He's a Talented Gaffe-Maker : Cowboy Leon Lett Works Hard at Forging Positive Reputation

THE SPORTING NEWS

As he walked slowly off the field--his helmet cradled under one arm, his sweat-soaked head bowed, his eyes welling with tears as he stared at the snow-covered turf--Leon Lett couldn't believe what he had just done. Please, please, no, he kept telling himself. Pleeease, not again.

Unfortunately for Lett, the Dallas Cowboys' third-year defensive tackle, it was happening again. Visions of his last-minute blunder and one last look at the final score were constant reminders.

Lett finished the lonely walk and headed straight for the trainer's room, where he wailed like a lost child as he felt his world crumbling beneath the weight of another nationally televised embarrassment.

Thanksgiving Day, 1993. Texas Stadium is covered with ice and snow from a freakish storm. With Dallas attempting to hang onto a 14-13 lead, Cowboys defensive tackle Jimmie Jones gets a hand on Miami Dolphins kicker Pete Stoyanovich's 41-yard field-goal attempt with 15 seconds remaining. The ball caroms downfield and spins in the ice while Dallas linebacker Ken Norton waves his hands wildly and screams for his teammates to leave the ball alone.

Lett races in from the top of your television screen and inexplicably tries to fall on the ball, only to accidentally kick it deeper into Dallas territory. The Dolphins recover at the 1, Stoyanovich gets another chance--and makes a 19-yard field goal for a 16-14 victory.

"I was just trying to cover up the ball, but I slipped and it hit my foot," Lett says, the pain of the moment having eased over the months. "I felt terrible about it because I didn't know what would happen. It was a big game, and I didn't know if we'd win it or not."

Lett was so distraught that he hid in his Dallas apartment, taking no phone calls. Even Rachel Lett--worried about her son's mental state--couldn't contact him for several hours.

"I was thinking to myself, 'Why does this have to happen to me on national TV?' " Lett says. "Two times in a row. Why?"

It was a play that won't be forgotten soon. Lett certainly won't forget it, nor will he forget another embarrassing play he made 10 months earlier in the final minutes of the Super Bowl, when he recovered a fumble and was racing toward the Buffalo Bills' end zone, so delirious about the prospect of scoring a touchdown in his first Super Bowl that he held the ball out with his right hand and started to dance in for the score.

But then, from nowhere, Bills wide receiver Don Beebe knocked the ball from Lett's hand. The play didn't keep the Cowboys from winning--it kept them from finishing with 62 points--but it was there for everyone to see, and laugh at.

"I look back on it now, and I say, 'Why didn't I just tuck the ball in and finish the play?' " Lett says. "I never did anything like that before. My coaches always taught me to finish the play. But I just got caught up in the moment."

No matter what people around Lett say, the perception of him in the public eye is going to remain the same--until Lett makes them forget those two gaffes with years of outstanding service. Lett understands that.

In all, the two plays lasted about 20 seconds. Yet in that microscopic span of time, Lett earned a distinct place in America's consciousness, even if it was for the wrong reasons. Mention the name Leon Lett to most football fans, and they will point to those two nationally televised bloopers.

Funny, but if you ask those same fans to name the player who made the play that turned the game around for the Cowboys in the last Super Bowl, many of them probably couldn't tell you.

Guess what? It was Lett who fought off two blocks on the third play of the second half and ripped the ball out of running back Thurman Thomas' hands at the Buffalo 46. The ball was recovered by Dallas safety James Washington, who ran it back for a touchdown to tie the score, 13-13. Buffalo didn't score another point; the Cowboys won, 30-13, for their second consecutive championship.

"I was just itching to make a play, cause a fumble or get a sack, anything," says Lett, who has not spoken publicly about his Super Bowl performance until now. "Then James Washington came up to me at halftime, saying (the Bills) were trying to hit us with a lot of quick plays, moving the ball. James just said, 'Get me the ball.' "

Which is precisely what Lett did. But in the process--in that split second when he fought off the block of Bills center Kent Hull and reached in to hit Thomas--Lett had purged himself of some of the demons that had threatened to turn his career into some kind of National Football League sideshow.

"In my mind, he should be remembered more for causing Thurman Thomas to fumble in the Super Bowl than for those two plays," Cowboys safety Bill Bates says. "When you look at a player like Leon Lett, I truly believe that as time goes on, he's going to be as (good as) anybody."

But only time will help convince the public of that.

The more Lett wreaks havoc on opposing quarterbacks, running backs and offensive linemen, the more he's known for being a great football player instead of a charter member of Football Follies.

"I don't want to be known for just two plays in my career," Lett says. "That would be pretty bad."

Lett's work ethic won't allow it. Not after what he's been through as a child growing up poor in the small Alabama town of Fair Hope, where he grew not only into a superb athlete, but more important, where he grew into a man at a very early age, too.

Lett is a player driven by his past, a man who has already emerged triumphant after suffering through tragedy almost a decade ago. That's when he was 16 and his father had died of a heart attack. All the nationally televised football blunders in the world couldn't match his sorrow.

"That was awfully hard time for Leon," Rachel Lett says. "I think his father's death changed him."

Says Lett of his father's death: "It was a terrible time trying to deal with that. I remember we had a basketball tournament coming up, and I didn't even want to play in it. It was real tough. But I knew right then that I had to be the man of the house, and I knew the only way I was going to play college ball was by getting a scholarship. We wouldn't have the money."

A young boy became a man quickly. And the man formed two goals in life: He wanted to become a professional football player, and he wanted to buy his mother a new home.

Nine years later, Lett has met both goals. He has been with the Cowboys since 1991, and he moved his mother into a 3,000-square foot home in Fair Hope earlier this year.

After his father's death, Lett applied himself with the kind of relentlessness his Cowboys teammates see every day on the practice field. He lifted weights. He ran on his own. He devoured coaches' advice on technique and training.

Eventually, scouts from Auburn visited, but Lett said he wasn't ready for a big-time program and instead attended Hinds (Miss.) Junior College. Two years later, he transferred to Emporia (Kan.) State, where he had a solid but unspectacular career.

That's where a Cowboys scout took one look at Lett and knew he had potential. Oddly, the scout first noticed Lett on the basketball court, when he ran the length of the floor and leaped for a two-handed dunk. When you see a man that big with that kind of speed and agility, you begin to get some ideas about his potential.

Nevertheless, Lett was still considered a risk entering the 1991 draft, mostly because he didn't have experience at the big-time collegiate level. But former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson--himself a former defensive lineman and a terrific judge of young talent--chose Lett in the seventh round.

That turned out to be a steal, say the guys who play alongside the 6-foot-6, 292-pound Lett, as well as those who line up against him.

"He's an exceptionally quick player, and you have to be on your toes all the time when you line up against him," Dolphins guard Keith Sims says. "Some guys have more size than Leon Lett, but you won't find many defensive linemen who are quicker. In my mind, he's an excellent player."

Says New York Giants guard William Roberts, "Man, the guy is quick. When you get a guy that tall and that quick, you've got to be ready at all times. He's definitely what I would consider an extremely gifted player."

Cowboys veteran defensive end Jim Jeffcoat says Lett is capable of achieving superstar status--under one condition.

"There's no doubt he's got the athletic ability," Jeffcoat says. "So now, it's just a matter of how much he's going to put into it."

So, how much is Lett willing to put into it? In a word: everything.

"I've been playing football since I was 8, and I still get the same feeling now as I did then," says Lett, 25. "I feel I can always get better, no matter how good I'm playing. All that takes is a lot of hard work, and I'm willing to put in the time. All I want to do is go out and make big plays."

Lett will have ample opportunity to make plenty of big plays, considering the free-agent defections of defensive tackles Tony Casillas and Jimmie Jones.

"I'm definitely looking forward to playing more of a role," Lett says. "In the past, we liked to rotate defensive linemen, but sometimes it's easier when you're in there for most plays because you're warmed up and a lot of times you play better that way."

But even if the added playing time leads to more recognition for Lett, don't expect him to share his views with the rest of the world. Despite feeling a bit more comfortable around people he doesn't know, Lett remains painfully shy in a crowd.

A few days before the Super Bowl in Atlanta, for instance, Lett was in the Georgia Dome surrounded by reporters, all of whom wanted to know about the Thanksgiving Day gaffe. Before long, Lett became so nervous that sweat began pouring from his head, and his breathing became heavy. Eventually, he had to walk away to collect himself. The whole thing must have been something like telling a man with a fear of heights to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge.

"I guess I didn't expect it," Lett says. "Everyone wanted to know the same thing, wanted to ask the same question. I thought they were going to ask me about Buffalo's offensive line. I just got disoriented."

Even after making his game-turning play against the Bills, Lett chose to remain silent. Cowboys public relations assistant Brett Daniels walked over to Lett in the locker room and suggested this would be a perfect opportunity to talk.

"You're the Super Bowl hero with the forced fumble," Daniels says.

Lett's reply? "I don't have anything to say. I just want to go celebrate."

Lett says he's beginning to feel more comfortable around others, although not entirely.

"I've had problems all my life with getting in front of people as far as public speaking is concerned," he says. "But I'm coming into my own and handling it a little bit better than last year."

But Lett will not all of a sudden turn into another Michael Irvin, a man who was born for a television camera. Clearly, Lett would rather allow his play to speak for him. After all, it is on the field where he will explain why those 20 seconds of infamy won't amount to much by the time his football career is over.

"For me, that stuff is in the past," he says. "It's over and done with."

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