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A Senior's Moment
Austin Murphy
January 17, 2007
At the end of a career clouded by coaching turmoil, Chris Leak finally enjoys his day in the sun
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January 17, 2007

A Senior's Moment

At the end of a career clouded by coaching turmoil, Chris Leak finally enjoys his day in the sun

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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 bond.

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.

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.

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