Top prospect has big arm, little ego
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.
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.
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.)
Tom Lemming, the nation's foremost high-school football talent analyst and editor of Prep Football Report magazine, along with The Sporting News and USA Today, tabbed Leak the nation's best player before the current season began.
"Chris has got great touch, great feel for the game," Lemming says. "I've been doing this for 23 years. I saw [Dan] Marino, [John] Elway, all of them. As far as leadership and maturity, he's as good as any of them."
Statistics tell part of the story. Leak threw 57 touchdown passes last year and 51 during his sophomore season. With a comparable senior campaign, he will set national records for passing yards and touchdown passes by the end of 2002.
Lemming said Leak's size and arm strength rank below those of some other prospects. But his precision and decision-making make up for those shortfalls, along with a trait rarely mentioned among football players: humility.
In Lemming's eyes, Leak's adherence to a team-first philosophy is genuine, not merely a media script.
Attention to Leak has really taken off in his senior year. He made an appearance at a Charlotte bookstore over the summer, signing copies of a national high school magazine that featured him on the cover. More than a few adults gaped while greeting him, asking repeatedly whether he might consider their favorite college team as his destination.
ESPN.com runs periodic diary entries from Leak on his senior season. And his coach at Independence, Tom Knotts, declared him the best quarterback in the city at the start of the season including the NFL's Carolina Panthers.
The ultimate frenzy awaits Jan. 5. That night, during an appearance in the US Army All-American Bowl on ESPN2 in San Antonio, a game featuring the nation's top high schoolers, Leak will announce his college selection to a national TV audience at halftime.
"Where is he going to go?" asks Vicki Hamilton, the athletic director for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system. "There are just a few schools in the hunt. Whatever happens, we believe Chris is going to be the premier athlete to come out of Charlotte." Hamilton says one important factor is settled: "He's got real good grades," she says.
Chris's grade point average is 3.7, and his college test scores are on target, his father says.
Not surprisingly, Chris is keeping his options open. Still, the prospect of Tennessee landing him hardly represent an information, well, leak. "Tennessee's my leader," he says, moments after polishing off Harding High. "But I'm going to make all of my visits and see what happens."
Curtis Leak says lessons learned with with C.J. who favored Notre Dame until signing day, then shocked everyone by choosing Wake Forest and later transferring to Tennessee makes dealing with the current recruiting derby much easier. The family installed a separate phone line for recruiting calls and allows Chris to accept them only at specific times.
For all the attention and scrutiny, Chris remains unruffled, much as he does in the passing pocket on the field. Unlike most high schoolers, he often chooses his second, third, or fourth passing option rather than forcing his throws to tightly covered primary receivers.
His "ultimate goal" is the NFL, says Chris, helmet in hand, anxiously eyeing the team bus as it prepares to leave. But "I've got a long way to go. A long way to go."