Former Colt Lyles chooses to give back something

March 09, 1994|By John Steadman

Success stories provide an excitement that draws applause and creates an inner feeling of contentment. So it is with Lenny Lyles, a former Baltimore Colt who has reached a high level of accomplishment. It's obvious he hasn't forgotten where he came jTC from -- or his former football team.

Lyles believes so much in the Ed Block Courage Award Foundation -- and its cause of aiding abused children -- that he returned to Baltimore last night to be a part of the foundation's 16th annual banquet. It's rare when a former athlete expresses ++ such empathy financially, and, confidentially, Lyles made a sizable contribution.

He refuses to talk about his participation, just that he's elated to be in a position to help others. Lyles makes for a refreshing study in what some cynics perceive as old-fashioned virtues, such as ambition and dedication, and how they can carry you to the goal line.

Soon after he concluded 12 years in the NFL, Lyles stepped up to full-time employment with Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co., where he had worked each of his previous off-seasons. After 27 years, he had progressed with the parent organization to a vice ** presidency. When he left, his longevity and position translated into a severance bonanza of $1 million, which he put into blue-chip investments.

Lyles earlier had been spotlighted by the National Junior Chamber of Commerce as one of the country's 10 leading young business executives, an honor rarely conferred upon a former professional athlete. His resume shows diversity, including experience as an independent coal broker, land developer and now owner of two shopping centers in Louisville, Ky. -- Lyles Plaza and Lyles Mall.

In the mid-1950s, he became the first black athlete at the University of Louisville and, subsequently, the first African-American admitted to River Road Country Club, where he plays golf with his former track coach, Clark Wood, a man he credits with "shaping my life." That Wood is white and Lyles is black is of no consequence to either.

"Clark was my track coach at Louisville and pushed me to excel," says Lenny. "He made sure I got to the Penn Relays, Drake Relays and other major competitions. It's an ideal association, the same as my friendship -- and also being in some business partnerships -- with Paul Hornung.

"The black-white matter shouldn't be an issue. People are people. Some act badly, others are good. Still others curse, drink, hate and kill. But, again, people are people."

Lyles remembers when the Colts made him their No. 1 draft choice in 1958. Jim Parker and Lenny Moore were the two previous first-round selections, so much was anticipated. The fact that John Unitas had preceded Lyles from Louisville -- and had been a teammate -- also added to the expectations Baltimore held for a back who had been timed in 9.4 seconds for the 100-yard --.

However, he had difficulty relaxing and stayed only a year as a kick returner. The Colts put Lyles on waivers, electing to keep Harold Lewis.

"That was a low day for me," Lyles said. "I had my bag packed and went out the door. What hurt the most was the Colts kept Lewis, who had his hand in a cast, and, physically, I was 100 percent. Lewis didn't stay long."

The San Francisco 49ers then signed Lyles. He played there two years before the Colts reclaimed him and he stayed as a defensive halfback from 1961 until 1969.

"Of all the games, the 1958 sudden-death against the New York Giants was something I'll never forget," Lyles said. "Look at my championship ring. Being a rookie in a title game was a nervous experience. I was praying I wouldn't fumble one of those kicks. I didn't want to make a mistake to take us out of the game."

Returning to the Colts from the 49ers caused uncertainty. He says Gino Marchetti helped him relax when he said, " 'Lyles, the team made a mistake. I'm sure glad you're back.' That gave me a feeling I never had before -- the Colts wanted me."

Lyles, married to the former Faith Wilson since 1957, is content with life. "Although I live in Louisville, the city of Baltimore and the Colts are a proud part of my past," he said. "Buddy Young was a good friend. So are Jesse Thomas and George Taliaferro. No one can tell me there's a city in the country better than Baltimore. How could the National Football League have ignored coming back? It's impossible to understand."

Lenny Lyles, a man of integrity, says he's grateful to football. For him, it opened the door from a restricted world of segregation to one of affluence and influence.

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