Vonta Leach has played 37 games since he last got an opportunity to run the football in the NFL.
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."
Leach has also taken an active role in working with the coaches and helping teach the Ravens' new zone blocking scheme, which the Texans also employ. Rice was just as effusive in his praise of Leach's leadership — both on and off the field — as he was about his blocking.
Leach, who originally signed with the Green Bay Packers in 2004 as an undrafted free agent, left East Carolina just three classes short of his degree. He had every intention of returning to get it, but that plan was reinforced on the day Brill and South Robeson High (Rowland, N.C.) decided to retire his jersey.
"Before we had the ceremony, I said if you do make it, these are the things that I wanted him to do," Brill said. "I wanted him to help the school out, and he's gone overboard to do it. And I told him if he didn't get his degree, I'd take his jersey down."
Trying to establish himself in the NFL, it took Leach a while, but he took summer and online courses to complete his degree in child development and family relations.
With Kubiak's blessing, Leach missed a Texans walk-through last December and flew to Greenville, N.C., for the commencement ceremony, witnessed by his mother and other family members.
"I walked across the stage in my cap and gown and all. It was one of the most memorable moments of my life when I received [the diploma]," said Leach, who was one of 17 NFL players to go back and earn their graduate degrees in 2010. "When it's all said and done and football is over with, the one thing that they can't take away from me is my degree. That's something that I worked hard at. It's something that I always told my Mom I would do. It's important. I was one of the first ones to go to college out of my family, and I wanted to finish what I started."
While with Houston, Leach provided tickets for 20 children to every Texans home game, and he worked with various youth developmental programs. He was even more active in his hometown.
Each Christmas, Leach, who resides in Lumberton, N.C., gives $100 Walmart gift certificates to about 50 needy children in the area. He played host to a Thanksgiving giveaway that provided food for 2,000 families. And he sponsors youth baseball teams and runs an annual football camp and summer program.
When South Robeson High needed weightlifting equipment, Leach provided it, and the school's refurbished weight room is now named in his honor. Leach has bought the program new uniforms, and when the school was struggling to find enough usable helmets this August, the fullback ordered them 30 new helmets and 30 sets of shoulder pads.
"It's a poor community, a poor school," said Brill who now coaches at Lumberton High. "It's unbelievable what he has done to help. The football program is pretty down right now. They're going through some difficult times, and without him, I don't think know that they'd be able to make it. But that's what he's all about. He hasn't forgotten where he's come from even though a lot of these guys have."
Brill said Leach's generosity started long before he became the highest paid fullback in the NFL. Following his collegiate career, Leach arrived at a high school football banquet in town with a large sack of gifts. He gave away the watch he was given from playing in a bowl game, one of his college game balls, and then he presented Brill with game-worn cleats and a helmet.
Leach buys Christmas gifts for Brill's two daughters, and he regularly spends time with the family. Brill, who remembers Leach coming over to his house in his high school days just in time for dinner — "He'd eat a whole chicken. He'd just clean us out." — said his relationship with Leach has morphed from coach-and-player, to father-and-son.
Years ago, Leach called Brill on April Fool's Day and told him that one of his high school teammates who followed him to East Carolina had been kicked off the Pirates' football team for stealing.
Brill, admittedly "cussing up a storm," headed out to his car ready to drive to East Carolina before he was intercepted by his assistant coaches, who were in on the prank.
Texans star receiver Andre Johnson, who isn't expected to play Sunday because of a hamstring injury, was also a popular target of Leach's. The burly fullback once slipped into a spandex Spider-Man costume and chased Johnson all over the practice field.
It was just one of several costumes that Leach would wear out to walk-throughs, hoping to lighten the mood of his teammates. Kubiak's favorite was the Santa Claus outfit that Leach broke out every December.
Leach flashed a wide grin when he was reminded of some of those antics, and he smiled again when he talked about how he would make his way into the "flight deck" during Texans' flights, earning him the nickname "Co-pilot."
The affable fullback clearly enjoyed the chance to reminisce, but his current teammates expect his smile to be long gone by the time Sunday's game rolls around.
"Everybody knows for him, it's not just another week," Rice said. "It's going against his former teammates, his former buddies."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun