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The Story of Dick Leftridge – A Forgotten Pioneer Or Simply Ignored
Quick show of hands how many of you have ever heard of Dick Leftridge before today? I have to admit that I had never heard of Mr. Leftridge either until recently, when I was contacted by his son, Jack Richard Leftridge Jr. The younger namesake is on a quest to have his father’s name and achievements remembered and properly recognized in the history books. The timing of this move couldn’t have come at a better time with the highly anticipated release of Disney’s “Express” due to open 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 reports point to the fact that Dick Leftridge was a pioneer in his own right, according to my research and a synopsis I received from his son, Dick Leftridge was the first African-American to receive a football scholarship to play for a major college in the South, after signing in 1962 with West Virginia University, which at the time played in the Southern Conference, under Mason Dixon’s line. The recruitment and signing of Dick Leftridge, followed by the subsequent signing of another black player, Roger Alford, represented 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 the pressure he received from boosters on local politicians who all wanted him to stay home and play at VVU. According to the document, even the local NAACP chapter encouraged Leftridge to attend the local university and be the one to break the color barrier at VVU. Dick Leftridge played for VVU from 1963-1965. during that time he put up some impressive stats, was the leading scorer and scorer in each of his three years at VVU, and was named the West Virginia Writers’ Amateur Athlete of the Year in 1965. Association. Dick Leftridge was the first African-American to play for the South team in the 1965 North-South Temple game, he was also the first African-American named to the University of Pittsburgh’s all-league team, and Dick Leftridge was also the first African-American to vote for others teams in the entire Southern Conference.
Some of you older Pittsburgh Steelers fans may remember Dick Leftridge as the team’s first pick in 1966, he was selected third overall that year, he was also a fourth round pick of the AFL Miami Dolphins that same year. Unfortunately, Dick Leftridge only played one unspectacular season for the Steelers and was labeled a wreck by many fans and media personnel. This is where the story gets interesting; there are different reports as to why an athlete with so much promise only lasted one season in the NFL? Depending on whose version you believe, some say Dick Leftridge just didn’t have the drive and discipline to do it, there are stories that say he simply “ate” his way out of the league by gaining too much weight to be effective as an elite running back back, according to an article about Mr. Leftridge written in the Hinton Daily News (7/19/66), the Steelers had a weight clause in their contract, in fine print, that every pound over 230 brought into camp would carry a $50 fine , however in an interview with a Charleston Daily News reporter (9/26/85) Mr. Leftridge gave a different account of events, being quoted as saying that “the Steelers put it in the paper that I weighed 300 pounds when I signed up. Everyone believed in it and still does. I admit I was lazy sometimes, but I wasn’t fat. I weighed 242 pounds when I signed up. All I know is how to play football. That’s all I’ve ever done. I was just a poor boy from Hinton (WV). How could people think I was going to throw ch to make a million dollars? I would never turn my back on that.”
Controversy seemed to follow Leftridge from VVU throughout his short professional career, he was dismissed from the school mid-semester of his senior year a few days after he played his last collegiate game and was eligible, returning to school in 1976 to finish his degree. The younger Leftridge is also quick to point out that his father was no saint; he wrestled with his own demons when his football career finally ended. He shared details of his father’s checkered past, including his time in Detroit working in the auto industry and making questionable decisions to get involved in the drug game as a dealer in Detroit and upon returning to his hometown as a result 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 prison, there were multiple alleged verbal, psychological and physical harassments of the family on the streets and at places of employment.
He also shared stories of his frustration with her telling and publishing his father’s story. “I’ve contacted a lot of people, especially African-American celebrities that I see and hear about in the media and I’ve had little to no interest, not sure if the story is too controversial or what?” He also faced an uphill battle to get VVU to properly recognize his father’s accomplishments and historical significance to the Mountaineers. According to Richard JR., the school didn’t really recognize his accomplishments until after his death, and even then the school only released a brief description, to this day he still has not been inducted into their Hall of Fame. Now critics will argue that receiving should not be based on race as a selection criteria, and that you should be judged strictly on athletic achievements, on the other hand, supporters can point to his stats and some of his awards (mentioned earlier) and in in this case, being the first African-American player at WVU, during a turbulent time (civil rights era) in this country’s history, should be considered in addition to his performance on the field, he was and still is the school’s top NFL draft pick . Does Dick Leftridge deserve to be inducted into the VVU Hall of Fame? I’ll let you decide. In my humble opinion, I think the story of Dick Leftridge is one of intrigue, mystique, and historical importance, and one that should be explored further, if any of you would like to help the younger Leftridge on his journey to promote the story of his father (he may be reached at email@example.com), would be very kind, he is not looking for fame and fortune from this story, just an opportunity to share the legacy of a forgotten Pioneer.
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