It's a leap year and people have been discussing the best leaps of all time, so I figured I might answer one of questions I am asked the most: What was I thinking in 1998 when I jumped over the line of scrimmage to make a tackle?
Let me set the stage. Penn State was playing the Fighting Illini of Illinois that day. It was the third quarter, we were in the lead and Illinois was mounting its best drive of the game. It was a very critical drive if they were to have any hopes of trying to come back.
It was fourth down and inches and Illinois had its best field position of the game. This is a Big Ten matchup — they weren't going to kick the ball, they were going to knuckle up and try and make a point by punching us in the mouth to get a first down.
Now that you have the background information, here's what I was saying to myself before the play:
"Okay, Var, it's fourth down and inches. The ball is on the hashmarks to our sideline, they haven't been able to throw the ball all game. Their best bet is to QB sneak it! Dang, Var, you been killing these dudes all game! Okay, refocus, this is a big play. We can ice the game if we stop them. Here they come. Alright the linemen ran up to the line pumped up, they are going to fire off that ball. Okay, okay, it's definitely a QB keeper! They are going to try for the opposite A gap, it's the only space to run, that means they are going to try and chop block me. They won't long count, we may adjust, it's first sound, Var, do it! You know what's going to happen, go!"
I crept up toward the line to show I was blitzing so that the lineman confirmed he needed to chop me down. As the ball was snapped, I had taken enough power steps to launch myself into the opposite A gap.
I was right about all but one thing: I figured the safest move for Illinois was to keep the ball in the quarterback's hands, but they didn't. They handed the ball off to their big, bruising fullback, Elmer Hickman. Thank goodness I chose the gap and not the player. I hit that A gap and collided with Hickman to make the stop on the play.
The end result was that we stopped them and I became forever known as the man who executed the “LaVar Leap.” Many thought it was just pure athleticism, but really there was a lot of thought that went into taking a chance like that on a very important down.
We were always challenged to know enough about our opponents to be able to adjust accordingly to what they were giving us. That's what I did — it just happened to be in a way that no one had seen before.
That’s my Leap story for the leap year.
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