected Roy Jefferson. They had met in college as they played against one another in a bowl game. He also really liked Andy Russell and Dick Hoak.
What kind of player was your father?
Very naturally gifted. He was definitely doing what he was supposed to be doing and he knew it from about the age of twelve. He however was a very undisciplined street kid and his focus waned at times but as I said…..so very naturally gifted.
Your father only lasted one season in the NFL despite being such a highly touted athlete. What happened to his stay in Pittsburgh? Why just one season?
As near as I can tell my father’s problems in Pittsburgh first started when he was cheated out of his signing money. This had a very negative effect on his attitude and performance.
Also, there was the issue of him dating Caucasian women. The head coach at the time would meet with my father in private and tell him he could not date Caucasian women and that he would not play him as long as he did. My father continued to not give full effort as a player and dated as he pleased. The Steelers cut him and put in the media that it was due to him weighing nearly 300 lbs.
How did the coaching staff treat your father?
My father had only informed me of having a real problem with one of the coaches….and that was the head coach. He attempted to try and tell my father who he could and could not bring to his own apartment (Caucasian women). My father’s roommate (Jerry Simons) would get out of my father’s car on the way to the stadium on game days and walk the last block or so.
There would usually be some Caucasian girls waiting on my father there and Jerry would say that he didn’t want the head coach coming down on him too.
Did the Steelers ever state their side of the story on his alleged weight issues and passion for the game? What are your thoughts on their story?
I really have not seen much that they have ever said to the issues. The weight issue is just not true…I have old news articles where the head coach actually does state my fathers true weight for both of my fathers years there and it aint 300 lbs. 235lbs his first year and 242 his second.
These weights are over the 230 the Steelers wanted but definitely not 300. This non – truth has lasted about my father all of this time.
Did your father have any fond memories of his time in Pittsburgh?
Yes…The Chief, Art Rooney. He and my father would talk at length privately and he really liked him. The Chief would offer my father advice and encouragement and gave him money out of his own pocket due to the signing debacle. He even wrote my father encouraging letters even after my father had left the Steelers.
Your father got involved in some legal issues after his time in the NFL. What happened and how did he and your family deal with those?
My father was federally incarcerated for three years for drug trafficking. And, quite naturally, it was a very difficult time for my entire family.
What one thing, if anything, should fans remember/know about your father?
That he loved football and it was all he really knew and that, although he was stubborn and bull-headed to a fault….he did not just throw his career away.
Any last thoughts for readers?