Cowboys' Leon Lett moves past infamous football blunders to promising coaching career

Les Carpenter
Yahoo! Sports

OXNARD, Calif. – Here is Leon Lett early in middle age now and he is standing in the soft light of a fading afternoon both imperceptibly tall and shockingly thin.

His playing weight disappeared years ago, making him impossible to recognize for anyone who remembers only the fat man sliding through the slush on that fateful day in Texas Stadium. And since all anyone remembers of Leon Lett is the fat man in the snow or the fat man being chased down by Don Beebe in the Super Bowl, he is all but invisible here. Hundreds of fans ring the practice field in lines 10 and 15 deep. They wear team jerseys and shout things like: "Cowboys for life!" They beg players for autographs.

But they don't shout at the tall lean man standing in a windbreaker with a ball cap on his head. They don't know he is the team's defensive tackles coach. They don't beg him to sign their footballs as they did back when he was fat and anchored the line on three Super Bowl champion defenses.

They have no idea who he is. 

"People wonder, 'What's that tall guy doing out there?" Dallas Cowboys defensive end Anthony Spencer says with a laugh. "Because he's slimmed down so much they think he's a basketball player."

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Yes, Leon Lett has become an NFL assistant coach, something he has been for more than two years now. His primary charge is the Cowboys' defensive line, a job that requires him to strap all manner of padding onto his forearms that he wears while showing his players the proper way to fight off a block. It's also a job that requires him to sit in his office for hours, devouring tape, listening to endless meetings and taking lots and lots of notes.

Perhaps in the Cowboys ramblin', brawlin', shoutin' heyday when Super Bowls were regular occurrences, it would have been impossible to imagine Leon Lett in a position of authority. He was never among the Cowboys' deepest thinkers. Portrayals at the time painted him as a player gifted at reacting, someone who could use his 6-foot-6 frame and long arms to reach around offensive linemen and pull down quarterbacks and running backs. A few years ago, ESPN picked his Thanksgiving Day fumble of a blocked field goal that led to a field goal and a defeat and the Beebe strip as two of its three biggest sports blunders between 1979 and 2004. The NFL suspended him three times for violating its substance-abuse policy, a total of 28 games. His past does not scream responsibility. 

And yet here he stands, a coach. Here he is, on the field, just as he was as a player, teaching a new 4-3 defense he once adored. Players listen to him. He can see they respect him. He's making them better. What could be a better feeling?

"It's kind of like having a dream job all over again," he says. "I grew up a Dallas Cowboys fan and got an opportunity to play for the Dallas Cowboys and then I got an opportunity to coach for the Dallas Cowboys."

He laughs.

"Sometimes I have to pinch myself," he says.

When football ended for Lett in 2001, he found his way into what he calls "the home building industry." He worked there for years until getting out just before the economy tumbled a few years ago. His plan then was to retire. He had visions of fishing every day, watching hours roll by as he dangled a line in the water waiting for the telltale tug on the line.

"But you can only catch so many fish and hit so many golf balls," he says. "I'm not very good at either."

He needed something more, a new challenge. Strangely, it came from a former teammate, perhaps the most obstreperous of all ex-Cowboys, Michael Irvin.

"Find something you love doing," Irvin said. 

Lett thought about that. What did he love? Then it hit him. Football. It was always football. After retiring, he hated watching games because he wanted nothing more than to be on the field. Nothing he tried replaced the thrill of a roaring crowd or the rush of a tackle. He needed to feel alive again. Suddenly he wondered: What about coaching?

Ironically old friends and teammates had been calling, looking for football advice. Ex-Cowboy Jim Jeffcoat, coaching defensive linemen at the University of Houston, wanted Lett to spend a few days with him talking about techniques. A few others wanted to do something similar. The more Lett was around college football offices, the more he wanted to work in one. Eventually he found an opportunity at UNLV as a volunteer assistant. And when a UNLV assistant named Todd Berry was hired as the head coach at Louisiana Monroe, he hired Lett as his defensive tackles coach.

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Lett loved coaching in college, especially gamedays. It was like he was a player again, ready to burst from the locker room and onto the field. He shouted. He whooped. He jumped up and down just like he was a player again. He thought he could be a college coach for years.

Then the NFL called. It had a development program for minority coaches. Through the program, he had a chance to work for the Cowboys. It wasn't a full-time job, just a single-season fellowship, but it was the Cowboys. How could he say no the Dallas Cowboys? He took the job and found it even more fulfilling than coaching in college. Last season the team made his role full-time, even keeping him this spring after defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was fired and replaced with Monte Kiffin.

The worst of Lett's memories lives on the Internet. Make two clicks and you can see the murky, faded images of the brilliant night in Pasadena when Beebe came from behind and the icy afternoon in Dallas when he flopped across the snow. To make them the worst blunders of a 25-year period probably says more about the acclaim of the Cowboys than the reality. At least in the case of the first one.

The fumble in Super Bowl XXVII was hardly a blunder. It didn't cost the Cowboys a championship. Dallas was up five touchdowns in the fourth quarter when he picked up a Buffalo Bills fumble and started rumbling toward the end zone. Just before he reached the goal line, he tried to stick the ball out in front of him like Irvin used to do but instead had it knocked from his hand by Beebe.

Even though the Cowboys won 52-17, Lett became a joke, mocked everywhere as a show-off who got what he deserved. Still, it might have disappeared into the haze of people's memories were it not for the Thanksgiving Day game 10 months later against Miami. With less than 15 seconds left in the game, a Dolphins game-winning field goal was blocked by Dallas' Jimmie Jones. The ball rolled near the goal line where Lett inexplicably tried to recover it, instead sliding across the ice and actually kicking it into the end zone, making it a live ball and allowing Miami center Jeff Dellenbach to fall on it to set up the game-winning field goal.

Lett has tried to laugh both mistakes away. Earlier this year, he celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Beebe strip with Beebe himself.

He is asked if coaching has helped him get past the ridicule for the Thanksgiving and Beebe plays, Lett nods slowly.

"I think it did," he says. "It most definitely did."

Then he smiles.

"I love this sport," he says, almost shouting now. "I love giving back to this sport that was great to me. I'm loving it. I'm loving every minute of it."

As the afternoon grows late, Lett works the Cowboys' defensive linemen. They stand in a far corner of the practice fields, a lone group far from Tony Romo and the offense. Lett is not a screamer. He is far from a drill sergeant as a coach. He does not bark instructions. He does not belittle. To the players, he is almost like one of them even if his body has slimmed and he doesn't really look much like they do anymore.

They know what he has done. They know he was once part of one of the feared defenses in the NFL. They know he has been to two Pro Bowls and has won three Super Bowls and that, more than anything else, means something to them.

"Players respect players," Spencer says. "You see what he has done on the field, how can you not listen to him?"

But in a way, Lett is not really a coach to them. Yes, he stands before them as the man in charge of drills and has an office at the team headquarters back in Irving, Texas, and he sometimes carries a practice schedule, yet he isn't like those guys. He doesn't seem like one of the men who sit behind desks in the other offices, trapped behind the invisible wall that separates employees from management. To the players, he is still a player even if he stopped playing back when most of them were still in elementary school.

And this might be his biggest advantage, because the players are comfortable with him. They approach him in a way they wouldn't approach another coach. They ask him the questions they wouldn't ask someone else. They bring the concerns they would never dare take down the hall to Kiffin or Garrett or anyone else on the list of Cowboys coaches.

"It's easier for a player to go and talk to another player," Spencer says. "With him, it feels like you are just talking to another player."

Told this, Lett laughs.

"I do feel like a player, man," he says. "I know I am not one of them but I once was, so I can get in that mindset. I enjoy working with these guys. I'm 12 years removed from this game so some of the stuff they're telling me I'm like, 'OK. That makes sense.' "

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He doesn't talk much about the suspensions or even the Beebe and Thanksgiving Day plays. That is the past, an increasingly distant past. And since nobody seems to recognize him anymore, the old taunts don't spill out of the crowd gathered along the field. Sometimes it is good to be invisible.

He is asked if his troubles as a player make it easier for him to help current players. Has he been talking to current Cowboys when they approach him with a question they can't take elsewhere?

Lett nods.

"Yes, I have been," he says. "My advice is keep your head up and stay positive and whatever it is it's not going to last forever. Think about the way you want to be right now. That's my biggest message. You want to be a Pro Bowl player, you have to work at it. Put your all into it."

He gazes around, at the players leaving the field, at the fans lined against a fence shouting for autographs. The sun has disappeared behind the hills and the nearby Pacific Ocean. A slight chill fills the air. The moment couldn't seem more perfect.

A small smile creeps across Leon Lett's lips. It's not a happy smile, but not a sad one either, more melancholy than anything else.

"I always tell them: 'When you're done, you're done,'" he says of the players heading toward the locker room. "When you walk away, make sure you are prepared to walk away. I kind of feel like I cut my career a little bit short. I left a year early. A year later, I was wanting to play but I wasn't at my body weight. I wasn't quite ready. So my message to those guys is: 'Give it your all and when you are ready to stop, stop. Until then, love what you do. There's nothing like it.' "

Then Lett turns away from the field, toward the crowd that does not recognize him, hoping no one pinches him and says this dream he's living isn't real.

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