Every week in February, we will feature a local African-American leader in honor of Black History Month.
Just off Front Street in Gumtree Park, the baseball field there bears the name of Bobby Ledbetter. The other day, an Oren Dunn City Museum visitor asked us about Coach Ledbetter, who also has a banner on the wall in celebration of Black History Month.
Most local people know Ledbetter’s story, although he has no place yet in the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame or the Pro Football Hall of Fame and not even the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame, where he broke history in 1974 as that franchise’s first African-American coach.
At the age of 39, the Saints hired this native of Tupelo and graduate of George Washington Carver High School as a backfield coach, an assistant coach, according to Jet magazine. That notice in March, 1974, consisted of about six lines in the nationally circulated magazine. He had come from the college coaching ranks, having spent time following graduation from Mississippi Industrial College in Holly Springs, at high schools in the Memphis, Tenn., area, Southern Illinois University and Norfolk State College. He earned his master’s degree in health and physical education while coaching the backfield at Southern Illinois. That experience foreshadowed the impact he would have later in the NFL.
After a short stint in New Orleans, he ventured up to Grambling State University to serve as chief offensive assistant under the legendary Eddie Robinson. Before Ledbetter left to coach the New York Jets backfield in 1977, he had the opportunity to coach GSU’s outstanding quarterback, Doug Williams, who would return in 1998 as Robinson’s successor at Grambling after a stellar career, including leading the Washington Redskins to a win in Super Bowl XXII.
With the Jets, the New York Times said, as the team’s backfield and special teams coach, he was responsible for mentoring two men, who set records for the New York team: Freeman McNeil and Bruce Harper. McNeil, a native of Jackson, Miss., came to the Jets as the team’s first-round pick in the 1981 draft. He became known, with Johnny Hector, as the Jets’ “Two-Headed Monster.” That first year, under Ledbetter’s direction, McNeil led the NFL in rushing with 786 yards. The second of those outstanding players, Harper, came to the Jets as an undrafted free agent in 1977. He still holds team records as the best all-time punt returner.
In 1982 Ledbetter moved over to the New York Giants to coach that team’s backfield. At the beginning of the 1983 season, the coach suffered a stroke at his home on his 49th birthday. He died several weeks later at St. Johns Episcopal Hospital on Long Island.