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Thursday, August 29, 2002
Updated: August 30, 9:55 AM ET
Focused Leak eyes football future

By Wayne Drehs
ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Like most things with Chris Leak, the autograph session was a first.

Never before had an area bookstore advertised a magazine signing with a local high school football player. And never before had Leak, considered by many the nation's top high school QB, had to sit face to face to face with so many eccentric strangers.

Chris Leak threw for 4,541 yards in 2001.
There was the middle-aged truck driver from nearby Gastonia, gut bulging through his thin white T-shirt, stringy hair all in a mess, who was poking and prodding about Leak's college decision. "I hear you're going to North Carolina? Huh? Huh? Is it true? That's what I hear."

There was the nerdy insurance salesman, dressed in a tight yellow Nike T-shirt and dark blue jeans, who was cautious with his well wishing. "You might go on to play in the NFL someday, but I'm just going to wish you good luck in high school. One step at a time, right?"

And then there was the chatty high school substitute, who had taught Leak before in a class and not only wanted an autograph, but stuck around to chat about everything from why he should go to Ohio State to how many decibels the school cannon makes each time the Patriots score. "I'm telling you -- you don't realize how loud that thing is until you stand next to it."

One by one they came, some eager to put a face with the popular name, others anxious to slap a Leak autograph onto eBay.

Whatever the case, Leak was unfazed. Unflappable. Everyone was greeted with a smile. A handshake. And a cordial response to their often ridiculous questions. "Yes, sir." "No, mam," Leak would say. Not once did he roll his eyes. Make a wisecrack. Or offer a callous smirk.

"It's an honor just to do this, just to be asked to come here and meet some of these people," Leak said. "So you have to just appreciate it and soak it in."

It was an extraordinary show of maturity for an extraordinary football player. If any 17-year-old in the country had the right to a monstrous ego, had the right to think he was better than anyone else -- especially those who approach him with no idea what they're talking about -- it's Leak.

Lemming on Leak
At this stage, I have Chris Leak ranked as the No. 1 prospect in the country. He's got decent size and speed, tremendous awareness, a super release, great confidence and an uncanny knack for finding the open receiver. More ...
He's the quarterback at Charlotte Independence High School, the two-time defending North Carolina state champions, a guy whose teams have lost only one game over the past two seasons. He was the Student Sports Sophomore of the Year in 2000, Junior of the Year in 2001 and recruiting expert Tom Lemming's No. 1 college football recruit heading into this season.

Barring injury, he's on pace to set the national record for passing yardage (14,457) and touchdowns (170) in a career.

Yet he's as quiet, humble and soft-spoken as a shy, pimple-faced freshman lost on the first day of high school.

"That's the way he is," said Tom Knotts, Leak's high school coach who joined his star quarterback at last week's autograph session. "What you see is what you get. You know the saying 'Be like Mike?' We tell our kids to 'Be Like Chris.' He stays out of trouble, is intelligent, polite and he works his butt off. You can't ask for anything more."

Spend a weekend with Leak and you wonder where the switch is, how they hide all the wiring. He seems that robotic. He's been programmed to throw a flawless spiral, pick apart defenses with his cannon-like arm and help old ladies across the street.

His dad, Curtis, who played briefly in the NFL as a receiver for the Green Bay Packers, has been teaching Chris the sport since he was 5. Growing up, he was glued to the hip of older brother, C.J., now a backup quarterback at Tennessee. Along the way, he soaked up all the football knowledge that he could.

His life today is a simple one: football, high school and video games. In that order. No girlfriend. No parties. No trouble-making. He's had his driver's license for nearly two years now, yet he's only asked to use the family car three times.

Workouts have been a part of Leak's life since he was five.
"Some kids my age, they go to the mall all day or whatever and just hang out," Leak said. "And that's fine -- I just have my eyes set on bigger and better things."

It's of little question what those things are. Three letters. Starts with N, ends with L and has an F in the middle. Everything Leak does is geared toward that ultimate goal.

In a way, he's a teenage football savant. His mechanics are flawless. His decision-making, near perfect. At the prestigious Elite 11 football camp this past summer, college quarterbacks were asking Leak for pointers.

Curtis was in the stands two years ago when it first hit him. Chris was rolling to his right, being chased by the state's sack leader when he threw a bullet to his left, splitting the cornerback and safety for a touchdown.

"The place went crazy and my jaw just dropped," Curtis said. "I couldn't believe it."

Knotts was formally sold last year, during a play that happened right in front of the Independence bench. Leak was scrambling when he stopped just short of the sidelines and fired the fastest 30-yard dart Knotts said he had ever seen.

"I actually had to do a double-take because I thought he still had the ball in his hands," he said. "It was so fast, when we went back and watched the game film, you could barely see it."

A life of football
From as early as Leak can remember, all he wanted to do was play football and all his dad wanted to do was teach him football. Curtis remembered the awkward feeling at his first mini-camp with the Packers when a coach asked him to run a comeback and he didn't know what it was. He vowed that his kids would never get caught in such a situation.

So once his boys turned age 5, he would take them to the park and put them through mini workouts. Not necessarily Marv Marinovich-type boot camps, but tasks challenging enough that the kids learned hard work, discipline and a little bit about football each day.

"I just made sure they were exposed to the sport, that they learned the fundamentals so if it was something they decided they wanted to play, they'd have the tools to do so," Curtis said.

"We didn't understand," Chris said. "We were just out there goofing around, having fun and doing what he told us. But little did we realize, we were learning things, too."

As the boys got older, Curtis would tape some of the workouts and show his sons what they were doing right and wrong. When C.J. started attending football camps, Chris would tag along. And by the time Chris was old enough to participate, he was one of the most polished 8-year-olds out there.

The two brothers spent as much time together as possible, pushing each other, learning from each other. At C.J.'s high school games, Chris was the water boy. While C.J. turned heads during the game; Chris would do it at halftime.

"He'd go out there with somebody, grab a ball from about 30 or 40 yards away and just starting zinging spirals back and forth," Curtis said. "Here's this little guy, throwing this tight spiral and people were just awed by it. He was the halftime entertainment."

He was a prodigy. By the time C.J. was a senior, he and Chris Simms were considered the top two quarterbacks in the nation, but coaches were eying little brother Chris, too.

C.J. signed with Wake Forest and soon Chris had announced he was offered a scholarship to play with the Demon Deacons and orally committed to play there. Then but a 14-year-old, Chris had yet to play a down of high school football.

National columnists teed off on what was believed to be one of the youngest football players to ever commit to play college football. Since then, C.J. has transferred to Tennessee and Chris has backed out of his commitment. And though he says the stinging criticism didn't bug him, his dad says Chris has used it as motivation.

Leak's already a hit with fans in North Carolina.
"I remember telling him, 'Hey, these writers don't know you from a hill of beans. They don't realize you've gone to all these camps, put in all this work and can play.' Once that started sinking in, he used it as fuel. We kept all the clippings, put them in his scrapbook and he used it to prove that he's not a fluke, that he deserved that scholarship."

Few would argue such sentiments now. Leak is not only the No. 1 quarterback, but the No. 1 player on most coaches' boards.

And his dad is just as involved as ever. He and Chris regularly watch game film, from Chris' own high school games to previous Super Bowls and SEC Championships, analyzing the quarterbacks. Curtis has Chris on a scripted weightlifting workout that is followed three days a week. And in the spring, Dad works with Independence's top receivers, to help them get on the same page with Chris before two-a-days start.

This year, 47 kids showed up for practice, including a handful from other schools. The comparisons to Marinovich, Archie Manning or Jack Elway, fathers who played integral roles in the development of their quarterbacking sons, are impossible to ignore.

"Some people question him, but he is the reason I am where I am," Chris said. "He gets all the credit. He taught me and my brother about life, about football. Now he's dealing with the recruiting. He is absolutely the biggest reason for my success."

The decision
Entering his senior year, Leak can pretty much pick where he wants to go college. Tennessee, where C.J. is the backup quarterback, is the early favorite. Already, Chris said he has sat in on team quarterback meetings, learning the nuances of the Vols' playbook from offensive coordinator Randy Sanders, starting quarterback Casey Clausen and, of course, his big brother.

Some have suggested that Tennessee was a forgone conclusion for Chris when C.J. transferred there almost two years ago. To some extent, they might be right. Chris has never played with his older brother, something no other school can offer.

"He's my idol," Chris said. "I always want to be like my big brother. And playing along side him, learning everything from him, I've always dreamed about a situation like that."

But becoming a Vol is hardly a done deal. Leak plans on taking all five of the allowable official campus visits and though he tells every school that Tennessee is his No. 1 choice, he has also expressed interest in Florida, Florida State, Ohio State, Notre Dame and South Carolina, among others.

"You never know what can happen," Curtis said. "So we're keeping all our options open."

The situation was similar three years ago, when everyone thought C.J. was destined for Notre Dame. At the last minute, C.J. changed his mind and chose Wake Forest.

Now it's Chris' turn. And everyone is waiting. Just last Saturday, he had to dodge not only the autograph seekers at the bookstore, but a 10-year-old in his barber shop and another curious kid at Sports Authority.

They all wanted to shake his hand. They all wanted to know where he was going. Leak barely even flinched.

"All this pressure is like water off a duck's back," Knotts said. "The look in his eyes in the fourth quarter of the state championship and the look he has on the street are exactly the same. Nothing fazes him."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.