The college football season is just about here. It must be close indeed, because you can spot the gobs of hair gel on Kirk Herbstreit's noggin from 10,000 paces.
Yes, it's here, which means some will resume their annual ignoring, bashing or both -- take your pick -- of one of the best college quarterbacks in the country.
|Chris Leak is a drop-back passer who's adjusting to Florida's new scrambling system. (Getty Images)|
Brady Quinn, the Notre Dame robo-quarterback, has his feet massaged and lobes caressed by the national media. Good quarterback, sexy, studly -- no question. Quinn is second among career active quarterbacks with 8,336 total career passing yards. Do you know who's third? Leak with 8,271. I stink at math, but I believe Leak is right behind the quarterback everyone says will one day run the galaxy.
Leak is the Southeastern Conference's active career leader in wins (22-11), touchdown passes (65), passing yards and completions (663). He is in the top five in every significant career school passing category. By the time this season is over, he will lead in several of them. Yep, he sucks all right.
All this guy does is win games, get his face bashed in and get back up from the turf, and he's talked about by some Gators fans and members of the media like his name is Ryan Leaf. To some, he is Ryan Leak.
Leak is treated with disdain instead of a deserved delight, cursed and not coddled, taunted by some -- not all, but enough -- testy Gator-head fans who pummel and pulverize Leak anonymously on websites, gutless and invisible, spewing ugliness as if they were paid by the slur. Sometimes I think there are fans who equate bashing players in chat rooms with getting cyber-booty.
Leak's season, Leak's story, will be one of the biggest in college football this year and an interesting case study. With popular high school All-American and top national recruit Tim Tebow lurking behind him, and a legion of Tebow supporters in tow, Leak will test the theory, widely accepted now, that black quarterbacks have made it in football and race is no longer a factor at the position. That they no longer face double standards and higher expectations.
Leak plays in the South, in the SEC, and believe me, despite the influx of black quarterbacks in the conference, race is still a factor in both. Only naïve dupes or bamboozled fools don't know this. Part of the evidence of how race, at least partially, is relevant when it comes to Leak is how some Gators fans -- not all, just some -- treat Leak. He has an opportunity to break several significant school records by Danny Wuerffel, who is white, and there are Gators fans who hate the idea of a black thrower shattering the marks of a white Wuerffel.
|Make no mistake: There are plenty of Florida fans who are glad Chris Leak didn't follow his brother to Tennessee. (Getty Images)|
Yet Curtis knows reality as well. While the school's administration might be colorblind, not all of the school's fans are.
"There are fans who don't want Chris to break Danny's records because Chris is black," Curtis explained. "I can't say it is every Gator fan. It's not. But it's enough. I hear about that from white friends and white fans that support Chris. It's unfortunate it has to be that way, but that's the way it is."
"There are a lot of white fans who are behind Chris," Curtis explained. "Those white fans tell me there are other white fans who do not like Chris because he's black. Some of these fans call into the talk shows and post horrible things on the websites. Some of those people are dirt."
I know some of these fans. As a former columnist in Florida, working in rabid Gators country, I would hear from several dozen of them if I wrote a column they didn't like. They would call and occasionally e-mail some lovely, racially singed words as well as pitiful attempts at death threats. These Gators fans were so horribly bigoted and foul-mouthed, they reminded me of characters from the HBO show Deadwood, who pack both obscene language and the N-word along with their guns.
"Go back to Africa you n----- ass----," one charm-school attendee said to me.
There was more where that came from. Some of these fans are loony from stem to stern.
It was in fact a phone call placed into a radio show I previously co-hosted with the redoubtable Pete Prisco in Jacksonville that prompted me to call Curtis Leak. A woman phoned into the show and implied she had heard Gators fans at home football games yelling racial slurs at Chris from the stands. The call was so emotional and powerful, it stuck with me for months.
About a half dozen other black Gator fans over a period of several years have also told of me their recollections of white fans hurling racial comments at Leak during home games.
"The bottom line is there are a lot of people supporting Chris and backing him. I can tell you that Chris really respects Urban Meyer and he believes Urban when Urban says Chris is his quarterback," Curtis said. "The school president is behind Chris 100 percent. We're sure of that. I think the Gator Nation as a whole is behind Chris, but there are some fans who are not. They will never support him because of his skin color.
"I also can't help but think it is difficult for Chris to be a black quarterback in the SEC. You have to be blind to see that is still tough for blacks in general in that conference. The fact you have had only one black head coach in the history of the SEC, which has been around for 100 years, says a lot."
Again, Curtis is explicit in his insistence that Gators fans who have a problem with Leak's race are in the minority, and he's correct. But it's a vocal minority, a significant minority, an ugly minority leading a cavalry charge of hate.
Curtis has thought about this issue before. When Chris was one of the top high school recruits in the country at Independence High School in North Carolina, the family met with then Florida coach Ron Zook. Curtis had a pertinent question. "What about the black quarterback issue at Florida?" he asked.
Zook was likely not shocked by the query. There was a perception among some black high school coaches throughout the country that black throwers were not being recruited by the school or given chances at long careers there.
There were teachers and coaches at Chris' high school so concerned about Florida's lack of blacks at the position they didn't want Leak to attend the school, Curtis remembered.
But Zook was convincing. "It won't be a problem," Zook told the family.
He was right. It hasn't been a problem, for the most part. For the most part.
A true test will come this season as Chris attempts to better fit into an offense not particularly suited to his strengths. Leak is a prototypical drop-back, NFL-style thrower in an offense that requires the quarterback to rush and throw on the run.
This is why I like Chris Leak so much. It's more than the fact his name will likely never end up on the wrong side of a police blotter, or that he comes from a splendid family that raised him well, or how college coaches say he studies the game as intensely as Peyton Manning did when he was in college. The biggest reason I like Leak is because he played most of last season with a stinging, extremely painful shoulder injury, and rarely said a peep about it publicly.
Before one game in particular, he took at least one pain-killing injection, but it did little to ease the discomfort. When Curtis asked him about it, Chris responded, "Dad, I'm not taking those anymore. They don't do any good."
So Chris played on, the throbbing in his shoulder rising as the patience of some Gators fans waned. The shoulder was so problematic that he was not able to truly throw again, Curtis explained, until this past spring in the annual scrimmage, months after the end of the season.
That kind of toughness is something that anyone should appreciate, no matter their skin color.