Ryan Leak’s impact on the football field last season at Davidson was immediate. As a freshman defensive back, Leak quickly earned a spot in the starting lineup. He had an interception and in one game against Drake made nine tackles.
But it’s what Leak is doing off the field – as well as the obstacles he has overcome just to be at Davidson – that might really set Leak apart.
“Never in my career have I been involved with somebody who comes from his kind of situation and has achieved so much so fast,” said second-year Davidson coach Paul Nichols, a former Wildcats quarterback who has 14 years of experience at Ohio State, Illinois, Marshall and Toledo.
Leak grew up in poverty in Laurinburg, a town about 90 miles east of Charlotte. With his parents mostly out of the picture (his father left the family and his mother spent time in jail), Leak and his sisters were raised by a grandmother who died when Leak was 12 and by their uncle Donald McKenzie.
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“He was always there for me and my sister,” Leak said. “We were really lucky to have him and others around for us.”
Leak said a support system that included coaches and church allowed him to stay grounded as he grew up. He flourished academically and athletically at Scotland County High, where he helped the Scots to the 2012 N.C. 4A championship in football and was also an all-conference performer in basketball and track.
He also had a 4.0-plus grade-point average, was a member of the National Honor Society and Beta Club, voted “most likely to succeed” in his class, earned the Community Service Award from the Laurinburg/Scotland County Area Chamber of Commerce, was the N.C. winner in “emerging business ideas” for Future Business Leaders of America and served in multiple community organizations.
That’s the kind of student a place like Davidson, a highly selective college but one that doesn’t offer football scholarships, covets.
There was a problem, however.
“Where I’m from, nobody’s heard of Davidson,” Leak said. “Everybody wants to go to UNC or N.C. State or N.C. A&T.”
But Nichols had heard of Leak and paid a recruiting visit to Leak’s sparsely furnished, two-room home in Laurinburg. Leak was studying when Nichols arrived, using the family’s washer and drier in the kitchen as a desk. Nichols asked Leak if he had eaten dinner. He had, Leak replied, adding that he used the washer as a table.
Nichols convinced Leak to come to Davidson, offering him a full, need-based scholarship. Leak accepted, turning down football scholarship from schools such as The Citadel and N.C. A&T, Catawba and UNC Pembroke.
“It was a tough choice, but the brand name Davidson carries made the difference for me,” Leak said. “This will pay off in the long run.”
Nichols said it’s important that Davidson’s nonscholarship football team be as diverse as possible. That’s a challenge for a program that relies largely on players whose families are able to afford the school’s $43,000 yearly tuition.
“I want a kid to come to Davidson and have a real life experience,” Nichols said. “I don’t want him to be in a bubble. There are all kinds of people – black, white, green, yellow, rich, poor, fat, skinny – in this world. We want to get guys from different backgrounds. That’s how you have a true team.”
Leak, who had a 3.5 GPA during the spring semester and made the Pioneer Football League’s academic honor roll in 2013, spent most of the summer at Davidson. He worked out with teammates but also served as a mentor at Davidson’s “July Experience,” a pre-college academic program for high school students.
“I’ve always enjoyed mentoring,” said Leak, who is majoring in economics with a minor in communications. “There were so many people who mentored me when I was young; it’s a way I can do the same.”
Said Nichols: “Hopefully in two years he’ll be the face of the (football) program. In 10 years, he could be a success story of this whole college. He’ll be a CEO somewhere, and we’ll be able to say he came from right here.
“He’s changed his life, and he’s going to change others’ too, on this campus and after that.”
One thing that was lacking for Leak, Nichols and the Wildcats in 2013 was a victory. Davidson, which opens against Charlotte’s College of Faith on Aug. 30 at Richardson Stadium, was 0-11 last season and hasn’t won a game since November 2012, when Leak was a senior at Scotland High.
“My main focus is on winning,” Leak said. “Not just in games, but every practice, every play, every rep, in the classroom and in the community. I want to win everywhere.”
But a Davidson victory on the football field would be especially sweet, right?
“Oh, man, I can’t wait for that,” said Leak, smiling and contemplating what would be another rewarding piece of his experience at Davidson. “That’s going to be awesome.”