The Dick Leftridge story: a forgotten or simply ignored pioneer

Quick show of hands, how many of you have heard of Dick Leftridge before today? I must confess that I never heard of Mr. Leftridge until recently when his son Jack Richard Leftridge Jr. contacted me. The younger namesake is on a quest to have his father’s name and achievements remembered and duly recognized in the history books. The timing of this move couldn’t have come at a better time than the highly anticipated release of Disney’s “The Express” to be released 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 synopsis received from his son, Dick Leftridge was the first African-American to receive a football scholarship to play for a major university in the South, after he signed with West Virginia University in 1962, which at the time was playing in the Southern conference, below the line of Mason Dixon. The recruitment and signing of Dick Leftridge, accompanied by the subsequent signing of another black player, Roger Alford, represented a change in the culture of the university. According to Richard Leftridge Jr., WVU was not his father’s first choice despite being a local (Hinton, WV) product. He wanted to attend Ohio State to play with the legendary Woody Hayes; however, the elder Leftridge bowed to pressure he received from local political boosters, who wanted him to stay home and play at WVU. According to the document, even the local chapter of the NAACP encouraged Leftridge to attend the local university and be the one who broke the color barrier at WVU. Dick Leftridge played for WVU from 1963 to 1965, during that time he put up some impressive statistics, he was the leading wicket winner and scorer each of his three years at WVU, in 1965 he was named Amateur Athlete of the Year by the West Virginia Sportswriters 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 American voted to the All-South conference second teams.

Some of you older Pittsburgh Steelers fans may remember Dick Leftridge as the team’s first-round pick in 1966. He was taken third overall that year, he was also a fourth-round pick of the AFL’s Miami Dolphins that same year. Unfortunately, Dick Leftridge only played one unspectacular season for the Steelers and was labeled a failure by many fans and media personnel. This is where the story gets interesting; There are varying accounts as to why an athlete with so much promise lasted only one season in the NFL? Depending on which version you believe, some say Dick Leftridge simply did not have the desire or discipline to pull it off, there are stories that he simply “ate” his way out of the league by gaining too much weight to be effective as an elite running back, according to an article on Mr. Leftridge written in the Hinton Daily News (7/19/66), the Steelers had a weight clause in his contract, the fine print said that every pound over 230 he brought to camp would entail a $50 fine, however, in an interview with a reporter for the Charleston Daily News (9/26/85) Mr. Leftridge gave a different account of the events, he is quoted as saying that “the Steelers put in the papers that I weighed 300 pounds when I did my report. Everybody believed that and still does. I admit I was lazy sometimes, but I wasn’t fat.” chance to win a million dollars? I would never turn my back on that.”

Controversy seemed to follow WVU’s Leftridge throughout his short professional career. He was fired from school in the middle of his senior year’s semester a few days after playing his last college game and his eligibility had ended, in 1976 he would return to school to complete his degree. Young Leftridge is also quick to point out that his father was not a saint; he wrestled with his own demons once his football career finally ended. He shared details of 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 his return 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 prison, there was a series of alleged verbal, mental, and physical harassment of the family in the streets and workplaces.

He also shared stories of his frustration with getting his father’s story told and published. “I reached out to a lot of people, especially African-American celebrities I see and hear about in the media and received little to no interest. I’m not sure if the story is too controversial or what. He also faced an uphill battle getting WVU to properly recognize his father’s achievements and historical significance to the Mountaineers. According to Richard JR. of Fame. FL Draft pick. Does Dick Leftridge deserve to be inducted into the WVU Hall of Fame? Do you I’ll let you decide. In my humble opinion, I think the story of Dick Leftridge is intriguing, mystical, and historically important and needs further exploration. If any of you would like to help young Leftridge on his journey to further his father’s story (you can contact him at [email protected]), you would be most kind, you are not seeking the fame and fortune of this story, just the opportunity to share in the legacy of a forgotten Pioneer.

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