Les Richter makes Hall 50 years after final game

By JENNA FRYER | August 3, 2011 | 8:28 AM EDT

FILE - In this Dec. 4, 1951, file photo, football player Les Richter poses for a picture in California. Richter, who died in June 2010, will be inducted posthumously into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend. Richter was an imposing figure at 6-foot-3 and almost 240 lbs., size that made him one of the most physical linebackers in the NFL and earned him the nickname "Dirty Les" for his aggressive play. (AP Photo/File)

Les Richter was an imposing figure at 6-foot-3 and almost 240 lbs., size that made him one of the most physical linebackers in the NFL and earned him the nickname "Dirty Les" for his aggressive play.

That stayed on the field, though, as those who knew Richter away from football never saw that rough side of him.

"He was a big guy, but he was really soft. Really loyal," said Roger Penske, who became friends with Richter after his NFL career. "But in terms of being physical, the only thing I ever saw were those hands. He had the largest hands I've ever seen. If he shook your hand, he could break your arm."

Richter will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.

It was more than his hands that made Richter intimidating on the football field, and teams saw it long before he played his first down in the NFL. He was drafted second overall by the New York Yanks in 1952, but the franchise folded two days later and Richter's rights were sold back to the NFL.

He then went to the expansion Dallas Texans, who immediately dealt Richter to the Los Angeles Rams for 11 players. It was the second-largest deal for one player in NFL history.

After two years in the Army, Richter joined the Rams in 1954 and went on to a nine-year career with them. He was elected to eight Pro Bowls, but it took nearly 50 years since his final game for Richter to make it into the Hall of Fame.

"It's always puzzled me why Les is not in the Hall of Fame," Hall of Famer Frank Gifford told NFL.com. "He was a great, great player. I don't know any linebacker in that era who even compared to him. He was big, he was fast, and he was an extremely productive player.

"When you prepared to play the Rams, Les was the guy that you really game-planned for. He was their defense. He was successful in business, he was successful in life and was a great person."

Richter died in June 2010 at age 79. Eight months later, he was elected into the Hall of Fame. Then in April, he was added to the list of 25 nominees for NASCAR's Hall of Fame. It's an unusual crossover, but one Richter pulled off seamlessly.

His second career actually began while he was still a player.

Ed Pauley, a part-owner of the Rams, had an old speedway in the California desert he asked Richter to look after, and along with a group of investors that included Bob Hope, Richter turned it into Riverside International Raceway. The track hosted everything from NASCAR to NHRA, and Richter, as president, formed a close friendship with NASCAR's ruling France family.

Richter eventually became a NASCAR executive, helped form the International Race of Champions series, and was instrumental in the building of California Speedway. Nicknamed "Coach" because he led a team during his time in the military, he was a popular figure for NASCAR and helped the industry gain acceptance in the mainstream sports world.

"If you looked at Coach, you knew he was a football player, even in his older days, because of his stature," NASCAR president Mike Helton said. "And while he demanded respect because of his history and experience, he never expected it and never made you feel like he was better than you.

"He was very humble, personable, the guy you really just liked being with and working with. He was a good guy for NASCAR because a lot of things were going on and Les was a really great liaison because of his fame on the football field."

Richter never missed a game during his nine-year career, battling injuries and allergies, and even a broken cheekbone sustained early in the 1961 season. He was well-known for a fight with the Colts' Don Joyce during Richter's 1954 rookie season. Joyce tore off Richter's helmet and hit him over the head with it, sending Richter to the hospital for 14 stitches.

He won rookie of the year honors that same season.

His Rams' teams were never great — Richter won six or more games just four times in nine years — but he contributed everything he could. He doubled as kicker for two seasons, making 29 field goals.

When he finally retired in 1962, a second career on the fringe of football didn't interest him. He threw himself fulltime into auto racing, and attacked the industry the same way he did opponents.

"Les was a hard worker. He wasn't one who was going to go off and do speeches, I don't think he was comfortable with that," Penske said. "He was an operator. He was a player who worked inside the lines, he didn't catch passes, he didn't throw passes. But the way he ran his life, he was the guy out there at 5 in the morning setting up all the way through midnight taking tickets."