By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
More than two years after Brunell left to become the Redskins' quarterback, he still has high-profile ad campaigns in Jacksonville. Leftwich, the starting quarterback of the only team in town, does not have high-profile ad campaigns.
This isn't about race, because the Jaguars' backup -- David Garrard, whom the fans seem to love -- also is black. They just never took to Leftwich, mostly because he wasn't Brunell.
"Brunell was the Jacksonville Jaguars, it was Brunell's team," said Leftwich's friend, linebacker Mike Peterson. "They hated him before they gave him a chance."
Yet Peterson, who lives near the quarterback and spends time at his house, also said this:
"You look at Byron and you wouldn't know half the city doesn't like him."
Leftwich shrugs. This is part of being a football player, he said, the kind of thing you must endure if you want to be Darrell Green, Doug Williams or Joe Theismann.
"Brunell should be loved down here because of all the things he's done for this organization, the things he's done for this team," he said. "It's well deserved. Don't get me wrong, nobody is liked by everybody . No quarterback is loved by everybody. It's the position. You are week-to-week when you play quarterback and I don't care who you are.
"It's not the first time it happened. It happened with Steve Young, it happened with Joe Montana, it happens everywhere when the guy who has been good for the city, good for the team, good for the community, leaves. That guy who's coming behind Brett Favre? That's going to be a tough one."
And once again, the locker room is filled with uproarious laughter. Doesn't everyone get it? He's a fan too, only he gets to live out his dreams, pulling on a helmet and firing a football all over the fields of the NFL. If the fans boo, or call the radio shows wondering why Brunell had to leave or why Garrard isn't out there in his place, well let them.
"That's not the story to me," Leftwich said. "The story is that you are playing in the league. It's about when you get there, did you make the most of your opportunities. Really enjoy it and embrace it. We think we are, but we aren't going to play this sport for the rest of our lives. At some point it's going to come to an end. I have so much fun because when it does come to an end, I don't want to say, 'I should have done this, I should have done that.' I want to have as much fun as I can."
This is how he always was, even as a child.Mother Knows Best
Leftwich's father left before he was 3, leaving Brenda to work two jobs, running the kitchen at Catholic University and helping to manage a nursing home. His mother would get up before 6 in the morning and often not return until early evening.
Yet Leftwich never seemed bitter about the family's circumstances. He always had that laugh. Brenda attributes it to her family, which hails from outside of Lynchburg, Va.
"They love being around people," she said. "They have the sweetest personality."
She figures Byron somehow picked this up.
"He never got hooked up on the bad side of city life," she said. "I told him, 'You get hooked up with the wrong people, you will go to jail.' He was afraid of jail."
Brenda hated leaving her kids at home all day, hated it even more that she had to tell them to stay inside until she returned on those days she worked two jobs. But there also was something about them she could trust. They listened.
"My kids were scared of trouble," she said.
She always figured Byron would get an academic scholarship to school, he was so good at math. When he was in junior high school, she moved over the Maryland border to an apartment in Capitol Heights, near the intersection of Benning Road and Marlboro Pike, figuring he would get a better education if he were outside of the District.
But Leftwich wouldn't go to school in Maryland. He insisted on staying at his old junior high school and then went along with his friends to H.D. Woodson High, where one day at football practice his destiny changed forever when he picked up a ball and fired it back across the field.Winning Everyone Over
Headen, his coach at Woodson, watched the heave -- almost missile-like in its trajectory -- and he told Leftwich, at the time a slow-footed wide receiver going nowhere in his football career, that he was going to become a quarterback. Three years later, Leftwich agreed to attend Marshall University, where he became the immediate heir apparent to another legend in another small place. This time the quarterback was Chad Pennington, who might have been the best passer Marshall ever had and today plays for the New York Jets.
And on his first day on campus in Huntington, W.Va., Leftwich met offensive lineman Steve Sciullo, a player he greeted enthusiastically with a wide smile before startling him by pointing to a giant advertising poster pushing Pennington for the Heisman Trophy and declaring that he, Byron Leftwich, would someday have a poster just like it.
That night, he surprised Sciullo with another comment that came out of nowhere.
"I've never met a white person before," Leftwich said.
It was said more out of curiosity than confusion. And if there would be any of the natural tension a black man would have coming from Washington to play quarterback in West Virginia, it was dispelled as Leftwich dispels everything, with a laugh.
"He can get along and find the best in anyone," Brenda Leftwich said. "Even if they don't like him, it doesn't bother him."
Things could have been tricky with Leftwich and his slow feet and strange throwing motion replacing the blond Pennington, who had curls cascading from under his helmet. Instead, Leftwich made them love him, even winding up with a poster promoting him for the Heisman, just like he said would happen.
His legend at Marshall was sealed forever the night at Akron in his senior year, when he broke his leg early in the game, went to the hospital for X-rays, then hobbled back onto the field in the fourth quarter to lead a furious Marshall charge, once completing a long pass downfield before turning to Sciullo and saying, "I can't walk."
It became the indelible image of Leftwich, broken and bloodied, being carried downfield on the shoulders of two of his linemen so he could throw another pass.
And he did it not because he worried about the Heisman Trophy or how far he would fall in the NFL draft, but rather because he knew he might never play with his Marshall teammates again. The thought made him cry in the ambulance on the way back to the stadium. Ultimately, it is why he got out and went back onto the field.
The quarterback from Washington who might have seemed an impossible fit in the end transcended everything.
"It was interesting to see him evolve as a friend," Sciullo said.
"I don't see a color barrier, I don't see a difference in color, really," Leftwich said. "I think it's because of football and because of the person that I am. Look at it. I have a black left tackle, a Hawaiian left guard, a white center, a Hawaiian right guard, a black right tackle, a white tight end, a black wide receiver, white wide receiver and a black quarterback, so you see all the different races. In football, you look at everything, everybody's together, everybody has one goal.
"I think I got into it and met everyone for what they were. And I think when you do that, it makes it easy because the worst thing you can do is have prejudgments in your head before you get to know them. I don't do that. I judge people from how I know them. That's the only way you can look at it."
He laughs again. He is having fun, coming home as the quarterback of a team that was in the playoffs last year and could well go back again this season. Despite the criticism, he is 23-18 as a starting quarterback, which is pretty good.
He has more money than he ever dreamed of and has been careful to buy a nice but comparatively modest home on the Intracoastal Waterway. His big splurge was a small boat that he won't take into the ocean because he can't swim and is afraid it might capsize. He does not lead a wild, partying life spent in Jacksonville's nightclubs.
Asked who the most important person in his life is these days, he said it still is his mother. When he signed with the Jaguars, he bought her a house in the woods in Accokeek. She loves the tranquility there. And during the season, she calls him at 5 a.m. and says "get up Boo," a gentle reminder that he needs to leave for his early-morning team meetings. He promises to call her back as soon as he gets in his truck.
And together they talk as he rolls through the still-dark mornings -- the mother and the quarterback who is living a football dream.
What's not to love about that?