A Promise Kept: Chris Leak Delivers

GLENDALE, AZ — Consider it a promise kept. Chris Leak vowed to lead the Florida Gators to a national championship four years ago and on the biggest stage of his career, in his final game as a Gator, the kid from Charlotte delivered the goods, leading Florida to a 41-14 victory over previously unbeaten Ohio State in the Tostitos National Championship Game.

There can be no more second guessing Chris Leak, whose legacy is now secure at the University of Florida. Only a month ago, he got the first championship of his college career when the Gators won the Southeastern Conference title in Atlanta, which would have been a decent consolation prize if the Gators had stumbled on the big stage Monday night. Winning the SEC title is a great accomplishment. Winning the national title, which Chris Leak did Monday night, is the ultimate accomplishment.

There was no stumbling on this night, neither by Chris Leak or the Florida Gators. The Gators were the champs but this was indeed Chris Leak’s night. Not only did he walk away with the national championship but he played a Heisman Trophy kind of game. That’s important because the winner of the Heisman Trophy, Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith, didn’t even come close to a Heisman-like performance. Leak was solid gold. Smith was the concoction of some alchemist back in Columbus.

Chris Leak — the quarterback that the national media openly questioned all week, asking if he had what it takes to perform like a champion when it counts the most — went 25-36 for 213 yards and a touchdown. Troy Smith, the quarterback that the national media said would tear Florida a new one, had all of six yards of total offense. He completed four of 14 passes, good for a whopping 35 yards and he ran for MINUS 29 because he was sacked five times for 51 yards of losses. When the Gators needed plays, Chris Leak delivered. When Ohio State needed plays, Troy Smith either threw an incompletion or took a sack.

What made Chris Leak the dominant quarterback on this night was a matter of composure and decision making. He was Cool Hand Leak, steady as a rock, unflappable and never afraid of the Big Bad Buckeyes. He made all the right calls. He got the Gators in and out of the right plays. He was content to chip away at the Ohio State defense until he had openings and once he had a shot, he took it successfully.

When there were no plays to be made, he threw the ball away rather than risk an interception with a pass into coverage. He picked and chose his receivers well and never came close to an interception. He even made plays with his feet. It was the kind of performance that you expect of a star quarterback. It was the kind of performance that Gator fans expected when Leak signed with Florida out of Independence High School in Charlotte where he won four straight state championships.

He lost more games in his first month at Florida than he lost his entire high school career, 10 in his first two years and another three last year. He not only changed offensive coordinators twice those first two years, but the coach that recruited him, Ron Zook, got canned. Zook was a good man that tried very hard, but trying hard doesn’t cut it at Florida where losing 15 games in three years is unacceptable.

That’s when Urban Meyer entered this equation with his spread option offense and all its funkiness. Here we have Chris Leak, pure drop back passer, possessor of the prettiest spiral you’ve ever seen and Urban Meyer, who likes quarterbacks that are as comfy running the option and and let’s face it: how many of us thought this was going to work? Show of hands here, please … anyone? Anyone? Beuller?

I thought so.

Yeah, it took awhile for the guy we thought was the square peg to fit nicely in the round hole, but in fairness to Leak, he wasn’t the only one that had to adjust. As Urban Meyer will tell you, the Meyer offense is personnel driven and that means fitting the offense to the skills of the personnel. Now that we’ve seen the spread option and all it’s funkiness — did you see how the Gators kept Ohio State playing defense like it took lessons by mail order and the mail was late? — maybe it’s safe to say that mastering this offense isn’t a one-year gig. Maybe we ought to look at last year’s 9-3 record and consider it a serious accomplishment.

And maybe we ought to give Meyer, offensive coordinator Dan Mullen and Leak props for having the patience to stick it out together. Maybe it hasn’t always been a smooth ride, but smooth rides don’t always guarantee national championships. Those bumps in the road along the way? Think of them as character builders. Think of them as preparation for Chris Leak to do what he did Monday night on the big stage.

As he watched his brother named the game’s Most Valuable Player, another Leak beamed. C.J. Leak got the attention of baby brother Chris. They said a thousand words and yet neither one of them spoke. The smiles, the fingers that pointed back at each other said everything that needed to be said.

“He’s my baby brother but he’s the best quarterback in the country,” said C.J. Leak, the older brother who was supposed to have shining moments like this before a blown out knee and a bad decision to go to Tennessee derailed his career. “He was the best quarterback in the country coming out of high school and he proved tonight that he’s the best. You saw what happened tonight. You tell me who looked like the Heisman Trophy quarterback.”

As for Chris, you knew his heart was pounding so hard with pride that it was about to explode out of his chest and stick to a wall somewhere. He said all the things you figured he would say in the press conference — praised his teammates, praised his coaches, talked about how great an honor it was to play against a great team like Ohio State. If you’ve heard Chris Leak speak at one press conference, you’ve heard him speak at all of them over the last four years.

Okay, so maybe he’s the worst quote in the world. Maybe he takes too much time to make sure he gives the totally PC answer instead of just firing from the hip every now and then.

On the night of his last game as a Florida quarterback, his last time in the orange and blue uniform of the Gators, there was no funky comment to remember him by, no shot at all the folks that doubted him, nothing controversial in the least.

To the folks that doubted he simply said, “They are entitled to their own opinions.”

Urban Meyer put in the proper perspective. Meyer knows that all the big numbers in the world and all the trophies on your mantle can never equal the championship ring you wear on your finger. Championships are the ultimate indicator of greatness at the position.

“He’s officially one of the top two quarterbacks to play at the University of Florida,” said Meyer. “There have only been two quarterbacks in 100 years of football [at Florida] to win a national championship and Chris Leak is one of them.”

Considering Leak promised a national championship four years ago and he delivered on his final night as a Florida Gator, we can say we got exactly what we expected out of Chris Leak. If you doubted him before, then doubt no more.

He’s been vindicated, once and for always.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.