From his seat at the Super Bowl on Sunday, Vonta Leach will summon the past — the Ravens' ascent to the top in the 2012 season and that glorious scoreboard, at game's end, which he'll not forget: Ravens 34, San Francisco 49ers 31.
"When it's over and you're world champions, and you remember all the hard work that went into it, you're finally satisfied," Leach said. "As a little boy, winning the Super Bowl is your dream, and when you actually do it — man, it's like the world stops for a few seconds."
Three seasons ago, the Ravens ran the table in the playoffs and Leach, their All-Pro fullback, led the way, blasting holes for running back Ray Rice with shuddering blocks one could feel in the stands. It's a role he relished.
"Looking at game films, guys would say, 'I don't see how you can do that, time and again,'" Leach said. "I'd say, 'Man, that's my job, to put my hard head in there like a rhinoceros and block.'"
Teammates called Leach "The Hammer" and "Coke Machine." At 34, he's still the 6-foot, 250-pound pillar who played three years for the Ravens before retiring after the 2013 season. A resident of Lumberton, N.C., he'll fly to Santa Clara, Calif. this weekend to root for Carolina and former Raven Michael Oher, the Panthers left tackle.
It's tough, after 10 years in the pros, watching his brethren from the stands.
"I'll catch games during the season and tell myself, 'I can still do it,'" Leach said. "Truth is, Father Time catches up with us all."
But not before Leach earned a Super Bowl ring. Weeks later, as the Ravens were feted at the White House, Leach exchanged words with President Barack Obama.
"We gave him my jersey (No. 44) because he's the 44th president," Leach said. "To have [Obama] turn and thank me, in front of everyone, for allowing him to have my jersey was a highlight of my career."
Leach has an identical shirt, framed and hanging in his game room, with the words "MR. PRESIDENT" on the back.
Nowadays, Leach deals in real estate. He owns 30 rental and commercial properties around Lumberton and is working to bring economic development to the area near Rowland (pop. 5,000) where he grew up. He sponsors a free football camp for kids there each summer. He refurbished the weight room at his old high school and purchased uniforms and helmets for the football team. Leach also helped finance an addition to the Methodist church he attended as a child.
"To whom much is given, much is required," he said. "God blessed me. I came from nothing — I was the first in my family to graduate from college — and I have to reach back and help others less fortunate."
His is a storybook tale, Leach said:
"Growing up in a small town, going to the NFL undrafted [out of East Carolina], getting cut several times, then making All Pro and winning a Super Bowl — you can't write a better script. It was a roller coaster ride, but that's life. It's not how many times you're knocked down but how many times you're willing to get back up and fight."
On the field, Leach did most of the knocking, dishing out thunderous, head-ringing blows while springing Rice for much of his 2,507 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2011-12. But Leach had a whimsical side, too — like one time before Christmas when he trotted out for practice in a Santa Claus suit.
"I wore it all afternoon, which wasn't easy," Leach said. "But you do what it takes to bring a smile to your teammates. At the end of the day, this is still a game."
Nowadays, he plays basketball. Leach participates in a men's league and said that despite his football mindset, he's rarely called for a charge.
"I don't try to run over guys on the court," he said. "I'm more finesse out there."