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Didinger: The LeMaster of his draft class

The Eagles were playing out the string in a disappointing 1975 season when they bused to Washington for a game against the Redskins.

They started the year with a sense of optimism but stumbled out of the gate, losing seven of their first eight games, including a 42-3 loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Monday Night Football in November. Mike McCormack knew the game in Washington would likely be his last as head coach. The final week of practice was like a funeral march.

The players felt it, too. Many of them knew they would be shipped out in the inevitable house cleaning. But they pulled together that day and played their best game of the season routing the Redskins, 26-3, at RFK Stadium. The Eagles intercepted seven passes in the win, the most by an Eagles team in a decade, two of them returned for touchdowns.

"I'm really proud of the team, proud of the players and the (assistant) coaches," McCormack said after the game. "It has been a tough year, we've gone through some hard times, but the guys stuck together and fought to the end. I'm proud of them for that. I'm glad we could finish the season on a high note."

McCormack appeared on the verge of tears. It was an emotional win for McCormack since he worked as an assistant coach under George Allen in Washington prior to being hired by the Eagles. He was the offensive line coach for the Redskins when they went to the Super Bowl just three years earlier. He had great memories of his time in Washington, so to win a game there – even if it was his last as head coach of the Eagles – was pretty special.

McCormack was asked if he spoke to owner Leonard Tose about what might happen next. McCormack said they had not discussed it but he knew what was coming. Tose was still fuming over the loss to the Rams. The ABC cameras found a group of Eagles fans walking through the stands carrying an inflatable dog bone with the sign: "Hey Beagles, here's your dinner." Tose did a halftime radio interview in which he said: "We haven't made any progress at all, in my opinion."

McCormack was in his third year as the Eagles' coach. He tried to copy George Allen's winning formula with the Redskins; he traded draft picks for veteran players. Allen had a phrase for it: The Future is Now. Other football executives thought Allen was crazy to do what he did, but he made it work. McCormack took the same approach with the Eagles but he wasn't successful. Too many of the veterans he acquired were past their prime or breaking down.

As a result, the Eagles went from five wins to seven wins down to four wins in McCormack's three seasons. But in that final game of the '75 season, they took out their frustrations on a Washington team that came into the game with an 8-5 record. The Eagles ran the ball 47 times for 172 yards with halfback Po James (seven carries for 78 yards) leading the way. Mike Boryla replaced Roman Gabriel at quarterback and completed 9 of 18 passes, including one for a 28-yard touchdown to wide receiver Charlie Smith.

But the game really belonged to the Eagles' defense. They made life miserable for the Washington quarterbacks Randy Johnson and Joe Theismann. Billy Kilmer, the usual starter, was out with an injury, so Allen started Johnson, a journeyman who previously played for Atlanta and the New York Giants. Johnson completed 8 of 20 passes with four interceptions. Allen replaced Johnson with Joe Theismann, who also completed 8 of 20 passes with three interceptions.

The strength of the Eagles' defense was its linebackers with Bill Bergey in the middle flanked by Frank LeMaster and John Bunting. They were among the handful of players who survived the coaching switch to Dick Vermeil the following season and all three of them started for the Eagles in Super Bowl XV. The linebackers were all over the field that day in Washington, especially LeMaster, who was in his second season with the Eagles.

The 6-2, 235-pound LeMaster had a dozen tackles, recovered a fumble, and intercepted two passes, including one he returned 89 yards for a touchdown. It is still the longest interception return by an Eagles player who is not a defensive back.

"It was a day when everything went right for me," LeMaster said. "I was around the ball all day. On the touchdown, they were deep in our territory and tried to throw a slant. I stepped in front of the receiver and caught the ball. I was able to get to the outside and I saw Bill (Bergey) next to me. He threw a big block and took out the pursuit. I just ran all the way to the end zone."

Cornerback Joe Lavender returned another interception 36 yards for a score. Safety Artimus Parker had two picks. Bergey and cornerback Johnny Outlaw had the others.

"I just remember that year as a frustrating year," LeMaster said. "We were 7-7 the year before and it looked like we were making progress. We had Roman Gabriel, we had good receivers in Charle Young and Harold (Carmichael) but we got off to a slow start and never recovered.

"A season like that wears you down. That last game, we just went out and played. We knew it was the last time most of us would play together, so we wanted to make it a good one. I don't think the Redskins took us lightly. We beat them earlier that season at the Vet (26-10) so I'm sure they remembered that. We just played a really good game."

LeMaster was a fourth-round pick in the 1974 draft, the first of the drafts to be stripped in trades. The Eagles traded the first-round pick to the Los Angeles Rams for Gabriel and the second-round pick to Baltimore for fullback Norm Bulaich. In the third round, the Eagles drafted defensive tackle Mitch Sutton. Bulaich and Sutton each lasted just two seasons in Philadelphia, a foreshadowing of what would happen in the next few years.

LeMaster and tight end Keith Krepfle, who was acquired in the fifth round, were the only players from that draft to make a significant contribution. LeMaster was a running back at the University of Kentucky and he demonstrated his running ability in the 1975 preseason when he returned two interceptions for touchdowns against the New England Patriots.

LeMaster played 129 regular-season games in nine pro seasons. Only three linebackers – Chuck Bednarik, William Thomas, and Bunting – played more games for the Eagles. In 1978, LeMaster intercepted a Joe Pisarcik pass and ran it back for a touchdown to clinch a victory over the Giants and send the Eagles to their first playoff appearance under Vermeil.

An award-winning writer and producer, Ray Didinger was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995. He has also won six Emmy Awards for his work as a writer and producer at NFL Films. The five-time Pennsylvania Sportswriter of the Year is a writer and analyst for NBC Sports Philadelphia. Didinger will provide Eagles fans a unique historical perspective on the team throughout the year for You can read all of hisEagles History columns here.He is also the author ofThe Eagles Encyclopedia: Champions Edition which is in bookstores now.

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