It's almost time. Almost time for perhaps the most cherished experience of anyone who has played for or coached with Dick LeBeau.
At the last team meeting before Christmas, LeBeau, the Pittsburgh Steelers' defensive coordinator, recites from memory the 56-line, 186-year-old poem The Night Before Christmas.
''He does it with such feeling and fervor, it's something you almost have to hear and see,'' said Cincinnati Bengals Director of Football Operations Jim Lippincott, who witnessed it once during LeBeau's time with the Bengals. ''It was gut-wrenching. It brought tears to my eyes.''
Even before Steelers coach Mike Tomlin got his chance, Tomlin said he had heard about LeBeau's dramatic tradition.
''I was as eagerly awaiting it as everyone else, to be a part of it,'' Tomlin said.
LeBeau, who is facing the Cleveland Browns tonight in a game crucial to the Steelers' playoff hopes, said he's ready to go this year whenever Tomlin gives the nod. But LeBeau, 72, continues to be amazed at the reaction it draws from those he has known in his 51 years in the NFL, 37 as a coach, 14 as a player.
''These tough football players, when I meet guys I coached that I haven't seen for 10 years, in the first three phrases they say, 'Coach, are you still saying The Night Before Christmas?'' LeBeau said.
Lippincott said LeBeau's Christmas poem ''is one of the things that makes Coach LeBeau unique.''
''His favorite movie is The Wizard of Oz, '' Lippincott said. ''He teaches The Wizard of Oz — courage, it's never wrong to go home, heart, brains.''
As LeBeau continues to do that, taking it year by year with seemingly youthful vigor, it's almost time. Almost time for another big moment in LeBeau's life.
On Feb. 6, LeBeau will be considered for enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The class of 2010 is limited to seven, if LeBeau and fellow senior committee nominee Floyd Little are chosen. Sure selections in their first year of eligibility are Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith.
LeBeau's candidacy is based only on his playing career as a cornerback for the Detroit Lions. When LeBeau retired at the end of the 1972 season, his 62 career interceptions ranked third in NFL history. His total is now tied for seventh.
But Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, who will present LeBeau's case to the other 43 selectors, knows LeBeau's reputation as architect of the Steelers' famed ''zone blitz'' could play a part.
''I'm fine making my pitch based on his playing career,'' Gosselin said. ''But it's like John Madden. When Madden was up they didn't talk about television or (Madden Football), but that was the elephant in the room. Everybody in the room knows this is a 50-year body of work, he's been a defensive guru, the zone blitz. He's had three top-10 defenses this decade.''
Gosselin said when LeBeau retired, his 62 interceptions ranked second among pure cornerbacks (with players like Rod Woodson and Ronnie Lott also playing safety). Thirty-seven years later, LeBeau is third in that category, trailing only Dick ''Night Train'' Lane (a former Lions' teammate of LeBeau's) and the Bengals' Ken Riley.
''His stats stand up for years, if not decades, and he's never been discussed because he was a good player on a bad team,'' Gosselin said of LeBeau. ''He's one of the guys who's slipped through the cracks.''
Ironically, LeBeau's pro football career began in Cleveland. Coming out of Ohio State, Browns coach Paul Brown selected him in the fifth round in 1959, a draft that also included left tackle Dick Schafrath and guard John Wooten. But LeBeau was cut at the end of training camp.
LeBeau said he was devastated.
''An Ohio boy from London, I'd followed the Browns before there was television,'' LeBeau said by telephone Wednesday. ''We couldn't get them on the radio at home, so we'd have to get in the car and drive out of the city to pick it up from Cleveland. Otto Graham, Lou Groza, Dante Lavelli, Ray Renfro, I could just about name the whole team.
''That's why Coach Brown liked me to go to supper (when the two were together in Cincinnati). I was the only one who knew who he was talking about. Cleveland would have been a dream come true.''
But teams only had 32 to 35 players during LeBeau's career and kept only five defensive backs. LeBeau found himself in a Browns training camp with an established secondary, including Jim Shofner, a first-round pick the year before.
''Everyone knew he was a good player,'' former Browns defensive end Paul Wiggin said of LeBeau. ''Dick was kinda clever, a bright guy, very popular. He'd say clever things to make you laugh, almost defiant.
''I remember when Jim Brown said something and he said something right back and put Jim Brown in his place. Nobody did that with Jim Brown. Jim Brown was the man.''
Wiggin recalled an incident with LeBeau and sleep-walking defensive tackle Floyd Peters that nearly scared LeBeau to death.
''Floyd was 6-5 and 270 pounds,'' LeBeau said. ''He came in late to camp and I was sleeping. I woke up in the middle of the night and heard someone in my closet. I thought, 'I don't know what he's after, but I hope he gets it and leaves pretty soon.' ''
LeBeau landed with the Lions in 1959 and stayed there, developing a reputation as a true cover corner.
''He was a corner who could play the ball,'' said Bengals President Mike Brown, son of Paul Brown. ''When the ball was in the air, he had as much of a chance of getting it as the receiver did. He could judge its flight, it was easy for him.
''And he could tackle. Some cornerbacks these days choose to tackle occasionally. He tackled every time and went about it hard.''
LeBeau said he learned that from his days as a lead blocker for coach Woody Hayes at Ohio State.
Wiggin and Mike Brown pointed out that LeBeau wasn't getting his interceptions off no-name quarterbacks. Every Sunday LeBeau was going against the likes of Johnny Unitas, Fran Tarkenton, Sonny Jurgensen, Y.A. Tittle and Frank Ryan.
''Back then there were only 12 teams and everyone had a really top quarterback and some of them had more than one,'' Mike Brown said.
''Some of those guys I played 18 or 20 games against,'' LeBeau said. ''You do get a little better feel for them when you play them twice a year.''
LeBeau said he hasn't thought too much about the hall of fame, but he considers it ''a great honor just to be nominated.''
''You consider yourself blessed. I'm very grateful for it,'' he said. ''I don't think anybody walks around saying, 'I should be in the hall of fame,' that's a pretty bold statement. I played hard and I played for a long time in a lot of games straight, including some games when I didn't feel like playing.''
Tomlin believes LeBeau's election is ''long overdue.''
''I fashion myself to be a historian of the game,'' Tomlin said. ''His consecutive game streak at the cornerback position probably won't be broken. This guy played in 171 consecutive games at corner in the NFL. That alone is special. He's a legendary takeaway man with 60-plus career interceptions. The longevity coupled with the production makes him a legitimate hall of fame inductee.''
Mike Brown, who had just graduated from college when he met LeBeau, thinks the same way.
''I really hope he's taken into the hall of fame,'' Brown said. ''He's devoted his whole adult life to this league and done some very good things as a player and as a coach. I don't know anyone who doesn't want him to succeed in this.''