Road to the NFL Began On Streets of Southeast
Sunday, October 1, 2006
There was a game they used to play at the intersection of East Capitol Street and 56th Place SE. A game that ran between cars, through the streets and over storm drains. It was a primitive kind of football, one without expensive helmets and pads or even a field. For there was no grass at East Capitol Street and 56th Place SE, no goal posts, no scoreboard, nothing but the ball in your hands and a wall of kids thundering toward you from across the pavement.
"We called it 'Contact,' " Byron Leftwich said.
As sport it was a pointless enterprise. The primary rule of Contact was that you could not tackle, which made no sense because every other form of stopping a ballcarrier was perfectly legal, including, but not limited to, shoving, pushing and banging him into the cars on the side of the road. It probably served as a test of wills, a hardening of the boys who played through the long afternoons.
To Leftwich, this is where the world burst open, where the possibilities stretched from the asphalt strip in front of the red-brick government-subsidized home he shared with his mother, Brenda, and his brother, Kevin, to the football fields he saw every Sunday on television. Suddenly, he was Darrell Green holding together his broken ribs with one hand as he barreled up the line of parked sedans. Or maybe he was Doug Williams lobbing touchdowns in the Super Bowl. Or Joe Theismann scanning the field before him.
"It didn't matter. Whoever had a big day, that's who I was," he said one recent day in an empty locker room at Alltel Stadium, where he now plays quarterback for the Jacksonville Jaguars. "I was a die-hard Redskins fan. I wasn't playing with toys. I wanted to watch the Redskins."
Today, Leftwich comes home to play at FedEx Field for the first time as the Jaguars play his beloved Redskins. He's living a dream that those lost afternoons of Contact only dared him to hope was possible.
He laughs at the thought, and it is a big, deep, rolling laugh, punctuated with dancing eyes and a smile that can't be faked -- it is a laugh that reminds Bob Headen, his old coach at H.D. Woodson High, of a young Magic Johnson. A happy laugh that fills the silent locker room with joy. Because 700-plus miles from East Capitol Street and 56th Place SE, he still is playing football, and someone is paying him millions of dollars to do it.
And really, in our jaded, cynical sports world, who shouldn't be happy with that?
"People don't understand," he said. "If you understand where I came from, you can enjoy this. I'm having fun now and nobody can steal my joy now. And that's the way I look at it because you got to be very fortunate to have this opportunity. Everybody would trade places with me in a heartbeat. And once you know that, you can enjoy that. The things you worry about you shouldn't worry about."
Struggle for Acceptance
He could have been a sullen athlete, with walls built like fortresses. No one would blame him. Because despite all his enthusiasm, Leftwich is not beloved in Jacksonville the way you would expect a 26-year-old quarterback -- one who appreciates all the great things that have happened to him -- would be adored. There are several reasons for this, but the biggest might have to do with the other quarterback in today's game -- the Redskins' Mark Brunell. After all, Brunell was the only quarterback people in Jacksonville had come to know until Byron Leftwich came along.
Brunell was the first Jaguars hero, a Christian man in a church-going city who gave to charity, smiled at the right times and led Jacksonville teams that won big. Brunell nearly went to two Super Bowls and was the face of the franchise. Then, in the spring of 2003, new Jaguars personnel director James Harris drafted Leftwich. Four games into that season, Leftwich was starting. Brunell soon was gone, and folks had trouble understanding just why it had happened.
And when a young, new Jacksonville team, rebuilt because of old salary cap abuses, struggled in Leftwich's first year, the attacks came out: He couldn't scramble (at least Brunell could run), his throwing motion (an odd windup that makes him look almost like he is tossing a javelin) was too awkward, too many of his passes were intercepted.