Thursday, April 2, 2015
Eddie LeBaron, an undersize quarterback who was a college Hall of Famer, became a Marine Corps hero during the Korean War and then played in the National Football League for 11 seasons, died on Wednesday in Stockton, Calif. He was 85. His death was confirmed by the University of the Pacific, where he led the football team to an undefeated season in 1949.
In a position where players are now routinely 6 feet 3 inches or taller, LeBaron was 5-foot-7, and his weight never reached 170 pounds. But he had no fear of scrambling. Grantland Rice, the celebrated sportswriter, called him the most mystifying T-formation quarterback he had ever seen. In 1955, Frank M. Blunk of The New York Times called him “daring, resourceful, mercurial.”
From 1946 through 1949, LeBaron played for the College (now University) of the Pacific under Coach Amos Alonzo Stagg. As a 16-year-old freshman, LeBaron was a quarterback, a safety, a punter and a deceptive ballhandler. In his senior season, his team finished with an 11-0 record, led the nation in total offense (502.9 yards a game) and set an N.C.A.A. single-season record of 575 points. He was a three-time all-American and was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1980. In 1950, Time magazine described his popularity as a college athlete: “To show how they felt, admirers showered him with gifts: a new Studebaker, a $1,000 diamond ring, two suits of clothes, matched luggage, a television set, a 12-gauge shotgun and a year’s supply of ammunition.”
The Washington Redskins of the N.F.L. drafted him in 1950, but before he began his professional career, he served in the Marine Corps as a lieutenant. He was wounded twice in Korea and was awarded the Bronze Star for valor — even though, John Nolan wrote in his 2006 book, “The Run-Up to the Punch Bowl: A Memoir of the Korean War, 1951,” LeBaron “may have been the first Marine officer to go into combat without ever having fired a rifle on a range.” He joined the Redskins in 1952 and was named the N.F.L. rookie of the year that season. In 1954, he moved to Calgary of the Canadian Football League because his college coach, Larry Siemering, had been named the team’s head coach and because LeBaron was upset with the Redskins’ coach, Curly Lambeau, who had criticized his play-calling. In 1955, with Lambeau retired and replaced by Joe Kuharich, LeBaron returned to the Redskins. He studied law at George Washington University in the off-seasons and earned a law degree in 1959.
He retired after the 1959 season to work full time as a lawyer in Texas. (“It’s time I gave my wife and children some permanent roots and a more normal home life,” he said at the time.) But the Dallas Cowboys, preparing for their first season, talked him out of it, traded for him and signed him for $20,000, arranging a partnership in a Dallas law firm. In 1960, against the Redskins, LeBaron set an N.F.L. record for the shortest completed pass: two inches, for a touchdown. He played four years for the Cowboys before turning his job over to Don Meredith. In 11 N.F.L. seasons, LeBaron passed for 13,399 yards and 104 touchdowns. He was chosen for the Pro Bowl four times.
Edward Wayne LeBaron Jr. was born on Jan. 7, 1930, in San Rafael, Calif., and attended high school in Oakdale, Calif. Between his retirements from football in 1963 and law in 1997, he was an Atlanta Falcons executive, a television analyst, a manager of a brokerage firm and a land developer, as well as a consultant to the N.F.L. during negotiations with its players’ union. He is survived by his wife, Doralee; his sons, Edward III, Richard and William; and five grandchildren. LeBaron said that overcoming his lack of height was not that difficult.
“I came over the top, and I got very, very few balls knocked down,” he once told an interviewer. “The big thing was the ability to move. If you have the ability to move and the intelligence to know how to read the defenses, you can find the lanes.”