One thing that could make Sunday's homecoming more special for Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Byron Leftwich would be if the Washington Redskins still played at RFK Stadium.
Another is if Leftwich hadn't had to dig so deep for the more than 90 tickets he bought for family and friends, many of whom haven't seen him play live since he was a senior at H.D. Woodson High in 1997.
Growing up on 58th Street S.E., Leftwich was such a passionate Redskins fan that he used to sneak into games at RFK.
"There was a guy who took the tickets and he would say, 'If you walk up and run, I can't chase you,' Leftwich recalled. "He couldn't leave his post. We would just run through and sit in people's seats until they came. Then we would walk around and watch the game. I was a diehard fan. Me and my brother [Kevin] used to cry when the Redskins lost."
After games, Leftwich, his brother and their buddies would play street football, pretending to be their heroes. Or as Leftwich said, "Whoever played good that week. I would try to do the things that I had seen whoever had played good that week do."
Since replacing current Redskins starter Mark Brunell as the Jaguars' No. 1 quarterback in the fourth game of his rookie season, Leftwich has a 79.9 passer rating and a 23-18 record.
"Byron has gotten better each year," said coach Jack Del Rio, who chose Leftwich with his first draft pick (seventh overall) after taking over the Jaguars in 2003. "He came in as a very talented player that operated primarily out of the shotgun. Each year he has gotten a little stronger and a little better, mechanically and fundamentally. He has always had natural leadership abilities."
The 6-foot-5, 242-pound Leftwich has been criticized for his elongated throwing motion, but the Redskins aren't among his detractors.
"People talk about Byron's windup, but he gets the ball there," said Redskins cornerback Kenny Wright, who played for Jacksonville last season.
"Byron has matured a lot," Redskins assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams said. "He's a very competitive playmaker. I think the team rallies around him. He executes their offense [very well]."
While Leftwich, like any young Redskins fan, dreamed of one day wearing the burgundy and gold, he didn't really start thinking an NFL career was possible until Randy Moss' prolific rookie year put Division I-AA Marshall on the map when Leftwich was a freshman.
"I was just going there to play some football and hopefully get my education," Leftwich said. "The impact Randy had on the NFL opened the door for guys like me and [New York Jets starting quarterback Chad Pennington]. It showed that a guy from the [Mid-American Conference] and Marshall can be successful in this league."
Leftwich said that while Brunell wasn't exactly a mentor when their paths crossed in 2003, he learned how to be a pro from watching the veteran. It wasn't an easy transition as Jacksonville, which started 0-3 despite Brunell's solid play, lost to the expansion Houston Texans in Leftwich's first start and went on to finish 5-11.
"I knew they didn't draft me to sit me down for a long time," Leftwich said. "When Mark got hurt it gave me the opportunity to let them see what I can do. I'm one of those guys that learns more by doing it myself, being a knucklehead, being hard-headed and going out there and making a mistake that they told me not to do. Then I would be like 'Oh OK, I guess I can't do that.' When I got the chance to get in there I wanted to make sure I stayed in there."
Three years later, Leftwich has become a fixture. Brunell said his former understudy is going to be an elite quarterback.
"Mark was the only quarterback they ever knew since the franchise got started [in 1995]," Leftwich said. "He deserves for the fans and city to still love him. It doesn't mean that they don't love me, too. It just took some time for them to get used to me because they were so used to having Mark as the quarterback of this team."