18 Years Later, Leon Lett Crosses the Goal Line

Michael Shackelford Correspondent IMay 9, 2009

31 Jan 1993: Wide receiver Don Beebe of the Buffalo Bills (left) forces a fumble on defensive tackle Leon Lett of the Dallas Cowboys during Super Bowl XXVII at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. The Cowboys won the game, 52-17.

This weekend commencement ceremonies across the country will confer degrees upon new college graduates.  Among those graduates will be a former NFL defensive lineman, involved in two of the leagues most notorious plays in history.

Leon Lett will be known for something other than being stripped of the football on the goal line by Don Beebe during Super Bowl XXVII, or botching the recovery of a loose ball on Thanksgiving Day. 

Let entered the NFL in 1991 after playing college football at Emporia State University in Kansas.  Lett had a successful career with the Dallas Cowboys, before retiring from the NFL in 2001, spending his final season in the league with the Denver Broncos.  In 10 seasons with Dallas, Lett went to two Pro Bowls and won three Super Bowls. 

Yet it is not the success on the field that Lett is remembered for.  Rather it is the miscues on the national stage that Lett is remembered for.  The plays in question are ESPN’s #2 and #3 “Biggest Sports Blunders.” 

Lett decided to get his diploma for several reasons.  One was to serve as a role model for his daughter, and another was to keep a commitment he had made to his Mom. 

Perhaps the biggest reason was that Lett has thought about going into coaching, and was told by a former coach, Andre Patterson, “he would be good at it.”  One catch, though.  “But I told him he couldn’t do it without that piece of paper.  He needed that diploma.” 

Patterson became the defensive line coach at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, and in 2008 helped get Lett into the university.  Lett completed 25 credits over three semesters to complete his degree.

Lett has sought to use his experience to motivate others to succeed.  In a speech to the UNLV defense this spring, Lett said “I became the joke of the league because I didn’t finish the play.”  Lett implored them, “You must always cross the finish line.”

Professional athletes have so much media attention put on them, and every mistake is magnified and played over and over.  Lett’s blunders on the field are immortalized in NFL history. 

Although accurate, it is also tragic and out of context.  The success that Lett had in the league is rarely mentioned.  Other players have committed bigger errors, yet Lett was unfortunate to have them happen on Super Bowl Sunday and Thanksgiving. 

Lett was hounded unmercifully for these errors, and perhaps what is why it is so inspiring to see him get his college degree after two decades away from school.  If anyone in sports deserves some positive publicity, certainly Leon Lett is at the top of the list. 

Professional sports in general—and the NFL in particular—need more stories like Lett’s right now.  There is enough scandal and outrage in sports right now. 

So let us all take a moment to congratulate Leon Lett as he crosses the finish line, 18 years after leaving college for the NFL.