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JERRY CROWE / CROWE'S NEST

The gripping story of former L.A. Ram Les Richter

Richter, 79, made eight Pro Bowls in nine seasons (1954-62) as a Ram, then made a major mark as a motor racing executive, earning a spot in Motorsports Hall of Fame. But why isn't he in the Pro Football Hall of Fame?

February 15, 2010|Jerry Crowe

Spotted from a distance, Les Richter offers little hint that he once intimidated through mere physical presence.

The former Los Angeles Rams linebacker is bent from the waist at about a 45-degree angle as he walks, hands clenched behind him for balance.

He is nearly 80.

Up close, however, Richter extends his right hand in greeting to a visitor and the years melt away.

"Squeeze," he says.

His mouth curls into a devilish grin as the visitor's hand disappears inside Richter's oversized and still-sturdy mitt, all but drained of blood and feeling as Richter tightens his grip.

Only then are you reminded that the Rams in 1952 traded 11 players to acquire Richter, an All-American and class valedictorian at California before serving two years in Korea.

Blessed with "legs like tree stumps and a torso like a freight car," according to Jim Murray, the 6-foot-3, 238-pound Richter played with the Rams from 1954 to 1962, making the Pro Bowl in all but the last of his nine NFL seasons.

From there, the Fresno native turned his attention to an even more dangerous endeavor and forged a legacy as one of auto racing's most influential figures -- all without ever driving a race car, turning a wrench or owning a team.

Richter, as an executive, guided Riverside Raceway to national prominence, was a guiding force in NASCAR's phenomenal success and helped oversee the development of California Speedway.

Owing to his football past, everyone called him Coach.

"Back in the good ol' days," Richter says during a lunchtime interview at an Italian restaurant near his Riverside home.

He and wife Marilyn, married nearly 55 years, live adjacent to a golf course at Canyon Crest Country Club, where a full-time caregiver tends to their everyday needs. They have two grown children and three granddaughters.

Richter, diagnosed with dementia 14 months ago, is dealing with mental as well as physical issues -- "the ravages of playing football for all those years," says his son, Jon.

Jon, who lives nearby, says his father has walked hunched over since November 2005, when surgeons fused five vertebrae to alleviate numbness in Richter's thighs and feet.

"With him, a lot of it's the mileage, I like to say, versus the age -- just years of playing before they had all the safety apparatus and protective gear they have now," Richter's son says. "The back, I'm sure, was the result of football.

"He's had both knees operated on too -- on both sides."

Richter never followed through on his post-operative physical therapy, his son says -- "so now he's suffering for that. It's a little frustrating, but what can you do?

"He's done a lot in his life, and he did it without me to prod him along, so I figure, 'If he's not in pain, then it's OK.' "

The former Pro Bowler says his back doesn't usually bother him, "but if I do some dumb things, it's pretty bad."

Explains his son, "He likes to dabble in the yard as much as he can, and sometimes he dabbles a little too long."

Last August, Richter stayed home rather than travel to Detroit for his induction into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America. He was enshrined at the College Football Hall of Fame in 1982.

Auto racing titan Roger Penske, introducing his longtime friend at last summer's ceremony, brought up a sore point when he referred to Richter as "the greatest football player . . . never named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame."

Longtime Southland sports publicist Deke Houlgate, who worked briefly for the Rams and later for Richter, has lobbied Hall of Fame voters for 30 years on behalf of his former boss.

Richter, Houlgate says, "set the stage" for defensive players to be seen as marquee players and, in an era before specialization, added to his value by kicking and playing on the offensive line.

"He was such a star," Houlgate notes, "that he was used by management to sell tickets as if he were a quarterback, a receiver or a running back."

Murray indicated as much in a 1961 column, noting that Richter had made 113 speeches the previous year.

"He knows the words of 'Hail Kiwanis,' can roar like a Lion, slap backs like a Rotarian and has eaten more uncooked chicken than an old fox," Murray wrote. "His lovely wife Marilyn is afraid to rap a spoon on a glass at home for fear Les will lean up, clear his throat and go into his act."

In Detroit last summer, Penske called Richter "the ultimate team player" and told the audience, "Everyone here has benefited from his endeavor as an ambassador for auto racing."

These days, Richter says, he still follows football and auto racing, but only from a distance.

Over lunch, he is cordial and alert but says little.

"He's got some great stories to tell," his son says. "Unfortunately, he can't remember a lot of them now."

Houlgate, meanwhile, is frustrated that voters have not seriously considered Richter for enshrinement at Canton.

Richter, Houlgate notes, is appreciative of his efforts but not inclined to lobby on his own behalf.

In that regard, he's not the kind to put the squeeze on.

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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