(Photo: Houston Texans)
Vonta Leach's success is a classic
example of Pirates helping Pirates.
Leach's years at East Carolina were
characterized by position changes, coaching changes and less than
But the right people recognized
potential in the player from Rowland, NC, and as a result, Leach will
enter the second year of a four-year deal worth over $8 million as
fullback with the Houston Texans. His contract calls for a $1 million
salary this year.
Former ECU running backs coach Jerry
McManus helped recruit Leach, an all-state player at South Robeson in
2000. Leach started out on defense as a linebacker with the Pirates but
later made the transition to blocking fullback.
He carried the ball 83 times for a net
of 290 yards with five touchdowns his senior season. His longest run was
15 yards. He caught nine passes for 39 yards in that 2003 season as the
Pirates went 1-11.
Leach still doesn't generate great
numbers. His career rushing stats in four years in the NFL show two
carries for two yards but one of those resulted in a touchdown.
He did catch 25 passes for 108 yards
last season. Still, a portion of USA Today's website analysis for
fantasy leagues says, "he isn't worth using in fantasy leagues."
There is a football ability that
statistics don't measure directly and fantasy leagues don't reward.
That's blocking, one of the games most basic ingredients. And that's
what Leach, 6-foot-1 and 250 pounds, does about as well as any of his
McManus saw the potential for Leach to
play at the next level and so did ECU alumnus Ralph Vitolo, a
Fayetteville-based sports agent.
"After I watched the South Florida
game, he got my attention," Vitolo said.
Leach ran 26 times for 111 yards with
two touchdowns as a senior in a 38-37 double-overtime loss to the Bulls
After the season, Vitolo talked to
Leach's mother, Jackie, and hired a personal trainer to work Leach out
in Greenville. Leach didn't get drafted but signed as a free agent with
the Green Bay Packers.
"The Packers were a really good fit for
Vonta," Vitolo said.
Leach spent two years in Green Bay but
when the Packers made a coaching change and brought in Mike McCarthy,
they determined that Leach didn't fit their new blocking scheme. Vitolo
got Leach a cup of coffee with the New Orleans Saints as he filled in
for an injured player before the Houston Texans signed him.
After his third season in the NFL,
Leach became a restricted free agent. Seven teams submitted offer
sheets, according to Vitolo, with the New York Giants putting a
four-year deal in excess of $8 million on the table. Houston had seven
days to match the Giants' deal and they did.
Vitolo may be a little bit partial but
he says, "Vonta's playing at the Pro Bowl level. He's one of the top
fullbacks in the league. He loves it in Houston."
Even though the Pirates slumped during
his career, Leach developed well enough to make it in the NFL.
"Jerry McManus did a great job with
him," Vitolo said. "Vonta's got his head on straight. He's a pleasure to
be around. He's worked his tail off and he's grateful for what he's got.
He's a pleasure to do business with and I enjoy our personal
relationship as well."
Back home in Rowland
Leach was back home in Rowland, a small
town on the South Carolina border in Robeson County, last week. He was
giving back to the community in which he was raised. He presented seven
college scholarships for $500 each to students from his home county at a
benefit basketball game that Leach organized and played in at South
Robeson on Friday night.
"I could just write the high school a
check but I'd rather be here among the people," Leach said. "They can
see me and touch me and know I'm for real."
Leach delivered a message at his
football camp the following day, telling the youngsters that he was from
the same place as them and that if he could make it — with hard work —
that they could, too. Leach also took part in a football camp directed
by Lumberton coach Mike Brill, who was Leach's coach at South Robeson.
Leach also sponsors kids to go to camp.
Last Christmas, he distributed turkeys and gave $100 gift cards to 30
children who would not have otherwise been able to go holiday shopping.
Rowland officials had something for
Leach at his last visit as well. The town has renamed Cherry Street,
where he grew up, in his honor. It's now Leach Street.
"I never thought in a million years
they'd do something like that," said Leach, whose retired high school
jersey hangs in the school gym. "I don't do charity for the recognition.
I just do it out of the kindness of my heart and to give back. I feel
like giving back is very important when you come from where I came
Leach grew up without his father in the
"My mother and grandmother were my Mom
and Dad," he said.
He's moved his mother, Jackie, to a
nicer home on East Mill Street in his hometown, a few blocks from Leach
"I was always in church on Sunday,"
Leach said of his youth.
Leach had a strong foundation on which
"I think the reason he's been
successful is the way he was brought up and raised," said Jackie Leach.
"My mother took him to church and he got God in his life. Without God,
he couldn't do what he's done. Give God the credit. Without him, his
career wouldn't be possible."
Early in his ECU career, Leach looked
like anything but a multi-million-dollar NFL fullback.
"I won't say I lost faith in my
ability, but I was felling pretty good at linebacker." he said. "I was
supposed to take over for Pernell Griffin."
Leach was moved to fullback the fourth
game of the 2002 season at ECU.
He finished with 95 total tackles as a
Pirate. He made the Athletic Director's honor roll that year as he
majored in child development and family relations.
"I tried to take everything in stride
because I knew I ultimately wanted to play at the next level." Leach
And now he is.
What will the upcoming season hold for
Rowland's cherished son?
Leach was always an optimist. Before
the dismal 2003 season, he said, "It ain't gonna be no fun when the
rabbit gets the gun."
His lost fumble against North Carolina
in the fourth quarter helped the Tar Heels to a 28-17 win that year, but
both Leach and the Pirates have seen better days since then.
Now he's blocking for Ahman Green, Ron
Dayne and Darius Walker instead of Marvin Townes.
And he's still an optimist.
"It's looking very good," he said. "We
had our best record ever last season (8-8). We had a lot of key
injuries. If the ball had bounced a little different, we could easily
have been 10-6. We've got our quarterback and wide receivers in place.
If we can keep our running backs healthy, we'll be in good shape."
Maybe 2008 will be the year the rabbit
gets the gun in Houston.