- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Byron Leftwich lives in Atlanta, trains in South Florida and spends most weekends back home in the D.C. area. He has several places to hang his hat. But right now he has nowhere to hang his helmet.

With NFL training camps starting within a month, the former quarterback for the Jacksonville Jaguars and, briefly, the Atlanta Falcons, remains a free agent. It’s a sudden and unusual turn. Only 28, Leftwich was a starter one minute, unemployed the next.

“It went from so good to so bad real quick,” he said.

Leftwich played three sports at H.D. Woodson High School in Northeast and became a star at Marshall in West Virginia. The Jaguars took Leftwich seventh in the 2003 draft, the next quarterback taken after No. 1 pick Carson Palmer. As a rookie, he replaced the injured Mark Brunell and produced good numbers. He was better the next year and better still in 2005, when the Jaguars made the playoffs.

But he got hurt late that season, and injuries, specifically lower leg injuries, became the major issue. At 6-foot-5, 250-pounds with limited mobility, Leftwich was an easy target.

“I [went from] the toughest guy in the NFL to the most injury prone,” he said in a telephone interview last week from his Atlanta home.

Leftwich was taking a week-long break from his daily 3 1/2-hour workout regimen at a high-tech training facility near Miami. NFL stars Plaxico Burress, Frank Gore, Anquan Boldin and good friend and former Jaguars teammate Fred Taylor have been among those working alongside. He said he has lost 25 pounds.

“If I put on a No. 81 jersey, people will think I’m Randy Moss,” he said.

His coach at Marshall, Bob Pruett, now an assistant at Virginia, called Leftwich “the most positive guy I’ve ever been around.” Even with his once-promising career stuck in limbo, Leftwich said he is going to make a comeback worthy of Seabiscuit.

“I believe in myself,” he said. “I’ve got confidence in myself. I won’t allow this to start second-guessing my ability. These types of things happen, man. You’ve got to stand up and see the light at the end of the tunnel. I know I can play the game of football. I’m not gonna let nobody tell me I can’t.”

Few probably would say that. But his health and durability were concerns even before the draft. As a junior at Marshall, Leftwich suffered a stress fracture in his left shin that required the insertion of a metal rod. Famously, he left a game in the first quarter against Akron during his senior year with a hairline fracture in his left leg just above the ankle, only to return and try to bring his team back from a big deficit. Marshall lost, but the enduring image is of teammates carrying Leftwich down the field for the next play after he completed a long pass.

In 2004 with the Jaguars, Leftwich suffered a slightly torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee. The worst injury occurred in 2005, when he broke his left ankle against Arizona and missed the last five games of the regular season. At the time, he had 15 touchdown passes, five interceptions and a passer rating of 89.3, which would be his career best.

Leftwich returned for a playoff loss to New England. He was rusty, and he also hinted at additional damage that went undetected. He would not explain further.

“I’m saving it for the book I’m gonna write one day,” he said, laughing.

In October 2006, Leftwich reinjured his postsurgical ankle against the Washington Redskins. He toughed out the rest of that game and the next one. A bye week presumably helped, but Leftwich said he woke up the morning before the Houston game the following week “and I couldn’t walk.” He played anyway and said he could have continued playing, but Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio benched Leftwich for backup David Garrard. Leftwich did not respond favorably; he and Del Rio had a stormy relationship, and this didn’t help matters.

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