- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

Byron Leftwich never was an afterthought and not really a secret, but he clearly was the “other guy” at some pivotal junctures in his life. It will probably happen again during Saturday’s NFL Draft.A senior at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., by way of the District’s H.D. Woodson High School, Leftwich is likely to be the second quarterback selected. Cincinnati is expected to take Southern California’s Carson Palmer with the first pick.At 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, and having been declared sound of arm, mind and recently, body, Leftwich should go somewhere in the top 10. Chicago, Jacksonville, Arizona, Carolina and Baltimore all have been mentioned as possible destinations. Leftwich’s appeal rose during a workout in Florida two weeks ago during which he showed no ill effects from a broken leg he suffered in November. The year before, he had a stress fracture in the same leg.”There were a lot of question marks, and I understand why,” Leftwich said at the Capitol Heights home where his mother, Brenda, moved from the District a few years ago and where he is waiting out the days leading up to the draft. “It was great to show everybody I was healthy.”According to Leftwich’s college coach, Bob Pruett, anything other than No. 1 would be too low.”He’s gonna be the most-impact player in the draft,” drawled Pruett, a colorful wordsmith. “He’s that good. If you don’t believe me, just wait.”Pruett said he similarly touted another of his players, wide receiver Randy Moss, a few years ago, but few believed him. Pruett said Leftwich has the same kind of talent as the Minnesota Vikings’ star receiver.But not the same attitude and demeanor. In that regard, there is no comparison between the bubbly, talkative, positive-thinking Leftwich and the usually sullen, always temperamental Moss. “Byron is outgoing, personable,” Pruett said. “He’s got a glow. He’s got all the things you need to be a leader.”NFL types love Leftwich’s intelligence and awareness and what they call “pocket presence.” He is from the classic, dropback school of passers.”I’m not a track guy,” he said. “But I’m not slow.”Leftwich finds it funny when people say how the speedy, shifty Michael Vick will revolutionize the position.”Michael Vick is a special guy,” he said. “We all wish we could do that. But we can’t.”And forget Moss, too. Leftwich has been compared more with Chad Pennington, his quarterback predecessor at Marshall who was drafted by the New York Jets in 2000. Pennington was outstanding last season, his first as the Jets’ starter.Leftwich played in seven games as a reserve behind Pennington during his first year, then redshirted the next. He continued to watch and learn as the two developed a strong friendship, Pennington instilling the importance of film study and preparation and dealing with the hype.”Chad was the perfect model for him,” Pruett said.Said Leftwich: “He took me under his wing and taught me the do’s and don’ts. It was the whole package, on the field and off the field. It was great to see a guy who took the position so seriously and to have the opportunity to learn from that.”But Leftwich, the all-time Mid-American Conference passing leader, will be drafted higher than Pennington, who was taken with the 18th pick. He is bigger, more athletic and has a much stronger arm.”I’ve never seen anybody who can throw it like him,” Pruett said, a comment echoed by others.Barely on the recruiting radarLeftwich was one of those happy-accident recruiting stories. Kevin Kelly, then the Marshall defensive coordinator, was watching tape of a Woodson running back when he noticed Leftwich firing fastballs. One play in particular stood out: Leftwich, about to be hit, threw the ball over the head of the charging lineman for a 30-yard completion.Leftwich wasn’t a complete secret to the Marshall coaches. Woodson coach Bob Headen was a former teammate of Pruett’s with the Virginia Sailors of the old Continental Football League and Kelly, who was responsible for recruiting in the D.C. area, already had Leftwich on his list.”Right there at the bottom,” he said.After he saw Leftwich on tape, “I said right away that we needed to talk to him,” said Kelly, who last year became Navy’s defensive coordinator. “He wasn’t one of our primary guys, but he very much became a primary player.”Headen said after Kelly showed the tape to the other coaches, he got a call from an excited Pruett. Headen only reinforced Pruett’s enthusiasm. “I said, ‘Hey, Bob, you’ve got to have him,’ ” he said.That was never really in doubt. Few schools showed even cursory interest in Leftwich. Kelly said one reason was that the player needed to work on his grades. “He had to get his GPA up,” Kelly said. “But he took the bull by the horns. He worked to get eligible. When I first talked to him, he had a real sparkle in his eye and he listened carefully. He did what we asked him to do.”Leftwich, who has enough credits to graduate from Marshall, tells a different story.”I think Coach Kelly was mistaking me for someone else,” he said, laughing. “I wasn’t that bad of a student. I wasn’t an ‘A’ student, but I wasn’t a ‘D’ or an ‘F’ student either.”Leftwich said he never wanted to go anywhere but Marshall, especially after Pruett told him how much they threw the ball. Also, a friend and former Woodson teammate, Girardie Mercer, was there. But how he even got to that point was also a matter of serendipity.Headen was trying to get a couple of ninth-graders, two of three triplets nicknamed “Fat Cat” and “Skinny Cat” to come to his school. (Yes, there is recruiting among D.C. public schools, although they don’t call it that.) Leftwich, who attended Evans Junior High not far from Woodson, was with them, but Headen didn’t know him even though Leftwich was a good athlete who excelled at basketball and football. Headen asked him to come out for the team.”He said he was a receiver,” Headen said. “He said he didn’t want to play quarterback.”Said Leftwich: “It’s not that I didn’t like to play quarterback, but I loved playing receiver. I still do.”Leftwich is a film buff, and what happened the first day of fall practice was like something from a movie — a bad one. Leftwich was working out with the junior varsity when he caught a long pass and threw it back. Headen noticed the tight spiral, the height of the pass, the velocity. He asked someone who threw the ball.”Byron, I want to talk to you,” he said.Headen told Leftwich he wanted to move him to quarterback. Leftwich balked at first, but Headen insisted and immediately moved Leftwich up to varsity. One problem required immediate attention. “He threw the ball too hard for high school kids,” Headen said. “I told him he had to lighten up.”Headen, who retired as football coach in 1998 after 28 years and now serves as athletic director, softball coach and dean of students at Woodson, favored an option offense and already had two quarterbacks who could run. No problem. He recalled a conversation with an old teammate at Armstrong High School (which no longer exists), Willie Wood, who went on to become a Hall of Fame safety with the Green Bay Packers.Headen said he once told Wood he had one quarterback who could pass and one who could run, and both were good.”Play them both,” Wood said.Leftwich became a co-starter, alternating plays with the other quarterback. He took over full time midway through the next season and led Woodson to a city championship his senior year. After Leftwich went to Marshall, Headen saw him play on television. “He still threw the ball too hard,” he said.Building some character Leftwich downplays what some consider to be the difficult circumstances of his childhood.”I don’t really like to talk about it like that,” he said. “It was rough, but there were a lot of places that were rough. When you’re growing up, you don’t realize it. I’ve seen some wild things, and I guess I’ve done some wild things. Not bad things. I was a good guy, a good kid.”One of the “wild things” Leftwich used to do was sneak into Washington Redskins games at RFK Stadium. He said he had a friend who worked at one of the gates and allowed him to slip through a hole in a fence.”I could fit through it when I was younger,” Leftwich said. “When I got older, I had to find a way to get a ticket.”Leftwich and his older brother, Kevin, were raised by their mother in two different Southeast neighborhoods that Brenda Leftwich describes as “low-income,” where the sound of gunshots was not uncommon. Byron’s father left when the child was 2. For several years, Brenda had two jobs. She would get up at 4 a.m. and ride the bus to Georgetown, where she worked in a nursing home from 6:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. Her second job, part time, also was in a nursing home not far from where she lived.Kevin and Byron “really didn’t like me working so much,” Brenda Leftwich said. “And I didn’t like them being outside when I wasn’t home. Back in those days, it wasn’t the best of neighborhoods.”Brenda would pay babysitters and neighbors to keep an eye on the kids. When Kevin got older, he assumed much of the responsibility. “He played a big part in Byron’s life,” Brenda Leftwich said.”Byron was a great kid growing up. One of the best. One time I went to a PTA meeting and one of the teachers came up to me and said Byron was one of the greatest kids she ever had. She said if I ever have a boy, I want him to be like Byron.”Byron Leftwich said of his mother, “There’s no other person on earth I love like her. A mother is a special person. I think she’s the best lady on the face of the earth. She always wanted me to do something positive, no matter what it is. Whatever I do, make sure it’s something positive and be successful at it.”She’s one of the nicest people you’d ever want to know, but when I got out of hand when I was younger, she laid the hand down. But you’ve got to. It helped me in the whole process. It helped me become the person I am today.”Hardly anything fazes Leftwich. He was subject to a Heisman campaign blitz his senior year that included the distribution of 1,000 bobblehead dolls in his likeness. Rather than shrink from that sort of thing, he embraced it.”I realized it was a once-in-a-lifetime deal and that a lot of people would have loved to have been in my shoes,” he said. “I enjoyed every minute of it.”The broken leg? No big deal. Leftwich fractured his left tibia, which had a steel rod in it from the stress fracture, early in a Nov. 2 game against Akron. He continued to play. He missed the next game but returned to lead the Thundering Herd to four straight victories to end the season, passing for more than 400 yards in two of them. When Marshall was running the hurry-up offense, Leftwich’s teammates would actually carry him to the line of the scrimmage. It wasn’t until after the season that he rested and allowed the leg to heal.”I know it sounds crazy, but I didn’t want to miss any games,” he said. “I did what I had to do.”Leftwich knows the team that drafts him will expect big things, maybe sooner rather than later. That’s a lot of pressure. No big deal, either.”I know there will be high expectations,” he said. “But my expectations are so much higher than everybody else’s.”

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