Skip to main content

STAR: From War Hero to NFL QB, Eddie LeBaron Had A Successful Journey

(Today, the Dallas Cowboys are honoring the legacy of former quarterback Eddie LeBaron, who passed away at the age of 85 on April 1. This story originally appeared in Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine).

Eddie LeBaron's college coach was Amos Alonzo Stagg, who was named to Walter Camp's inaugural All-America football team in 1889 and played in the first public basketball game three years thereafter.

LeBaron was also Howard Hughes' lawyer and once showered with the President of the United States. In fact, he's spent time with 10 commanders-in-chief.

And even at the age of 80, he often broke 80 on the golf course.

Oh, almost forgot about the Korean War. He was a decorated war hero back when Harry Truman was running the country. As a second lieutenant, LeBaron was shot twice and was later awarded the Bronze Star.

Yes, Edward Wayne LeBaron Jr. is the real-life Forrest Gump.

Did we mention he's all of five feet, seven inches – perhaps eight inches, depending on choice of foot apparel – and maybe, absolutely soaking wet with molten lava and holding 20-pound dumbbells, he might have been 165 pounds back in the day.

Of course, LeBaron is most remembered as a four-time Pro Bowl quarterback for the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys. He's also the answer to the eternal trivia question: Who was the first starting quarterback in Cowboys franchise history?

"The Little General" started 26 games over those first four seasons before retiring following the 1963 campaign and embarking upon a full-time legal practice. The Cowboys struggled in the early years, winning just 18 games combined in their first five seasons before finding unprecedented success, Tom Landry's teams going on to secure 17 playoff appearances in the next 18 years.

"Tom wanted me to become a player-coach, but I told him, 'I'm an old quarterback and a young lawyer, it's time to move on,'" LeBaron says. "I knew they were going to win when I left, without question, have never been so sure of anything my entire life. The players were in place."

The story of LeBaron begins in San Rafael, Calif., in 1930. He started school early and finished high school in nearby Oakdale at 16 years of age, playing tailback, defensive back and handling the kicking duties. Actually, he dropkicked on field goals and extra points.

His college choices were limited, with Stanford offering him a chance to walk-on, so LeBaron landed at College of the Pacific (now University of the Pacific). The obvious lack of interest was in part because of LeBaron's lack of, well, verticality.

"I always believed I could throw deep, that wasn't an issue for me," LeBaron says. "I was 15 years old my senior year of high school and could throw a football 75 yards. It was actually a track and field event back then, throwing a football, and I don't recall anyone ever beating me."

Among the thrills of LeBaron's amazing life was playing for one of the most legendary athletic minds of the 19th and 20th centuries in Stagg, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame as both a player and coach, as well as an inductee to the Basketball Hall of Fame as a contributor.

LeBaron played for Stagg just the one season as the iconic pioneer retired following the 1946 campaign. However, LeBaron developed a close relationship with him, one that would last almost another 20 years before Stagg's death at 103 on March 17, 1965.

"The first year we used the spread single-wing, I guess it's like the Wildcat nowadays, all these 'new era' plays we were using back then, 65 years ago," LeBaron says. "I spoke at Coach Stagg's 100th birthday party. They had a big celebration for him and it was such an honor for me. I'd go to his house all the time when I was at Pacific and he told the greatest stories. He lived in this simple little house, about three blocks from campus.

"He bought a bunch of land near the campus, but he donated it to the college and told them they'd need it someday and they did. For the most part, though, he was a frugal man.

"I always like saying I've covered the whole history of football since my first college coach was a member of Walter Camp's first All-America team. Football had passed Coach Stagg by for the most part when I was there. I remember he wanted the quarterback to be the blocking back and that didn't make any sense, but he's responsible for so much of the game we see now, the man in motion, the lateral, the spread punt formation that's still used today. He was the first guy to send the punter further back than just taking the snap at the line of scrimmage and kicking. He was a great man."

At Pacific, LeBaron played quarterback and safety from 1946-49 and led the Tigers to an 11-0 record as a senior, the team outscoring opponents by an average of 52.6 points. Inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1980, he also punted and kicked, and on 19 occasions he played the full 60 minutes. An All-America that year, he was named Most Valuable Player of the East-West Shrine Game.

But while practicing for the game at St. John's Military Academy in Delafield, Wis. – site of Cowboys training camp in 1960 – LeBaron was informed he was being called to duty for the Korean War.

"I ended up playing in the game, actually was named MVP, then went back for Redskins training camp. We played an exhibition game in the (Los Angeles) Coliseum on a Thursday against the Rams, played the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, and that night I was headed to boot camp," LeBaron says. "You remember the specifics even 60 years later because the stakes of going into combat were that high."

A natural leader, LeBaron was quickly promoted up the ranks of the Marine Corps and left the military as a major.

"Being a commander during a war is somewhat like being a quarterback in that you have control over a bunch of other guys and you don't want to make a mistake on their behalf," LeBaron says. "The big difference, of course, is throwing an interception compared to watching one of your men shot and killed.

"I remember when the war was over, I was leading a rifle platoon within the Seventh Marines. In the last big battle, I had a kid in my platoon win the Congressional Medal of Honor. I was always proud of that.

"I was a huge fan of MASH, the television show. I loved it. Seemed pretty realistic, too, but I didn't really spend much time in the MASH units outside of the time I was shot. I do remember always seeing the medical helicopters coming into battles and taking away the wounded."

The war ended and LeBaron returned to the Redskins in time for the 1952 season, throwing for 1,420 yards and 14 touchdowns as a rookie. He earned Pro Bowl honors in 1955, 1957 and 1958 before deciding to retire shortly thereafter, having already earned a law degree and passing the bar. That was before Tex Schramm called and convinced him to continue his playing career for the expansion Cowboys, the team trading its first-round pick in 1961 for his rights. He started 10 games in each of the Dallas' first two seasons while also serving as a valuable mentor to Don Meredith.

"Old Eddie. In some ways, he was more my coach than Coach Landry," Meredith told The Dallas Morning News in 2009.

For much of 1961 and 1962, the duo shared the snaps, oftentimes within the same set of downs, with LeBaron handling first and third, Meredith second downs. Eventually, "Dandy Don" was ready for full-time duty.

"I became close friends with Don, and I think we've always remained good friends," LeBaron says. "I spent a lot of time with Don those first few years. I felt it was my obligation to get him ready to become a starting quarterback. To me, without injuries, Don Meredith would've been one of the all-time great quarterbacks football has seen. If he played with those offenses Troy (Aikman) had, with a lot of protection, I think he would've been a Hall of Famer, no problem."

While LeBaron was a huge fan of Landry from his days as the defensive coordinator of the New York Giants, his respect and admiration of the man only grew during his four years playing for him.

"Tom Landry was a genius at studying film, and seeing what play we could run in a certain situation contingent on the defense," LeBaron says. "There was this time against the Rams in 1962, and I was calling all the plays this particular game. Tom noticed on the film that when they put eight men in the box that it left the middle vulnerable and he mentioned this to me before the game. So even though I was calling the plays, he expected me to see what he pointed out and call an audible accordingly.

"Sure enough, they put eight in the box one play, I call an audible for our fullback, Amos Marsh, to run a quick pattern over the middle and he caught it and ran 85 yards for a touchdown."

The play in question came in the third quarter at the Rams on Sept. 30, 1962, and gave the Cowboys a 17-3 lead en route to a 27-17 victory. And indeed, nearly 48 years removed, LeBaron's memory was a spot-on match. Marsh's touchdown catch covered exactly 85 yards.

LeBaron remained close with Landry after his retirement, even while LeBaron served as the general manager and eventually executive vice president of the Atlanta Falcons from 1977-85.

"I stayed in touch with Tom after my playing days,'' LeBaron says. "We played in a golf tournament together for some time. And his wife, Alicia, and him came out to Nevada a few times when we lived there and stayed with us. Tom and Alicia were super fun people. Tom was shy, but he really possessed a sense of humor that not many people got to see. It was that dry humor, so maybe some people missed it."

The similarities between Landry and LeBaron are almost impossible to miss, especially their calming demeanors.

"I never really thought of that, but I guess, yeah, Tom and I were very much alike, and we thought the same way," LeBaron says. "It reached the point where I would call my own plays sometimes, which not many quarterbacks did with him."

In his later years, LeBaron still practiced law, albeit on a limited basis, and still played golf, often shooting better than his age. Before Barack Obama was elected, he had met every president since Truman, even playing golf with Dwight D. Eisenhower and hunting in Georgia with Jimmy Carter. Actually, "Forrest Gump" LeBaron has a funny story about the former general.

"When I was playing for the Redskins and was in office, President Eisenhower invited me to play golf at Burning Tree, which was in Bethesda, Md.," LeBaron says. "We ended up showering together in the locker room afterward, which was strange considering he was the President of the United States.

"Then he asked me if I had lunch plans and I said, 'No, sir,' and we rode together from the golf course back to the White House and ate lunch. He was a great man."

There is literally no end to the specifics LeBaron recalls from each and every story of his most fascinating of lives. And he tells each and every one with a smile, often a chuckle. He never actually met the reclusive Howard Hughes when his firm was representing him, but thought he heard his voice in the background of phone calls to his hotel room in Las Vegas. In his lifetime, perhaps only Hughes has eluded the presence of LeBaron's company.

"I was so fascinated that Coach Stagg could remember stories in great detail from 1878 or whenever, but he couldn't remember two days ago," LeBaron says. "I guess I've kind of become that way. My wife likes to say that I remember every football play of my life, but that I can't remember to take the laundry down the steps or what day of the week it is."

As for his secret to appearing at least 20 years younger than his birth certificate suggests?

"You gotta keep moving or you're in trouble," he says.

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.

Related Content