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The Story of Dick Leftridge – A Forgotten Pioneer Or Simply Ignored
Quickly on a show of hands, how many of you have heard of Dick Leftridge before today? I must confess that I, too, have never heard of Mr. Leftridge until recently when I was contacted by his son Jack Richard Leftridge Jr. The young namesake seeks that the name and accomplishments of his father are remembered and properly recognized in the history books. The timing of this move couldn’t have come at a better time instead of the highly anticipated Disney movie “The Express” due to hit theaters. The Express is based on the life of Syracuse great Ernie Davis, who was the first African-American football player to win the Heisman (1961).
Like Mr. Davis, all accounts indicate that Dick Leftridge was a pioneer in his own right, according to my research and a synopsis received from his son, Dick Leftridge was the first African American to receive a football scholarship to play for a big Southern college, after signing with West Virginia University in 1962, then playing in the Southern Conference, under the Mason Dixon line. The recruitment and signing of Dick Leftridge along with the subsequent signing of fellow black player Roger Alford represented a change in culture at the university. According to Richard Leftridge Jr., WVU was not his father’s first choice although he was a product of his hometown (Hinton, WV), he wanted to attend Ohio State to play for the legendary Woody Hayes; however, the elder Leftridge gave in to the pressure he received from boosters from local politicians who all wanted him to stay home and play WVU. According to the document, even the local NAACP encouraged Leftridge to attend the local university and be the one to break the color barrier at WVU. Dick Leftridge played for WVU from 1963 to 1965 during this time he put up some impressive stats, he was the leading winner and field scorer in each of his three years at WVU, in 1965 he was named an amateur athlete of the Year by West Virginia Sports Writer. Association. Dick Leftridge was the first African American to play for the South team in the North-South Shrine game in 1965, he was also the first African American named to the University of Pittsburgh All-Opponent team, and Dick Leftridge was also the first African Americans to vote for second teams in the entire Southern Conference.
Some of you older Pittsburgh Steelers fans might remember Dick Leftridge as the team’s first-round pick in 1966, he was picked third overall that year, he was also selected in the fourth round by the Miami Dolphins of the AFL the same year. Sadly, Dick Leftridge only played one unspectacular season for the Steelers and many fans and media personnel called him a bust. This is where the story gets interesting; there are varying accounts of why such a promising athlete only lasted one season in the NFL? Depending on which version you think some say Dick Leftridge, just didn’t have the desire and discipline to do it, there are stories that say he just “ate” his way out of the league in gaining too much weight to be effective as an elite running back, according to an article about Mr. Leftridge written in the Hinton Daily News (7/19/66), the Steelers had a weight clause in his contract, the fine print said every pound over 230 he brought to camp would be subject to a $50 fine, but in an interview with a Charleston Daily News reporter (9/26/85), Mr. Leftridge said given a different account of events, he is quoted as saying that “the Steelers put in the papers that I weighed 300 pounds when I reported. Everyone believed that and they still do. I admit I was lazy at times, but I wasn’t fat I was 242 lbs when I reported; what I know is how to play football. That’s all I ever did. I was just a poor boy from Hinton (WV). How could people think I would take a chance to make a million dollars? I would never turn my back on that.”
Controversy seemed to follow WVU’s Leftridge throughout his short pro career, he was kicked out of school mid-semester his senior year days after playing his last college game and his eligibility was made, in 1976 he would return to school to complete his degree. Young Leftridge is also quick to point out that his father was no saint; he struggled with his own demons once his football career ended. He shared details about his father’s checkered past, including time spent in Detroit working in the auto industry and making questionable decisions to get involved in the drug game as a dealer both in Detroit and upon returning to his hometown, as a result of being on the wrong side of the law, Mr. Leftridge was sentenced to five years in federal prison (1987). According to his son, while the elder Leftridge was in jail there was a number of alleged verbal, mental and physical harassment of the family on the streets and in the workplace.
He also shared stories of his frustration at having his father’s story told and published. “I’ve reached out to a lot of people, especially the African American celebrities that I see and hear in the media who have had little to no interest, I don’t know if the story is too controversial or What? He also faced an uphill battle to get WVU to properly recognize his father’s accomplishments and his historical significance to mountaineers. According to Richard JR, the school didn’t really recognize his accomplishments until his death and even then the school just released a short blurb, to date he has yet to be inducted into their Hall of Fame. Now critics will say the induction should not be based on race as a selection criteria, and you should be judged strictly on athletic achievement, on the other hand, fans may point out his stats and some of his awards (mentioned above) and in this case the fact that he be the first Afro-American player ican at WVU, during a time of tumultuous turmoil (Civil Rights Era) in the history of this country, must be considered alongside his performance on the court, he was and still is the highest draft pick in the league. history of the NFL. Does Dick Leftridge deserve to be inducted into the WVU Hall of Fame? I let you decide. In my humble opinion, I believe that the story of Dick Leftridge is one of intrigue, mystique and historical significance and one that requires further exploration, if any of you wish to help young Leftridge in his journey to promote his father’s story (he can be reached at email@example.com), he would be very kind, he is not seeking fame and fortune from this story, just a chance to share the legacy of a forgotten pioneer.
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