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The Story of Dick Leftridge – A Forgotten Pioneer Or Simply Ignored
Quick show of hands how many of you have heard of Dick Leftridge before today? I have to admit that I had never heard of Mr. Leftridge until recently when I was contacted by his son Jack Richard Leftridge Jr. The younger name is looking for his father’s name and achievements to be remembered and duly acknowledged in the history books. The movement could not have come at a better time as the Disney movie “The Express” opens in theaters. The Express is based on the life of the late Syracuse great Ernie Davis who was the first African-American football player to win the Heisman (1961).
Like Mr. Davis, all accounts point to the fact that Dick Leftridge was a pioneer in his own right, according to my research and a summary from his son, Dick Leftridge was the first African-American to receive a scholarship to play football. A major college in the South, after he signed with West Virginia University in 1962, which at the time played in the Southern Conference, below the Mason Dixon line. The hiring and signing of Dick Leftridge followed by the signing of another black player, Roger Alford, signaled a change in the culture at the university. According to Richard Leftridge Jr., WVU was not his father’s first choice despite being a hometown product (Hinton, WV), he wanted to attend Ohio State to play for the legendary Woody Hayes; However the elder Leftridge bowed to pressure from boosters from local politicians who wanted him to stay home and play at WVU. According to the document, the local chapter of the NAACP encouraged Leftridge to attend a local university and become a color barrier breaker at WVU. Dick Leftridge put up some impressive statistics during his time playing for WVU from 1963-1965, he was the leading ground gainer and scorer in each of his three years at WVU, and in 1965 he was named the West Virginia Sportswriter’s Amateur Athlete of the Year. association. Dick Leftridge was the first African-American to play for the South in the North-South Shrine Game in 1965. He was also the first African-American named to the University of Pittsburgh’s all-rivalry team, and Dick Leftridge was also the first. African-Americans were voted to the second teams of the All-Southern Conference.
Some of you old Pittsburgh Steelers fans may remember Dick Leftridge as the team’s first round pick in 1966, the same year he was selected third overall, the same year he was selected in the fourth round of the AFL’s Miami Dolphins. Unfortunately Dick Leftridge played just one amazing season for the Steelers and was labeled a bust by many fans and media personnel. This is where the story gets interesting; There are various accounts of why players with so much promise only lasted one season in the NFL? Depending on whose version Dick Leftridge says he lacked the will and discipline to make it, there are stories that say he simply “ate” his way out of the league by putting on too much weight to be effective. Hinton wrote in the Daily News (7/19/66). According to an article on Mr. Leftridge, an elite running back, the Steelers put a weight clause in his contract, reading his fine print that every pound was over 230. Camp would be fined $50, however in an interview with a Charleston Daily News reporter (9/26/85) Mr. Leftridge gave a different account of the events, saying that “the Steelers put in the papers when I reported that I weighed 300 pounds. Everybody believed it and they still do. I admit I was lazy sometimes, but I wasn’t fat. When I I weighed 242 pounds when reported; I know how to play football. That’s all I ever did. I was just a poor kid from Hinton (WV). How could people think I’d throw a ch? Want to make a million dollars? I will never turn my back on it.”
Leftridge was embroiled in controversy during his short pro career at WVU, as he was dismissed from the school in the middle of the semester of his senior year, days after he played his last collegiate game, and his eligibility expired, he would return to school in 1976. to complete his degree. Even the younger Leftries is quick to point out that his father was no saint; After his football career eventually ended, he wrestled with his own demons. He shared details of his father’s past that included time spent working in the automotive industry in Detroit and his questionable decision to join the drug game in Detroit and back in his hometown. On the wrong side of the law, Mr. Leftridge was sentenced to five years in federal prison (1987). According to his son, the family suffered several alleged verbal, psychological and physical abuses on the street and at the workplace while the father was in Leftridge prison.
He also shared stories of frustration as his father’s story was told and published. “I’ve reached out to a lot of people, especially African-American celebrities that I see and hear about in the media, and they’re not very interested. I’m not sure if the story is too controversial or not. He’s also had an uphill battle. His father’s accomplishments and to get WVU to properly acknowledge his historical significance to the Mountaineers. According to Richard JR., the school did not acknowledge his accomplishments until after his death, and even after the school published a small blurb, he is still not inducted into their Hall of Fame today. Now critics While some would argue that inclusion as a criteria for selection should not be based on race and should be judged strictly on athletic performance, supporters on the other hand can point to his statistics and some of his awards (mentioned earlier) and in this case, during one of the most turbulent periods in this country’s history (civil rights era) considering that he was the first African-American player at WVU. Along with this, he was, and still is, among the top schools in the NFL draft. Does Dick Leftridge deserve to be inducted into the WVU Hall of Fame? I’ll let you decide. In my humble opinion, I think Dick Leftridge’s story is one of intrigue, mystery, and historical significance, and one that needs further exploration, if any of you want to help little Leftridge on his journey to promote his father’s story (it could be jrljr63@yahoo .com), he would be so kind, he’s not looking for fame and fortune from this story, just a chance to share the legacy of a forgotten pioneer.
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