A philanthropist and jokester, fullback Leach almost never puts himself first
First-year Raven faces his former team Sunday
Vonta Leach (left) dances as part of an event at the Zeta Center for Healthy and Active Aging in Baltimore last month. The Ravens fullback has been generous with his time, his money and his blocking dating back to his time with the Houston Texans. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun / September 18, 2011)
He has endured countless collisions with linebackers, paved the way for Pro Bowl running backs and even played on special teams. But in 102 NFL games spanning eight seasons, Leach has carried the football three times.
The Ravens' bruising fullback has made a career of setting personal glory aside, of taking hits so somebody else doesn't have to, of willingly remaining in the background even though his teammates insist that he's front and center in everything they do.
But last December and again this August, Leach put himself first.
Fulfilling a promise he made to his mother, late grandmother and high school coach, Leach received his college degree nearly eight years after he completed his football eligibility atEast Carolina University. Eight months later, he departed the team that he thought he'd never leave, signing with the Ravens as a free agent after he didn't feel that the Houston Texans had the same level of interest in him as he did in them.
"I have a lot of history with them, but there are no hard feelings between me, their organization," Leach said. "I wasn't high on their priority list. It was just business. That's what it is."
Leach and Ravens safety Bernard Pollard, another former Texan, have done their best this week to act like this is just another Sunday in the NFL. However, their reunion with Houston provides another interesting subplot in a matchup between two of the AFC's better teams at M&T Bank stadium.
"He's one of those guys that loves to play," Houston coach Gary Kubiak said of Leach who was a Texan for four-plus seasons. "He has a great, positive influence on all his teammates. I miss him. He's a helluva football player and a good man."
What Ravens fans have already learned about Leach — whom they signed to a three-year, $11 million deal to serve as a personal escort for running back Ray Rice — is that he craves contact and physical football. On the Ravens' first play from scrimmage this season, Leach threw a thunderous block, knocking down two Pittsburgh Steelers and springing Rice for a 36-yard run.
What Ravens fans probably don't know about the 29-year-old is that he received a 2008 service award from President George W. Bush, has helped keep his high school's football program afloat and remains so close with his high school coach that he flew Mike Brill and his family out to Hawaii to watch him play in last year's Pro Bowl.
What they probably don't want to know is that Leach has squeezed his 6-foot, 260-pound frame into a spandex Spider-Man suit and chased around a teammate on the practice field, and that he regularly sat in the cockpit to serve as "co-pilot" on Houston team flights.
"He's the ultimate character guy in both having character and being a character. He's both," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Those are the most fun guys to be around. Great leader, hard worker and just a lot of laughs."
Leach started to receive the credit most of his former teammates felt was long overdue last season as the lead blocker for Arian Foster, who led the NFL with 1,616 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns. He was so respected by his Texans teammates that they engaged in a successful Pro Bowl campaign for him, creating and wearing shirts that read "Leach to the Beach."
"He's a guy you want on your team, he's a guy that you want leading your running back through holes," Pollard said. "He's not an 'I' guy. It's always, 'What can I do to help?' Vonta has been playing at a Pro Bowl level for the last three or four years. At the end of the day, this guy lines up and plays for you."
Leach has caught five passes this season for 15 yards, but his primary role has been adding physicality and leadership to an offense that was in need of both.
"He fit right in," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "I think he loves his role as a fullback. He's not a fullback trying to be a tailback … and he plays Raven-style football, so that's always good."
Suggs' comments were taken as a playful jab at former Ravens fullback Le'Ron McClain, who was outspoken about wanting the ball more. Leach has never expressed such a desire.
"That doesn't mean anything to me," said Leach who has two one-yard touchdown runs among his three career carries. "With the football team or any job you have, everybody has their role. My role on the team has to be blocking. … This is a blue-collar place. They've had a lot of great fullbacks here, and they value them. I just wanted to go to a place where I'm liked and where I can showcase my talents."