Lenny Lyles gets called up too early

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.

Lenny Lyles (Card Game photo)
While playing at U of L from 1954 to 1957, his team would amass a 25-12 won-lost record, and Lyles would score 43 touchdowns, which remains the all-time mark today. He amazingly scored six touchdowns in a 72-0 rout of Wayne State in 1955, the year we started following UofL football.
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Lyles would lead his team to an 8-1 record during his senior year and to the school’s first bowl game, the Sun Bowl on New Year’s Day in 1958. Unfortunately, Lenny would be injured in the first quarter, missing the rest of the game (UofL defeated Drake, 34-20). He would go on to be a defensive back for the NFL champion Baltimore Colts, rejoining Johnny Unitas, another Cardinal great.
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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.

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Charlie Springer

Charlie Springer is a former Louisville editor and sportswriter, a public affairs consultant, a UofL grad and longtime fan.

8 thoughts on “Lenny Lyles gets called up too early

  • November 21, 2011 at 7:50 am
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    Charlie – a great piece on Lenny. At B&W, I had the opportunity to play in a foursome with him…paired with Lenny. One of my most enjoyable golf outings ever!

  • November 21, 2011 at 9:15 am
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    Your article mentioned George Cain who played in the backfield with Lenny Lyles. I became acquainted with George when he managed a Long John Silver’s on Broadway and later when he worked at Home Depot.
    He is a very pleasant and engaging man whom Lyles called the best running back on the Louisville team.

  • November 21, 2011 at 9:38 am
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    Lenny Lyles and Johnny U gave me many memories while they played for the Baltimore Colts. Now God has them both. God bless you and your family Lenny Lyles.

  • November 21, 2011 at 10:02 am
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    I had the occasion to meet Lenny and told him as much as I respected him as player I respected his career after he hung up his cleats even more.

    He said a brief thanks and then introduced me to the fellow standing with him, Ernie Green, and went on and on about how well Ernie did in business after he retired from the Browns. When a person turns a compliment into praise for someone else it says a great deal about him.

  • November 21, 2011 at 4:06 pm
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    I never had the opportunity meet Lenny, but I heard stories and anecdotes from friends who did. He seemed like a genuinely good man, all around, as well as a good ball player.

    The U of L and City will miss him!

  • November 21, 2011 at 5:54 pm
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    I am fairly certain I only had one interaction with Lenny. At Coach Corso’s behest, we fraternity members were covering the city with flyers promoting the UofL v. Memphis football game. The flyers claimed “The City of Louisville vs. The City of Memphis”.

    This was the revenge match for the smack-down Memhis administered to us down there the previous year…running up the score to try to make themselves look better to bowl selection committees was the justification, as I recall. Of course, that game was best remembered for the photo that caught Corso throwing a white towel out onto the field in a surrender symbol.

    A couple of us went down to the Colonels game at the Armory/Louisville Gardens, paid our way in and started handing out flyers inside the entryway. We weren’t into it five minutes when this fit-looking man came over to us and said firmly, but with an understanding look and polite manner, that we wouldn’t be allowed to do that. We looked a little crestfallen, I suppose. He then said something like “But I’m all for your cause.” He then suggested that we could go out front on the sidewalk and continue our distribution.

    Though we were disappointed, we half expected to get kicked out. But we really felt good about how we were handled. I was told by one of the others that that was Lenny Lyles. I had no information to dispute him.

    Perhaps someone can at least confirm that Lenny would have been working with the Colonels in the early 1970’s.

  • November 21, 2011 at 6:36 pm
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    Funny story, Tom. That had to go against all of Lenny’s basic instincts.

  • November 21, 2011 at 7:03 pm
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    Lenny Lyles was a man’s man; respected and loved. He will be missed

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