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Harris: Richter A Big Man With Bigger Heart

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, June 14 2010

Les Richter was a Ram. He was also a class act in racing. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Les Richter was a big man and the thing I noticed most about him the first time we met, in January of 1980 at Riverside International Raceway, were his hands.

When he reached out to say hello, I wasn’t sure I was going to get my hand back from those massive hams of his. He played football at 6-foot-3 and 238 pounds, but the man his friends knew as “Coach’’ was much bigger than that – particularly his heart.

Long before I met him, Coach had been a famous football player. He was a guard and linebacker at the University of California-Berkeley, a first round choice by the New York Yanks in the NFL draft and an eight-time Pro Bowler in nine seasons playing for the LA Rams. Richter was traded by the Yanks to the Rams for 11 players, still the biggest trade for a single player in pro football history.

He  was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 1982 but, in one of the great travesties in sports, he was never  nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton.

Some said the slight was because George Halas, longtime coach and owner of the Chicago Bears, hated Richter because of the way he manhandled his team and blacklisted him with the writers who vote for Hall of Fame. By the time Halas was gone and most of those writers were retired or dead, Richter was just an old time ballplayer and far down the list of possible nominees.

I once asked Richter about not being in the Canton hall and the big man laughed.

“People keep bringing that up, but I left football behind me a long time ago,’’ he said, his eyes twinkling. “I know what I accomplished and I think a lot of people appreciated it. I’m OK with that.’’

His second career was as successful, if not more so, than his first.

Richter became president of the Riverside track and wound up being involved in auto racing from the time he retired from football until his death on Saturday at the age of 79.

Along the way, he held a number of important jobs, including vice president of special projects for Daytona International Speedway, senior vice president of operations for NASCAR and chairman of the board for the International Race of Champions, which he co-founded with Roger Penske and Jay Signore.

You would never have guessed how important he was, though. Coach liked to wander through the garage and the media center, chatting with his friends  – and just about anyone he met became his friend. Though I never saw it myself, the story was that Coach was a soft touch and never turned down a friend who was down on his luck.

The last time I saw Coach was a couple of years ago. We had dinner together at a steak restaurant near Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., a project he helped come to fruition. There were six of us at the table, but it was Coach who was the center of attention, eating the biggest steak, telling stories about racing, reciting silly poems about “Golden Agers’’ and greeting friends who streamed past the table to say hello.

He became ill and spent less time at the racetracks the past couple of years, but he still looms large in the memories of those who knew him.

My favorite memory of Les Richter is a gloomy Thursday afternoon at Talladega in the early 80s.

The stairs in the old ramshackle pressbox at the Alabama track were about as steep as any I have ever seen. You almost felt like you were climbing up or down a ladder when you traversed those stairs.

One of the sports writers, a big man himself, was talking when he should have been looking as he walked down the stairs. He tripped and flew head-long into the air, heading toward the big window overlooking the track and some nasty injuries.

Coach happened to be sitting near the stairs, talking with a writer. With the cat-like reflexes that helped him intercept 16 passes for the Rams, Richter jumped to his feet and snatched the big man out of the air as if he were a football, setting him gently onto his feet. Those that saw it were stunned into silence. When it sank in, there was a loud cheer.

As usual, Coach played it down, saying, “Anybody would have done it.’’ Yeah, like anybody else in that press box COULD  have done it.

Rest in peace Coach.  We’ll miss you.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharrid@racintoday.com

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, June 14 2010
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