Posted: Thursday January 11, 2007 10:49AM; Updated: Thursday January 11, 2007 10:49AM
Under Meyer, the quiet QB began to call audibles and take charge on the field.
A proud young man who owns seven of the Gators' passing records, Leak has been gracious enough to ignore the boos and to acknowledge what a boon Tebow has been for the offense. At Meyer's urging, Leak also emerged from his shell to become a better teammate and more effective leader. Shortly after he was hired, Meyer recalls, "other players would tell me they never saw Chris unless it was at practice. It's much different now." While Leak has not morphed into Tony Sinclair, the extroverted, gap-toothed Tanqueray pitchman, "He's one of the guys now," says Meyer. "I think that's really important."
Leak has not always had such mastery over his emotions. His father, Curtis, coached a youth football league in Charlotte and benched Chris several times for intemperate behavior. Once he got the hook for slamming down his helmet. Another time, recalls Chris's older brother, C.J., Chris and a friend were "making up their own defenses on the field, blitzing whenever they felt like it. He got benched for that." Chris also played quarterback. "He'd get sacked, come to the sideline, put on his gloves and go blitz," C.J. added.
A talented quarterback in his own right, C.J. signed with Wake Forest in 1999 but transferred to Tennessee after two seasons. When Casey Clausen went down with an injury in October 2002, C.J. got the start against Georgia. On national TV he was pulled after just two series. At the time Chris was a senior at Independence High, busy leading the Patriots to their third straight North Carolina state title. He'd verbally committed to the Vols, but head coach Phil Fulmer's shabby treatment of his brother -- so the Leaks saw it -- drove Chris into the arms of the Gators.
At halftime of a high school all-star game in January 2003, Leak donned an orange and blue ball cap and professed his allegiance "to Ron Zook and the University of Florida." He was young and confident and went on to write checks with his mouth that his arm never did cover, grandly predicting multiple SEC and national championships. To the delight of Zook and Gators fans, Leak also used his pulpit as one of the nation's premier recruits to invite other studfish schoolboys to join him in Gainesville. The simple truth is the Gators don't make it to Glendale, let alone upend the Buckeyes, if some of those guys don't follow Leak to Florida.
He won six of his nine starts as a freshman in '03. He went into Baton Rouge and beat the LSU Tigers at night, the Bayou Bengals' sole loss in a season that saw them win the BCS title game. The following year he led an offense that averaged 33.8 points through the first eight games of '04. That eighth game, alas, was a 38-31 loss at Mississippi State -- the Gators' eighth defeat in less than two seasons. With four games left to play, Zook was told by athletics director Jeremy Foley that his coaching career at Florida would end when the regular season was over.
Even before Meyer arrived in Gainesville he was hearing good things about Leak's work ethic. The quarterback was renowned for his long hours in the film room. But the new coach didn't want Leak spending hours in a dark room by himself. "Get some receivers around you!" he would tell Leak. "Help others while you help yourself!"