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View from the 'ville
Thursday, July 3, 2008

By Al Myatt

Helping hands go both ways with Leach

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

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 overwhelming statistics.

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 pro peers.

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 in Greenville.

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 from."

Leach grew up without his father in the home.

"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 Street.

"I was always in church on Sunday," Leach said of his youth.

Leach had a strong foundation on which to develop.

"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 said.

And now he is.

2008 outlook

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.

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07/03/2008 01:58:01 AM


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