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Top prospect has big arm, little ego

By Erik SpanbergSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 18, 2002



CHARLOTTE, N.C.

At an unglamorous high school football field near the Charlotte, N.C., airport last Friday, where the encircling track may be spryer than the grass, a few hundred fans filled the wooden bleachers along the visitors' side. There they watched the heavily favored Independence High School Patriots on a humid fall evening.

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Midway through the fourth quarter, fans of both schools – home team Harding High School and Independence – were barely cheering. The game offered no suspense. Still, Chris Leak, the 17-year-old senior Independence quarterback, touted as the nation's top prep player, couldn't relax – even with a 62-0 lead. Instead, he occupied his time taking long-range shotgun snaps from his center along the sidelines.

This, despite knowing he wouldn't see any more playing time, having already tossed five touchdown passes and run for another in a game that finished 69-6, the 37th straight win for Leak's two-time defending state champions.

"My father has always told me, never be satisfied," Leak said after the game, employing the polite, robotic tones of Tiger Woods, another prodigy raised on rigorous fatherly tutoring. "If you want to be good at something, you have to work at it."

Leak, a bit undersized for a major college quarterback at 6-1 and 210 lbs., seems bound for further football glory because of his studious approach on the field. He's an almost-unanimous pick as the nation's top prospect, receiving the requisite thousands of phone calls and letters from football factories across the land.

Every Saturday, Leak travels with his parents, Curtis and Karen, to watch the University of Tennessee play. It doesn't hurt that Tennessee's roster includes C.J. Leak, Chris's older brother. He is Chris's confessed hero and, several years ago, was himself a high school star in Charlotte. On Sundays, Chris chats on the phone with Ron Zook, the head coach of the University of Florida, Tennessee's biggest rival.

Ranked the No. 1 high school player

Running through the list of schools his son favors, Chris's father ticks off Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Florida State, and North Carolina State. Then he stops himself. "Oh, Florida," he says, chuckling. "Ron Zook calls him every week. Better not leave them out. Chris would kill me!"

Not on the list: Wake Forest, which made headlines when its former head coach Jim Caldwell offered Chris a scholarship when he was still an eighth grader. The nonbinding oral agreement drew howls of derision, though the matter died quickly when Caldwell lost his job two years ago.

Chris's dad, who attended Independence during his own high-school football days and eventually landed several brief stints with NFL teams, began grooming both his sons (the Leaks also have three daughters) for athletic success at an early age. Chris began playing and practicing with his father and brother when he turned 5.

The family fondly recalls Chris, four years younger than C.J., tagging along at his big brother's games. Chris served as a water boy and during halftime lulls entertained fans in the stands by slinging lengthy, tight spirals downfield to the ball boys, eliciting ooh's and ahh's from the assembled parents.

Before he became head coach of the undefeated, No. 5-ranked University of Georgia, Mark Richt once called Chris "the little guy with the big gun," Curtis Leak says, smiling. "You call Coach Richt, he'll tell you that." (Not right now, anyway: College coaches can't comment on prep prospects until they commit to a particular school.)

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