The old Lions

10-26-01, 6:20 a.m.

The one man who has played more games for the Detroit Lions than Dick LeBeau thinks LeBeau could have been the man for their old team.

Wayne Walker, who played in 200 games through 15 years, six quarterbacks, five presidents, and 62 LeBeau interceptions, wonders what the Detroit braintrust was thinking back in 1985 and 1988 when they named head coaches.

The first guy, Darryl Rogers, went 13-40. Wayne Fontes, the second guy, went 67-71.

By the time they were done in 1996, LeBeau had coordinated the defenses of two franchises to the Super Bowl in that stretch. Before that, he had coached 11 years for three teams in three different capacities.

"The Lions missed an opportunity to hire Dick as the head coach about 15 years ago," Walker said this week. "He knew more football than those guys in a 20-minute conversation and he had accomplished so much more in the NFL at the time they were hired. He should have come back there as the coach. Their football people haven't made some good moves."

So the only man in the history of the Lions to play 200 games is rooting for the only guy to play 185 games when LeBeau's Bengals travel to the old den to play this year's version of the Lions and their winless first-year head coach.

"A win isn't going to help the Lions any," said Walker, who usually roots for them each week from Idaho. "But Dick can keep his team in position for the playoffs with a win."

LeBeau was a bit surprised to hear that.

"How about that?" he asked. "Coming from an old Lion?"

But could it be any other way? When LeBeau broke into the NFL in 1959, a year after Walker, they spent the next 14 seasons on the right edge of the Detroit defense that came so close to eclipsing Vince Lombardi's runs to daylight. Defense was the identity of a team that went to four playoffs while they were there.

LeBeau played right cornerback. Walker played right outside linebacker. They lockered next to each other for 14 years. They went to the Pro Bowl together from 1964-66. They held out together in 1969. They retired together after the 1972 season.

"For some reason, management forgave me for holding out," Walker said. "But I don't think they ever forgave Dick and I could never figure that out."

And they got the nickname "Whispers and Giggles," together.

"When we sat in front of our lockers, one of us would say something to the other," Walker said. "And the other guy would laugh."

It was a different time. It was a great time. It was a beautiful time to be in Detroit playing for the Lions. Stuff the Giants and Gifford on Sunday afternoon. On Sunday night walk into a lounge and hear Motown souling into history.

The Lions and Detroit shared their heyday. The Lions, who were the only

team to beat the 1962 Green Bay Packers with a defense that allowed just 12 points per game. The Lions, whose offense allowed them to get only to the runner-up bowl every year from 1960-62 despite winning 29 of 43 games. In 23 of those games, foes scored 14 points or less. The Lions, who lost the ultimate Detroit heartbreak in a 5-0 playoff loss to eventual 1970 NFC champion Dallas.

"You've got to understand," Walker said. "Detroit was at its zenith then. The car industry was at its peak. The music industry was at the top. You could walk into a bowling alley any night and see Stevie Wonder in person. It was an amazing place."

It was a different time. A young literary writer named George Plimpton convinced the Lions to let him play quarterback during training camp and he froze that team forever in the sports classic, "Paper Lion."

"Can you imagine a coach letting that happen today?" asked Walker, the man who called Plimpton out because Walker recognized him from a literary magazine that featured a Plimpton story and photo.

Why not ask one of today's coaches?

"No way," LeBeau said. "Can you imagine the distractions? Besides, if anyone would write that book, it would be me."

He could. Walker always admired his friend's versatility. LeBeau wrote poems, gobbled up histories, and played the guitar.

"To this day," Walker said, "My kids, who have kids of their own now, still say, 'Remember when Dick would come over to the house for dinner and play the guitar?' They thought he was Bob Dylan."

LeBeau was cool back when cool was first cool. The "Paper Lion," publishers threw a party when the team played in New York, and it was the movie buff LeBeau who recognized Dennis Hopper even though Hopper was in his post-James Dean disappearance from film.

"He was cool, no question about that," Walker said. "We called him 'Lates.' He was never late to a meeting or a bus. But he had it down to a science. He'd always be the last guy there. And whether he had a minute or five seconds, he was never moving very fast."

He was cool, but always himself. Back when they went to the Pro Bowl, it was in Los Angeles instead of Hawaii. There was no curfew Friday night before the game, but they opted to stay in that night and watch, "The Wizard of Oz."

"He's got the Mayor of Munchkinland speech memorized," Walker said.

Walker knows why LeBeau never got the head coaching job until age 63. He wasn't a speechmaker.

"There's not a political bone in Dick LeBeau's body," Walker said. "There's absolutely no phoniness. If he kissed butt around the NFL lobbies where they have those meetings, he could have had those jobs 15 years ago."

Walker and LeBeau are from a different time, too. This was back before players got into their separate limos after games.

The Lions were close. Rick LeBeau remembers going to training camp with his Dad and swimming with the other players' kids. And after home games, the whole team would gather in a restaurant for dinner.

"We would either be celebrating or crying in our beer," said tight end Jim Gibbons.

A different time.

Detroit has always meant a lot to the LeBeaus and not just because of football. For Rick, his Dad wasn't one of the big, bad Lions who ruled Sundays.

He was the guy who came home from work, played the guitar to him while he took a bath and read him history books as bedtime stories.

"Other kids would say something to me about Dad playing for the Lions," Rick LeBeau said. "But I never thought about him being something different. He was just Dad."

Gibbons, LeBeau's roommate, saw him prepare for games for a decade. Back then, the Lions stayed in a hotel the night before a home game, and the routine was the same. Cheeseburgers and Cokes.

"I think he liked rooming with an offensive guy," Gibbons said. "He was a student of the game. He wouldn't get beat deep early. He'd give a receiver about 10 yards and then as the game went on, he'd get tighter and tighter."

Walker loved playing for that Lions defense for the same reason LeBeau did. They were together for so long, they could count on each other. There were Hall-of-Famers like Joe Schmidt, Night Train Lane, Lem Barney and dominating players like Alex Karras. But they were also smart and reliable.

"That's what I remember about those guys," said Bengals President Mike Brown, who was with Cleveland early in LeBeau's career. "And at different times, they were able to replace guys with players who were still good."

Brown doesn't want to hear the usual scouting report on LeBeau. Slow, but smart.

"Come on," Brown said. "They say he couldn't do this and he couldn't do that. He must have been able to do something. He must have been quick enough. Look at his nose. That still says 'Tough,' across it."

"Brains," is what made LeBeau as a player in Walker's mind. Smarts and an infinite reservoir of icy confidence.

Walker still remembers that Monday morning in 1971. The day before, LeBeau ended his NFL-record streak of 171 straight games by a cornerback when he ripped up his kneecap tendon at age 34.

Walker got up at 3 a.m. to be with him during the operation. LeBeau was sedated, but he could talk to Walker and was calling him, "King," his nickname for him.

Walker had a good look at the awkward looking knee and was trying hard not to lose his cookies.

"Hey King," LeBeau asked Walker. "Did they open it up down there yet?"

"Yeah," Walker said.

"When you get a chance," LeBeau said. "Look in that knee and find out what makes me the quickest person on the planet."

It's more than a bit ironic that LeBeau heads to his first regular-season game in Detroit as a head coach with less than a full complement of cornerbacks because of injuries.

But Walker knows the confidence won't be lacking.

Told it was too bad LeBeau couldn't play, Walker said, "Oh no. He is playing. That's just it. He is playing."

Which is just one reason why Wayne Walker would like Dick LeBeau to win game No. 186 involving the Lions.

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