BY GEOFF HOBSON
Nearly 40 years ago, George Plimpton wrote an American sports classic with the help of new Bengals coach Dick LeBeau.
"Paper Lion," is Plimpton's ultimate inside story from the Detroit Lions' training camp as he chronicles his struggles as a writer trying to play quarterback for an NFL team. It was the first of a genre belonging only to him and helped define pro football as it emerged into its golden age.
And LeBeau, one of the league's top cornerbacks on one of the league's roughest defenses, surfaces early and often.
"George Plimpton," LeBeau reminisced during his busy week. "Good guy, but he had to be one of the most unathletic people I've ever seen."
Plimpton heard the news about LeBeau's new job this week and said he let out a yell.
"I feel like it's my team and when ever I hear one of them getting a triumph, I enjoy it," Plimpton said Friday from New York. "I wrote about him a lot because he was an interesting guy. Very bright. And not everyone on that team was smart. It was dormitory life and a guy like Dick LeBeau made it better."
LeBeau still shakes his head at Plimpton's portrayal of him as a hip, mod "ladykiller."
"You know writers," LeBeau said. "They'll take poetic license. I thought it was Plimpton being a little Hollywoodish. Somebody had to fit that role in his book , so somebody had to be that. I was the stereotype on the Lions. There were a lot of homely guys on the Lions."
But LeBeau likes Plimpton and the book ("a great book,") and enjoyed some of the books Plimpton has written since.
"LeBeau played the guitar and they would ask him to play it," Plimpton said. "He'd start strumming and he'd put his head back and his eyes would flutter and he'd sing.
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"You can imagine there were a lot of practical jokes," Plimpton said. "And he was ethereal and that made him a pretty good target."
When the grand experiment was done and Plimpton walked by the field in his street clothes to say good-bye, Lions coach George Wilson told Plimpton to take one more snap.
"The last pass I threw was to Dick LeBeau," Plimpton said. "They told him to run a slant and I put the ball right there."
Actually, it wasn't the last pass Plimpton threw LeBeau's way. A few years later, Plimpton quarterbacked four downs for the Baltimore Colts during halftime of a pre-season game against the Lions. It was for a documentary probably best remembered for Lions middle linebacker Alex Karras cursing Plimpton from across the line of scrimmage
But on one play, Plimpton tried to throw pass to LeBeau's man.
"I was mad at George. I started yelling at him," LeBeau said. "I told him, 'George, what happens if everyone sees you complete a pass on me? What are you doing that for? Don't do that to me.'"
But apparently there was no threat of Plimpton burning LeBeau through the air.
"Not even close," LeBeau said. "(The pass) had to be five yards away from the guy. Still. . ."
Plimpton says he'll make sure he looks for a score on Sunday as one of his Lions tries to go 1-0.
"Tell him I wish him the best of luck," Plimpton said.
LeBeau appreciates it. At the moment, he's not looking to write a book. Just a solid preface.