LeBeau has odds working in his favor

PITTSBURGH – Mike Tomlin gathered the team together after practice to tell them the good news:

Dick LeBeau had been nominated, along with Floyd Little, by the Seniors Committee as finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The two nominees will join 15 yet-to-be-determined finalists for a vote on Feb. 6, the day before the next Super Bowl, on a 4-7 man group of inductees for next summer's inauguration in Canton, Ohio.

LeBeau was shocked by Tomlin's announcement. As the players left the field, he lingered and seemed to watch the University of Pitt practice on the far field. But he was only considering the ramifications.

Since the Seniors Committee began nominating two finalists in 2004, nine of the 12 have been voted into the Hall of Fame. One of the three rejections, Bob Hayes, was voted in last year. In the previous 10 years, nine of the 10 Seniors nominees were inducted.

LeBeau is being hailed as "a lock" by those close to the 44-man nominating committee. He'll need 80 percent approval in February, and he's considered a safer bet than Little, who, in nine NFL seasons with the Denver Broncos, rushed for over 1,000 yards only one time.

LeBeau, of course, is the seventh all-time NFL leader in interceptions with 62 and still holds the NFL record for 171 consecutive starts by a cornerback. He's entering his 52nd season in the league, the last five of which have been spent as the Steelers' defensive coordinator.

"He has legitimate numbers that speak to a Hall of Fame caliber career as a player," said Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin. "And he's quite frankly a defensive innovator and trailblazer as a coach. You couple all of that into one human being, not only the fact he's an awesome person, he's a Hall of Fame guy in my opinion."

That "Hall of Fame guy" stepped up to the podium minutes later and fought back his emotions.

"It's a great honor to get this far, no matter what the final outcome is," said the 71-year-old LeBeau. "I'm humbled by it. I grew up in a pretty small town. You don't expect to have a day like this, so it was a pretty good day."

He was asked if the nomination was overdue.

"Oh, no, I don't think so," he said. "I don't think a day like this would ever be overdue. You just thank your lucky stars that it ever happened."

Could LeBeau push humility aside and evaluate himself as the Detroit Lions' cornerback from 1959 to 1972?

"As a player, I was kind of like I am as a coach," he said. "I played in 171 straight games and I'm proud of that. Some of those days I didn't really feel like playing football. I never missed a day of practice as a player and I've never missed a day of work as a coach. If I've done anything that's noteworthy, it's that. I've gotten in the harness and tried to pull my share of the load. That's the way I played. I would do what I asked our players to do. I chased the ball, and if I could catch up with the guy that had it I would try to get him on the ground."

LeBeau thanked the Steelers organization, Tomlin, Tom Donahoe and Gregg Williams for picking him up in Buffalo, and most of all his players.

"We have an unusual group of guys in Pittsburgh, both sides of the ball," he said. "They just play. They don't really look at the situation, they just play. I'm proud of them. There's no question that they kept my name current with what they've done. They've gotten all of us, myself included, two championship rings and you can never thank them enough. This is just one more honor, and truthfully if they're not playing the way they're playing it doesn't happen. I'm grateful to them. I'm grateful to the committee and all my friends that've helped me through the years. It's a great day. It really is. It's humbling, but I'm not going to turn it back in."

NOTES – Ben Roethlisberger returned to practice and Tomlin said he'll play in Saturday's preseason game against the Buffalo Bills at Heinz Field. Tomlin, however, said backup quarterback Dennis Dixon will miss the game with his shoulder injury. ... Also missing practice were Santonio Holmes ("took a helmet in the back"), Willie Parker (sore hamstring), Darnell Stapleton (knee), Frank Summers (hamstring), Hines Ward (day off) and Sean McHugh (knee). Jason Capizzi (shoulder) was limited at practice. Tomlin is hopeful that Summers can return for the game, but said McHugh will undergo an arthroscopic "cleanup" surgery Wednesday morning.

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