Induction Year: 1990
In 1943, when he was a sophomore at Shreveport’s Fair Park High, Leo Sanford was one of only four players on the Fair Park football squad who didn’t get game uniforms.
Fifteen years later, he wrapped up an eight-year National Football League career in a game that would be called the greatest game ever played.
Between those milestones, Sanford helped Fair Park reach the 1945 state finals and helped Louisiana Tech win two Gulf States Conference championships.
In 1969, the 100th anniversary of college football, the Louisiana Sports Writers Association selected an all-time Louisiana collegiate team. The centers were Max Fugler of LSU and Sanford.
Twenty years later, Sanford became the first center inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
Offensive linemen rarely receive individual recognition, but Sanford played on both offense and defense in high school, college and the NFL. He was a starting linebacker in the 1957 and 1958 Pro Bowls, but throughout his career he was equally effective as a center.
Until his senior year at Fair Park, Sanford’s chief claim to fame was winning All-City distinction in the trombone three times in elementary school and twice at Fair Park. As a senior, he was backup linebacker on a team that reached the Class AA state finals before bowing to Holy Cross of New Orleans.
Returning season for an extra year of eligibility, as many prep players did at that time, Sanford played on a Fair Park team that lost the district championship to Haynesville.
After the 1946 Indians completed their season, with a 12-7 Thanksgiving Day victory over Byrd, Sanford had scholarship offers from LSU, Florida, and Louisiana Tech.
He chose Tech because of two people: Joe Aillet and Myrna Mims. Aillet was Louisiana Tech’s head coach while Mims was the future Mrs. Leo Sanford. She was working in Shreveport, and Sanford didn’t want to attend a school so far away that he couldn’t visit her frequently.
In his sophomore year at Tech, Sanford played a key role in the Bulldogs’ 13-13 tie with Auburn.
His 50-yard return for a touchdown after an interception was erased by a penalty, but the turnover set up a go-ahead Tech touchdown that was quickly erased by Ray Pelfrey’s 101-yard return of the following kickoff.
The highlight of Sanford’s four years at Tech was a 33-13 victory over Mississippi Southern, which was considered the No. 1 small-college team in the nation that year.
Jimmy Harrison and Gene Knecht were Tech’s offensive stars in that game, while Sanford led a defensive charge that held Mississippi Southern to minus 12 yards rushing.
Sanford was a three-year starter for Aillet’s Bulldogs. He was an All-GSC selection two years in a row, and was captain of the 1950 team.
He was a sixth round selection of the Chicago Cardinals in the NFL draft, but he didn’t find out about it until he was visiting his wife in an Alexandria hospital following an automobile accident. Sanford had a job with Pan Am Southern Oil Company in New Orleans, and was taking his wife to New Orleans when they were involved in the accident. For several days, he was either at her hospital bedside or on the road to Ruston to pick up some personal belongings. A former Tech teammate, Bobby Aillet, was coaching at Bolton High at that time. He went to the hospital to deliver the message that Sanford had been drafted by the Cardinals.
Several weeks later, Sanford received a standard player contract in the mail. If he made the team, he would be paid $5,000 for the 1951 season. Sanford, who was making $275 a month with Pan Am Southern Oil, decided it would behoove him to make the team.
At 6-1 and 220 pounds, Sanford was a bit small to play center and linebacker in the NFL. But he made up for his lack of size with great quickness and versatility. At Fair Park and Louisiana Tech, he had played for teams using the direct center snap. His deep snapping ability was a factor in Sanford’s bid to play in the NFL.
He had plenty of competition. Another rookie candidate for the Cardinals’ center position was Notre Dame All-American Jerry Groom, a first round draft choice. Still another was Knox Ramsey, younger brother of Cardinals linebacker coach Buster Ramsey. When the coach moved his brother to a guard position, Sanford felt he had an excellent chance to make the team.
He called defensive signals for the Cardinals in 1956, when they won their first four games. Sanford had two interceptions and a fumble recovery in a 1956 victory over the Eagles, but one of the highlights of this pro career was a club record 92-yard touchdown run with an intercepted pass against the Steelers.
Leo is one of the league’s finest linebackers because of his speed, said Cardinals coach Ray Richards.
After seven seasons with the Cardinals, he was traded to the Baltimore Colts just in time for their championship season in 1958 capped by a come-from-behind 23-17 overtime victory over the New York Giants that would be called the greatest game ever played.
It was the last game Sanford ever played. He tore up his right knee in a collision with All-Pro tackle Roosevelt Brown, but Sanford still managed to limp back onto the field for deep snaps including the one that led to Steve Myhra’s 20-yard field goal with seven seconds remaining in regulation play.
That snap was the final play of Sanford’s career.
He attempted a comeback with the Colts in 1959, but his knee gave out on him again in the second week of the preseason training camp. Sanford spent the entire season in the press box, scouting opponents.
He gave pro football one more shot in 1960, trying out for the Dallas Cowboys’ expansion team. But once again, the knee wouldn’t cooperate. After a couple of weeks, Sanford walked into Tom Landry’s office and told him he was calling it quits.
By that time, he was already a sporting goods salesman in the off-season. He later switched to the senior ring business.