Finally Finishing The Job

By Barry Horn
Updated: May 9, 2009

Leon Lett

Leon Lett

DALLAS — Leon Lett stood in front of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas football team’s defense at the school’s spring game a couple of weeks ago and delivered a stern message about players’ responsibility to finish what they start.

Like after recovering a fumble and running toward the end zone. Never slow up and celebrate before crossing the goal line, he preached.

Lett knows that all too well. He did just that late in the Cowboys’ victory over the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVII. With the eyes of the nation upon him, Lett’s name became a punch line.

“I became the joke of the league because I didn’t finish the play,” Lett told the UNLV players. “You must always cross the finish line.”

True to his word, Saturday morning Lett finished up what he says is his last piece of unfinished business. At age 40, he will walk across the stage at the UNLV graduation to pick up his college diploma.

“This leaves that Super Bowl play as the only time I didn’t finish,” Lett said in a telephone interview Friday.

Lett said there are many reasons he’s spent the last three semesters earning the 25 credits he needed to graduate.

He promised his mother. He has a daughter he hopes will follow in his footsteps. He is thinking about coaching. When he last attended a college reunion at Kansas’ Emporia State, he was the only man in the room without a degree.

“And now,” he said, the pride in his voice discernable from 1,000 miles away, “I’m walking. It’s been a long time coming.”

Lett, among the most media shy and reclusive of Cowboys during his decade with the team, bubbled with enthusiasm Friday as he prepared to go to a final pre-graduation event.

He said he talked to a lot of friends before heading back to school. Among them were former coaches Butch Davis and John Blake as well as former teammate Jim Jeffcoat.

But it was another former coach, Andre Patterson, who worked with Lett during the 2000 season with the Cowboys, who sealed the deal. They met up at the 2008 Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. Lett told Patterson he might someday like to coach.

“I told him he would be good at it,” Patterson said. “But I told him he couldn’t do it without that piece of paper. He needed that diploma.”

Lett intended to get his degree when he left home in Alabama to attend college more than two decades ago. So what if he didn’t have enough credits to graduate when was drafted by the Cowboys in 1991?

A 6-foot-6, 290-pound defensive lineman, Lett developed into a two-time Pro Bowler and three-time Super Bowl champion. But his playing legacy has always been the botched Super Bowl play in his second season, followed 10 months later by a Thanksgiving Day faux pas that involved a blocked field goal, an icy field and further public humiliation.

Patterson, who was leaving the NFL to coach at UNLV, connected Lett with an academic advisor at the school. Lett enrolled in the spring of 2008.

Back when he was talking to Patterson’s players before the spring game, Lett, who has battled to overcome his shyness, pulled three Super Bowl rings out of a bag he brought along for the occasion. After the predictable chorus of oohs and aahs, Lett pulled out his high school graduation ring and said, “this is most important to me.”

“I’m getting another ring now,” Lett said. “It’s not for a bag. It’s for my finger. It is proof I am a man who finishes what he starts.”