RON ZOOK WAS OUT,
URBAN MEYER WAS IN, AND CHRIS LEAK WAS CONFLICTED. HE'D put in a pair of pretty
fine seasons under Zook, the man who'd wooed him out of Independence High in
Charlotte. As Leak recalls, "My relationship with Coach Zook went way
beyond football." Which is why he tended to keep his own counsel in the
early weeks and months of the Meyer regime, despite the new guy's attempts to
draw him out. While he is capable of running for first downs, Leak sees himself
as more of a traditional, drop-back quarterback. That made him nervous about
the arrival of Meyer. From what Leak was hearing around Gainesville, he seemed
the wrong guy to run the spread option offense Meyer brought with him from Utah
after the '04 season. To allay his quarterback's anxieties about working with a
strange new staff, Meyer invited Leak to his house shortly after he was hired.
They would have some refreshments and watch some game tape. They would
That, at least,
was the idea. As it turned out, coach and player stared straight ahead while
enduring excruciatingly long silences.
"When I say
he didn't say a word," Meyer recalls of those sessions, "I mean he
didn't say a word."
Part of that
could be chalked up to the natural reticence of Leak, whose default mode is a
meditative silence easily mistaken, by those who don't know him, for catatonia.
And part of it was what Meyer calls a lack of trust. "He didn't know who we
were," says the coach. "All he knew was that he was playing for his
third offensive coordinator in three years and that everybody was saying he
wouldn't fit in with the system."
Of course Leak
was leery of the new guy, just as he was ill-suited for the spread option.
Florida won its first national title in a decade because Leak and Meyer bridged
the gulf that separated them in those first, awkward meetings.
To paraphrase a
recently sacked Secretary of Defense, you play the games with the quarterback
you have, not the quarterback you might wish you had. Meyer was smart enough to
mold his system to better suit the strengths of Leak. What might those be?
"I'm not a running back," he proclaimed last year, in an oration that,
coming from Leak, qualified as an extensive soliloquy. "Managing the
offense ...putting my team in position to score ... throwing the ball
downfield. That's what I do best."
Seldom has so
little acclaim attended such big numbers. A four-year starter with 88 touchdown
passes (and 13 TD rushes), Leak holds Gators records for passing yardage
(11,213) and completions (895). In this, his final season in Gainesville, he
connected on 232 of 365 passes for 23 touch-downs and 13 picks. He also endured
the indignity of hearing his own fans boo in September when Meyer reinserted
him into the Kentucky game, in place of freshman Tim Tebow. The darling of
Florida fans, Tebow was used by the coach—often to great effect—as a kind of
single-wing-style direct snap tailback.
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.
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.