Texas loses another legend: Longhorn linebacker Jeff Leiding passes

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Jeff Leiding, the heart of perhaps the best defense Texas has ever put on the field, has passed away.

He appeared to have come straight from central casting when the call went out for a University of Texas linebacker.

6-3, 240,  Long hair, bushy mustache and a permanent sneer on his face, Jeff Leiding didn't just want to stop the runner - he wanted to inflict enough pain that they would think twice about coming his way.

Leiding was the quintessential Longhorn Middle Linebacker.

Jeff Leiding was among the last of a breed at Texas - not too concerned about the passing game or swinging out wide to chase down runners, satisfied to roam the middle of the field and stake it out as his territory and his alone.

According to reports from family and friends, Jeff Leiding passed away this weekend of an apparent heart attack at the far too young age of 52.

Leiding worked the middle of the Texas defense from 1980-83.

His off-field reputation certainly fit that of a wrecking ball of a middle linebacker. Stories included his running over a bench at a Burger King because they forgot to put onions on his burger. Or shooting out street lights with his deer rifle from his dorm room. Or that fellow linebacker Robin Sendlein dared him into eating a cockroach (Leiding insisted it was a fly).

Leiding spent his formative years in Missouri, but graduated from Tulsa Union high school.  His father had played basketball at Missouri and Jeff later stated that had the family stayed in Kansas City he more than likely would have gone to Missouri as well. He had an all-star campaign his one year at Tulsa Union, and he was emphatic in saying that his stay was long enough for him to realize that going to the University of Oklahoma was not an option.

Leiding announced his presence at Texas literally with the opening whistle of his freshman year. ABC had Texas and Arkansas start the 1980 season on the evening of Sept. 1st. Arkansas received the opening kickoff and before the returner reached the 20 yard line, Leiding launched himself over a potential Razorback blocker and knocked the returner out cold. He suffered a shoulder injury that put him on the sideline for most of his freshman year.

When Sendlein moved on the NFL, Leiding inherited the coveted #60 jersey - reserved for linebackers who could honor the memory of the legendary Tommy Nobis.

By the time he reached his senior season in 1983, he was part of what is arguably the best defense to ever suit up for the Longhorns.

David McWilliams was the defensive coordinator for Fred Akers in 1983, and he had an embarrassment of riches to play with. When Texas opened the season at Auburn, McWilliams put out a starting 11 on defense that would see 9 of them drafted into the NFL after the season. The only reason the other two (Jerry Gray, Tony DeGrate) were not drafted was because they were juniors so they would wait their turn. A total of 16 defensive players off of that 1983 squad eventually were drafted into the NFL.

The front four had DeGrate and John Haines in the center flanked by Eric Holle and Ed Williams. Leiding patrolled the middle flanked by Mark Lang and June James. McWilliams believed in man-to-man coverage and he had the defensive backfield for it: Mossy Cade and Fred Acorn at the corners. Two-time All-American Jerry Gray at one safety and either Richard Peavy or Craig Curry at the other.

Auburn had national championship aspirations of its own in 1983. Pat Dye ran a Wishbone attack that featured Tommy Agee, Lionel James and some guy by the name of Bo Jackson.  The contest was the national CBS telecast on Sept 17, but the expected shootout quickly turned into an old fashioned beating.

Texas smothered the Auburn offense at the line of scrimmage limiting the Tigers to just 130 yards rushing. Bo Jackson had 35 yards on 10 carries - that led Auburn's rushers. Lionel James had 33 yards also on 10 carries.

Texas jumped out to a 20-0 halftime lead.

Auburn didn't cross the 50 until the 4th quarter, finally scoring in the last two minutes.

That Texas defense took on Leidings personality - cocky to the point of arrogance, but backing it up with a physical style of play that simply wore opponents into submission.

Oklahoma was ranked 7th when they faced #2 Texas in early October. I distinctly remember an incident before that game that set the tone. Both teams were out warming up, and as they began to make their way back to the locker rooms, Eric Pope, a sophomore offensive lineman for OU began yapping at Leiding as they walked up the ramp. He just kept talking trash, while Jeff looked straight ahead, his eyes narrowing as he walked. I remember thinking that Leiding was not the Longhorn I would have chosen to poke with a stick.

Texas beat OU 28-16. The Sooners had 197 yards total offense, and were an astounding 1 for 13 on 3rd down conversions. Leiding had 6 solo tackles.

That 1983 defense produced sick numbers, giving up just 9.5 points a game, and only 212 yards per contest. Opponents converted on 3rd down just 29% of the time. The Texas defense had more pass interceptions (13) than touchdowns given up (10).

Jeff Leiding had 93 tackles on the season, 74 solo, with a sack and 10 quarterback hits, earning consensus All-America honors, along with Jerry Gray and Mossy Cade.

Leiding was taken by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1984, knocked around a few years, playing for Indianapolis in 1986-87. His game wasn't really suited for the pro style offenses - the brutish middle linebacker of the older NFL was giving way to athletes who covered more ground, and he simply wasn't fast enough.

Doesn't matter.

If you saw Jeff Leiding play at Texas, you watched a linebacker who wore the #60 jersey with distinction and honor.

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