By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Leigh Torrence's unpaid congressional internship was like thousands of others in this city of unpaid interns. He sorted mail for Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr. (D-Ga.). He responded to constituents. He researched memos. He sat in a closet-size room jammed with two desks and miscellaneous supplies, a room other Bishop staffers call "the intern hole." He answered the phones -- "Good afternoon, Congressman Bishop's office" -- dozens of times a day. He stocked drinks.
He stocked drinks?
"Put the Cokes in the refrigerator," explained Torrence, whose full-time job is playing cornerback for the Washington Redskins. "I mean, somebody's got to do it. One minute they'd need to get something stocked, then the next minute I'd be going with the congressman to one of the whip meetings and they're putting the agenda together for the [Democratic] party going into the week. I mean, heck yeah, I'll stock some drinks."
He was, Torrence said, merely taking advantage of an opportunity. In that case, it was the opportunity afforded a Stanford graduate with majors in political science and African-American studies who happens to live in the Washington area.
Sundays this fall are suddenly presenting Torrence with a different opportunity. With Fred Smoot inactive because of a hamstring injury and Carlos Rogers hurting his knee against New England on Sunday, Torrence saw the most extensive action of his three-year career, logging more than 60 plays and often facing off with all-pro wide receiver Randy Moss.
Rogers received word this week that he has torn ligaments and will miss the rest of the season, making Torrence third on the depth chart behind Shawn Springs and the injury-plagued Smoot.
"It's all up to him," said Rogers, who expects to recover within five or six months and be ready for training camp. "It's all about his will. Leigh's a fast guy, a quick guy, a guy that [will] always compete. That's all you can ask for. Now's the time: your number's called and you've just got to step up and play."
To take Rogers's place, the Redskins signed John Eubanks from the practice squad to the active roster yesterday. Safety Pierson Prioleau has played frequently in nickel packages and could also see more time with Rogers gone. And Smoot, who said he could have played last week, seems likely to return Sunday against the New York Jets.
Still, after being out of football a year ago, Torrence now has the biggest chance of his NFL career.
"Not pressure; it's just an opportunity," he said yesterday. "It's just something I've been preparing for for a while. You're not guaranteed to get a chance like this. [I'm] just trying to make the most of that."
Torrence, an Atlanta native, was signed by the Green Bay Packers in 2005 after starting for three years at Stanford, where he also ran track. He was cut after training camp that summer and expected to land on the Packers' practice squad, but the Falcons claimed him off waivers, and he wound up playing in 10 games, mostly on special teams.
He was released by the Falcons last summer, and spent the next few months working out in Atlanta while trying out for one team after another: Chicago, Green Bay, the Redskins, Seattle, and Tampa Bay.
"Every week I was going somewhere, working out for another team," he said. "That was a frustrating process for me because I was hearing, 'Oh yeah, we're going to sign you,' and then nothing would happen. I wasn't ready to hang it up yet. I definitely had at least another year of working out and preparing before I would consider that."
Last December, he finally caught on with the Redskins -- for whom he had tried out earlier in the season -- and in May he signed with the team as a free agent.
Around the same time, with help from his agent, he began interning for Bishop and John Lewis, also a Democrat from Georgia. This was hardly a non sequitur for Torrence, who served as president of his student government in high school and his fraternity at Stanford. In college he also recruited football players for a student-led mentoring program in the East Bay and established a group called Stanford Black Athletes, along with Detroit Lions cornerback Stanley Wilson. Torrence helped arrange for Stanford alum Gene Washington, now the NFL's director of football operations, to speak with the group about the opportunities and responsibilities presented by a Stanford education; Torrence introduced Washington before the session.
"He's always been willing to do things beyond the football field, he's always seen the bigger picture," said Matt Doyle, an assistant athletic director at the school who was associate recruiting coordinator when Torrence arrived. "He's going to be incredibly successful as soon as his football days are over. Whether it's nonprofit or high profit, he's definitely going to be someone who leaves a mark in the community he lives in."
In fact, Torrence has already begun that process, creating the SWAY Foundation to help fund youth programs with the help of his mother last February. When in Atlanta, Torrence attended a mostly white private school, but his friends went to public schools that lacked comparable resources, a situation that Torrence said first helped spark his interest in public policy.
He has thought about going to law school and while he doesn't plan to seek public office, he wanted a better understanding of how the legislative process works. Which is why, since he was living in Washington this spring, he figured he might as well intern on the Hill. Torrence asked for his internship not to be publicized at the time, and Bishop's staffers said he was treated like a typical intern during his two days a week, although he did attract swarms of Hill employees seeking autographs and photographs.
"We had lots of visitors," Bishop joked in a telephone interview yesterday after praising Torrence's performance. "He was very disciplined, he was serious about his work, he was always prompt and on time and very, very insightful. He was one of our more exemplary interns."
Torrence has maintained contact with his former coworkers; when the Redskins' bye week corresponded with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Annual Legislative Conference, Torrence attended nearly a dozen receptions, introducing himself to Sen. Barack Obama at the Illinois delegation's event.
Despite those experiences, Torrence said his focus remains on football, on contributing to the Redskins' organization and continuing to improve. He said he didn't feel nervous against New England's high-powered offense -- "it doesn't get much tougher than that," he said -- and while his team was run off the field by the Patriots, Torrence said the game left him more confident in his own abilities.
"I felt very comfortable, which was good, because you never know. Getting out there, getting that type of playing time felt great," he said. "Right now I've been given a great opportunity to play football here with the Redskins. I just feel blessed to have that, and I'm just trying to be a good steward of this opportunity."