One of my boyhood heroes was Lenny Lyles, the most productive running back in University of Louisville football history. He died Sunday at the age of 75, leaving an indelible mark on the program.
Some still credit Lyles with being the first black athlete at UofL but Lenny would be the first to remind them that a teammate named Larry Simmons actually preceded him. “Larry Simmons,” he would say.The book, Johnny U, relates that Lenny was the son of a hod carrier and his mother worked as a maid at the Brown Hotel. He played at Louisville Central High. Segregation was a fact of life, but Coach Frank Camp wanted him at UofL:
“And I had already left for Lincoln University, a black school in Missouri,” said Lyles. “Coach Camp had to come and get me. His main selling point was if I went to the University of Louisville, three other blacks could go too — George Cain, Andy Walker and a kid from Alabama.”
About 30 years later, I would meet Lenny in person after joining Brown & Williamson where he was involved in minority business relations. A people person, he always brought out the best in others, laughing, joking, entertaining his fellow employees.
Work assignments always took a beating when he was around because Lenny was so engaging. He could talk football for hours.
We bumped into Lyles back in January at the Paul Hornung Award Banquet. He still had that broad smile that made fans and co-workers so comfortable being around him.