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Mild-mannered Leak gave Gators some bite

12/19/2003

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The clock read a few minutes after 7 on that midseason Monday morning and Ron Zook knew just where he could find freshman Chris Leak -- in the weight room.

For four games, Zook had yo-yoed between Leak and sophomore Ingle Martin at quarterback, but with the team 2-2 and the alumni growing restless, it was time to make a change. So Zook headed downstairs, pulled Leak away from the bench press and delivered the news.

"By the way, Chris," Zook said. "You're our starter this Saturday."

Leak stopped what he was doing, looked up and said one word.

"OK."

Then he went back to lifting. No jumping, no arm pumping, no thank you. Nothing. Just OK.

"Not that I expected a thank you," Zook said. "But I thought to myself, 'I don't know if he's scared, if he's happy, if he even cares. But I learned that's one of his personality traits that make him who he is."

For a little over five months now, Leak, the 2002 USA Today High School Player of the Year and the subject for ESPN.com's "Blue Chip Diaries" series last season, has been thrown head first into the SEC football fire. All but anointed as "The Chosen One" when he signed with the Gators last February, he's weathered overblown expectations, a blinding media spotlight and every defensive scheme known to man to become one of the most promising young quarterbacks in the country.

He's also one of the most atypical.

On top of his dresser sits an 8x10 photograph of himself throwing a touchdown pass, to remind him each morning about the importance of proper technique. When he plays sports video games, he freezes the replays to analyze each quarterback's fundamentals. When his teammates tossed a random girl into his room in the summer, he threw her out. And though he's spent nearly a semester on campus, he has yet to step foot in a club, party or bar.

"They've even stopped asking me to go," Leak said. "They've learned."

Such maturity helped Zook when deciding when to hand his offense to a true freshman. Earlier in the summer, when asked about such a move, Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden told reporters, "I hope you run the option or something. Because if you've got to bet on him to drop back and read coverages and make real intelligent decisions, I don't think the kid is out there (who can do that). I don't think God has made them that way yet, you know?"

Though he had his ups and downs, Leak proved to be the exception. He became just the fourth true freshman to start in Florida history this season. He's the only freshman quarterback -- anywhere -- to defeat three ranked opponents in a row. And should he pass for 60 yards against Iowa in the Outback Bowl, he will break the Florida freshman record set by Danny Wuerffel.

"In this league, for a guy who eight months ago was riding yellow buses to come in and do some of the things he's done," Zook said, "it's remarkable."

Since Leak became the starter in Week 5 against Kentucky, the Gators won six of eight, finished in a three-way tie for the SEC East title and earned a New Year's Day bowl bid. Against the Wildcats, Leak engineered an 18-point fourth quarter comeback, the largest come-from-behind road victory in Gator history.

"That was the day he asserted himself," center Mike Degory said. "We're down by like 21, the season is on the line, everybody is wondering what this kid is going to be able to do, but he just put us on his shoulders and led us back like it was nothing. That's when we knew."

They could have seen it coming.

On four different weekends last spring, Leak paid his own way to Gainesville so he could watch practice and get to know the guys. He missed his Senior Prom for such a trip. And the first day NCAA rules allowed, he moved to Gainesville and voluntarily started working out with his new teammates.

One summer afternoon, he and roommates Skyler Thornton and Andre Caldwell re-arranged their dorm furniture so they could run plays.

"We moved the chairs, the desk, everything except the beds," said Thornton, a sophomore running back. "We just took things right out of the playbook and worked on our footwork, our timing and our exchanges."


Everything is done with the poise of someone in their 30s. After the Kentucky game, when assistant sports information director Zack Higbee informed Leak what he had just accomplished and that he'd need to talk to the media, Leak replied, "Yeah, I guess that's pretty good."

In the beginning, his teammates didn't buy it. Choosing computer games over coeds? Film sessions over frat parties? Something wasn't right. So they set out to crack Mr. Perfect. One random night in the summer, Caldwell and Thornton invited a girl into Leak's room -- just to see what might happen.

"I was watching film or something," Leak said. "And they popped somebody in. I was like, 'Hey! I gotta watch this film. I don't have time for this.' I didn't even know who it was."

As quickly as she waltzed in, the unassuming girl was kicked out. Right then and there, the roommates -- and everyone else on the team, once the story spread -- knew there was no changing Leak. The humble, soft-spoken, ultra-focused kid they saw on the field was the same way off it.

Even the media attention he handles with ease. So much so that some local reporters have suggested the university is feeding the freshman answers.

So how do you explain such a driven, determined personality? Leak's father, Curtis, said it's the way his son has always been. It certainly didn't hurt that Chris' older brother, C.J., is a backup to Casey Clausen at Tennessee. As for Chris' reasoning, he sounds more like a 15-year NFL veteran than a freshman in college.

"When you play the game so long, you picture yourself doing things," Leak said. "You know that saying, 'Act like you've been there before?' That's just the way I am. I'm just here to be myself, work hard and help the team win. You can only be who you are."

That mild-mannered, laid-back approach that has helped Leak fit in with his older teammates. Martin, the sophomore who split time with Leak at the beginning of the season, was one of the most popular Gators. The decision to sit Martin for a baby-faced freshman was a move that could have divided the team.

But it didn't.

"With Chris, you saw how much he worked, you sensed how bad he wanted to win and guys couldn't help but be drawn to that," said Ran Carthon, a senior running back.

At this point, Leak can regurgitate the playbook as well as anyone. His coaches grade him as an experienced upperclassmen. Still, it's rare that they forget he's just 18.

"Ummm, no," Zaunbrecher said, laughing. "There are enough reminders, trust me. There are plenty of moments of interest."

Such as the end of the Miami game, in which Leak threw an interception at the 14-yard line with 10 seconds left to cost his team the game. Or the Ole Miss game, in which Leak threw interceptions on three of the Gators last four possessions, in a 20-17 loss.

And then there was the season-ending loss to Florida State, in which the Gators had 4th and 7 from the 50 with one second left and Leak decided to run. He scrambled 32 yards, coming 18 short of a miracle victory.

It's all part of gaining experience, the last and largest piece of the college quarterback puzzle.

"Every now and then, he doesn't see it," Zaunbrecher said. "He needs to know things and recognize them quicker. But that's just takes time. It will come."

So just how good can Leak be? He's light years ahead of the curve, but few in the Swamp want to add to the monumental expectations that already exist.

"I'm not much for comparisons," Zook said. "But I'll say this -- if he continues to work, continues to improve -- the guy can be as good as anybody."

No matter what he achieves on the field, though, those "characters" Leak shares his dorm room with off the field won't quit.

"It's hard work, but before I leave here, I'm gonna get him a woman," Caldwell said. "He's a male. I'm going to crack him. We've just got to find the right one. Maybe some sweetie from Charlotte or something. Somebody who's more his type."

Good luck. When told of Caldwell's long-term plans, Leak could only laugh.

"We'll see about that," he said. "We'll see."

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