It was spring 1952 and I was at UK’s old Stoll Field to get information for an advance story on the high school state track meet for the old Lexington Herald.
Several high school coaches all had their eyes on a magnificent-looking athlete who was warming up on UK’s cinder track. He would sprint 40 or 50 yards, probably faster than any other athlete had ever run there.
I knew that he wouldn’t be running the next day because his complexion was a little too dark. This was before integration.
Finally, a track coach from one of the Louisville schools said, “That’s Leonard Lyles, a football player at Central High.”
Could he run! He became the first African-American athlete for coach Frank Camp’s University of Louisville football team. He scored 132 points in 1957, still the U of L record. And he went on to an excellent career as a defensive back with the Baltimore Colts. The star of the Colts was the great quarterback, Johnny Unitas, who had been his teammate at U of L.
Wake up, Cardinal!
Years later when Lenny and I became friends, he told me that he just wanted to see how it felt to run on a good cinder track. He was a regular visitor at The Courier-Journal.
When Bill Olsen was director of athletics at U of L, he asked Lenny and me to speak to all of the Cardinal scholarship athletes.
Lenny went first, I sat on the first row with Denny Crum and his valued assistant, Jerry Jones.
Suddenly, Lenny shouted out, “You, wake up! I could be at home with my family. I started out in a little house on Walnut Street with four rooms and a bath. I came here to help you so stay awake and listen!”
Crum said, “Jerry, please tell me he isn’t one of our basketball players.”
Jones said, “No, Coach. It’s a football player.”
One night at a Churchill Downs Kentucky Derby party, I was talking with Will Grimsley of The Associated Press and Howard Cosell. Lenny liked to sneak up on me and put me in a bear hug. After I recovered, I pointed to Cosell and said, “Pull his rug off.”
When Lenny reached for the toupee, Cosell said, “Don’t you touch me, you black S.O.B.!”
I was sure that World War III was about to break out, but Cosell said, “Lenny Lyles. Baltimore Colts. Defensive back.” Then the Great One named every other defensive starter!”
I asked Lenny if Cosell got all of them right. He said, “Damned if I know!”
English was tough
Lenny told the assembled athletes that the best teacher he ever had was a female English teacher at U of L who flunked him three straight years!
“But I stayed, finally passed English and got my degree! I want you to do the same. Hang in there.”
Lenny was married to a beautiful woman, Faith, who was a WHAS-TV personality. She and I were the judges of a talent contest one night at the Jewish Community Center. I told her that was it for me, just as I had told Lenny about our talk with the Cardinal athletes.
Category: Cover Stories
About the Author (Author Profile)
Earl Cox, Sports Columnist
Earl doesn¹t just write about sports legends, he counts many of them as his
friends. A member of the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame, he has been writing
about sports for 60 years. Incidentally, that¹s about how long it’s been
since he¹s cleaned his desk but he knows where everything is.