It was a classic Ben Leber tweet, talking about how the Chicago Bears need to move on from third-year quarterback Mitch Trubisky. “He should’ve never been drafted that high and put in this position,” Leber tweeted recently. “This is the Bears fault. #SNF”
Leber retired in 2012 from his 10-year linebacker career in the NFL but remains close to football. Living with his wife and children in suburban Minneapolis, the 40-year-old Leber has made a post-football career for himself as a Fox TV college gameday analyst, Minnesota Vikings sideline radio reporter, and motivational speaker.
Unlike many former jocks, Leber’s approach in talking about both his life and analysis of football is candid. That openness was evident last week when Leber spoke at a luncheon in Bloomington to a group of mostly former high school coaches from various sports including football. “I am basically an open book,” he told the audience.
Leber is often asked about the key to success. He finds the question difficult to answer because people are all different with their abilities, education, experiences and emotions. “For me it (the key to success) was overcoming self-doubt,” he said.
Lack of confidence and self-esteem showed up when he transitioned to a media career after playing pro football for the Vikings, San Diego Chargers and St. Louis Rams. He had no training as a broadcaster. He got a call 10 days prior to his first assignment and had to learn a lot on the fly.
But Leber had experience in developing self-confidence. He overcame self-doubt in football, dating back to his days growing up in the town of Vermillion, South Dakota—population about 11,000. “I am a small town kid through and through,” he said while recalling his youth. His peers there told him that despite his success as a running back he wasn’t that good.
“You think you’re better than us” was the message he heard, although history now says he was one of the greatest ball carriers in South Dakota schoolboy history and he made prep All-American. Despite a scholarship offer to play football at Kansas State, doubts nagged at Leber.
Early on in Manhattan, Kansas, Leber almost quit the team, but he persevered and became an all-conference linebacker for the Wildcats. He also learned winning was serious business in college football, and that mission could be carried to extremes. How extreme? Well, with amusement he recalled that at halftime of home games, a Kansas State staffer spied on the opposing team by listening to locker room strategies and adjustments.
The Chargers drafted Leber in the third round and he was a starter almost from the beginning, even if he was in a daze playing as an NFL rookie. Reality hit home in the early weeks when the Chargers were playing the San Francisco 49ers, a team he and his family followed passionately back in Vermillion. “I said, holy (blank), that’s Jerry Rice,” Leber recalled in lining up against the 49ers legendary receiver.
Leber’s confidence grew as he found success in the NFL, playing four seasons with the Chargers, five with the Vikings and one with the Rams. As he thinks about overcoming self-doubt, he shares advice he offers his own children, “I tell my kids, just improve every day.”
Of course believing in yourself doesn’t mean worry won’t surface, and even sleep can be lost. That’s what Leber shared at the luncheon when talking about the week he prepared to face running back Jerome Bettis of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The man nicknamed “The Bus” was listed at about 250 pounds but Leber suspects that was about 20 pounds too low.
There was a play where Leber took on “The Bus” but he still bulled his way for a first down. “I gave that dude everything I had,” said the 6-foot-3 Leber who played at about 240 pounds and regards “The Bus” as the most physical runner he had to tackle.
It’s a safe bet these days that when a former pro football player speaks at an event there will be at least one question regarding concussions. Leber told his audience last Thursday he had “one registered concussion” in his career, with that occurring in high school. But he added there probably have been hundreds of times he’s “seen stars” playing the collision sport of American football.
The studies and media stories linking football to brain damage in the last several years is prevalent and ongoing. Leber, of course, is well aware of the publicity and warnings, and the stories of retired players who lose their memories. “Am I worried about it?” Leber asked. “Yes. Do I think about it everyday? No.”
There is arguably hysteria in America about concussions and football, with parents unwilling to allow their kids to participate. This is happening despite studies showing concussions for youth are more numerous in other activities including cheerleading than football.
Leber is an advocate for the game, and for playing it on the youth level where he says the violence of football isn’t comparable to the college and professional levels. He believes kids are being “over-educated” about head injuries and football. The game provides life lessons, including learning toughness that young people lose out on if they don’t play his sport. “There’s no better sport to teach you about yourself, and prepare you for life than football,” he said.
Leber said there are no studies that show high school football later changes what he refers to as the “quality of life” of its participants. “To have kids miss out (playing football), kind of angers me,” he said.
At the lunch Leber told the group that soccer causes the most youth concussions but parents are taking their sons out of football to play that sport. “Football is not the enemy,” said Leber who laments his game isn’t judged more fairly.
After Leber’s talk a reporter asked him about his old team, the Vikings. What concerns him the most? How much can Minnesota achieve this season and into the playoffs?
In critical situations, Leber said, the Vikings are vulnerable on offense when the interior line sags against pressure and makes quarterback Kirk Cousins uncomfortable. Defensively, he expressed concern about the cornerbacks needing to play at a higher level, including disrupting routes.
Leber, though, thinks the Vikings have the pieces to make a Super Bowl run. He sees a great running game, a quarterback who could receive NFL MVP consideration, and superb outside receivers. The defense he characterizes as “Super Bowl level” because it is usually difficult to score against. “Teams are getting some yards on us, but when it comes to actually putting points on the board, our defense is pretty damn good,” he said.
Leber, by the way, showed those doubters back in Vermillion a final time when in 2016 he was inducted into the South Dakota Sports Hall of Fame.
A Sunday Golden Gophers football notes column:
Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck was unsure this morning about the status of quarterback Tanner Morgan while speaking on WCCO Radio. Media reports had Morgan in concussion protocol after last night’s Iowa game. His availability for Saturday’s game at Northwestern appears unknown.
Fleck said he hadn’t seen his star quarterback yet this morning. Morgan was wobbly before he was removed from the game. “I hope he is okay. We just gotta make sure that we take all the proper protocol…as he continues to move forward,” Fleck said
Morgan was sacked six times in the 23-19 loss to Iowa. He took a pounding in a physical game and missed the last two snaps when the Gophers were trying to rally for a win and improve their record to 10-0.
When Morgan, who is among the Big Ten passing leaders, was unable to finish the game he was replaced by true freshman Cole Kramer from Eden Prairie. If Morgan can’t play Saturday against Northwestern it’s unclear whether he will be replaced by Kramer, or Texas native Jacob Clark, another true freshman.
Kramer and Clark have played minimal minutes this season. Kramer has played in three games, Clark in one. Freshmen can play in up to four games and still retain redshirt status.
“I think it’s a little too early to jump to conclusions,” Fleck said in regard to whether there will be any changes at quarterback for Northwestern.
Quarterback depth became precarious before the season started when Zack Annexstad, expected to compete for the starting job with Morgan, injured his foot and appeared lost for the season. Fleck said awhile ago Annexstad might return late this year, but he was indefinite on a timeline.
The coaches have protected Morgan by seldom asking him to run, and he avoided significant injury through almost 10 games. Iowa, though, had an intense pass rush led by future pro lineman A.J. Epenesa who often had his way with Minnesota offensive left tackle Sam Schleuter.
Minnesota is 6-1 and can win the Big Ten West Division outright with victories in its remaining games but the Gophers have questions to answer including field goal and extra point kicking. Redshirt freshman Brock Walker, playing in his second consecutive game against Iowa, missed an extra point and bounced a field goal inside the upright yesterday. Freshman Michael Lantz has been injured after making five of eight field goals earlier this season.
The Gophers missed a major promotional opportunity in losing a fifth consecutive game to Iowa and not reclaiming Floyd of Rosedale. Minnesota already has the Governor’s Bell from its November 9 win over Penn State and hopes to hold on to Paul Bunyan’s Axe when the Gophers close the season against Wisconsin. “Three Wins, Three Trophies” could have headlined an offseason marketing campaign.
The Gophers were penalized in the Iowa game when Fleck sprinted on the field to check on wide receiver Tyler Johnson, who appeared injured. Speaking on KFAN Radio after the game the coach defended himself, stressing the welfare of his players is always a top priority. He accepted responsibility for the penalty even though he would do it again. “I am sorry. I am 38 years old and I can run,” he said.
When the College Football Playoff Rankings come out Tuesday night the Gophers, ranked No. 8 last week, could land in the No. 14 to 18 range.
The Minnesota-Wisconsin game in Minneapolis November 30 was nearly sold out as of late last week.
Fleck’s 39th birthday will be the day prior to the game.
The Gophers have yet to do it this season, but if they switched their bench and sideline from the south side of their home field to the north they more likely will be situated in sunshine and feel warmer November 30. The change requires notifying the Big Ten office in advance.
Yesterday morning there was TV hype about the 9-0 Gophers. On ESPN GameDay David Pollack referred to Minnesota as the biggest story of the college football season. BTN’s morning show ranked Minnesota’s Antoine Winfield Jr. the best defensive back in the Big Ten.
The 7-3 Vikings have six games remaining and appear likely to earn their way into the playoffs. There will be a number of storylines in the weeks ahead but among individual players none is likely to be more compelling than the play of quarterback Kirk Cousins. Super Bowl winning coach Tony Dungy, now a pro football analyst for NBC TV, is tossing a challenge at the $84 million leader of the Vikings offense.
Speaking on KFAN Radio last week with program host Dan Barreiro, Dungy predicted the weeks ahead will define the reputation of Minnesota’s 31-year-old quarterback who was named NFC Offensive Player of the Month for his successful October that included 10 touchdown passes and a QB rating of 137.1.
“I like Kirk Cousins a lot, and I think he’s tremendous,” Dungy said. “I think he is a great leader but this is going to be the referendum (the weeks ahead). This is when he’s going to have to do it, against the Packers, against the Cowboys, in these big games. We know he’s capable of doing it. We saw it through the month of October but now can you do it in November and December against the really good teams? And that’s where the jury is still out on him.”
The Vikings earned a meaningful road win against a winning team last Sunday when they defeated the Cowboys, 28-24. Dungy predicted last Thursday the game would be a “measuring stick” for Cousins, playing against a solid team using a stop the run defense and inviting him to throw the ball about 35 times. Dungy, the former Gophers quarterback and Vikings assistant coach, was almost spot-on with Cousins throwing 32 times, and completing 23 passes including two that went for touchdowns.
Cousins came to Minneapolis in the 2018 offseason with a well-known reputation for not leading his former team, the Redskins, to victories over clubs with winning records. The chorus of critics grew louder last season when the Vikings, viewed during preseason as a Super Bowl contender, didn’t make it to the playoffs.
This season the Vikings have played five teams who now have winning records. They have defeated the Cowboys, Eagles, and Raiders while losing road games to the Chiefs and Packers. On the schedule ahead only the Seahawks and Packers (rematch game December 23 in Minneapolis) have winning records among remaining opponents.
Cousins has a 112 passer rating that is third best in the NFL. He has no turnovers in his last four games, the longest such stretch of his career. When he has faltered in the past, including against winning teams, he has looked indecisive. Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer acknowledged the change in his quarterback. “Yeah, he’s playing fast, and that’s probably the most important thing,” Zimmer said. “Making good decisions and playing fast.”
The right decisions are everything in the NFL where final margins of victory are often so close. Eleven of the 13 most recent league games were separated by one possession (eight points or fewer). In 36 games this season, a team has won or tied after trailing in the fourth quarter.
Golden Gophers Football Notes
It would be fitting if the weather was stormy for Saturday’s game in Iowa City when the Gophers and Hawkeyes play. Temperatures will be in the low 40s with precipitation unlikely, but that doesn’t change the colorful and at times contentious history of the Minnesota-Iowa rivalry.
In the spring of 2017 Iowa assistant coach Brian Ferentz said it appeared the Gophers were extending so many offers to high school prospects they couldn’t come close to honoring them. Ferentz’s comments came on a Des Moines Register podcast. It’s unusual for one school to call out another that way.
In 2002 Hawkeye fans stormed the field at the Metrodome after a Hawkeye win. Fans tore down a goal post and tried to take part of it through the Metrodome revolving doors but space was too limited to accomplish the mission.
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz coached in that game and is still leading the Hawkeyes. “I do have a good friend that still thinks that’s the greatest thing he ever saw in sports,” Ferentz said Tuesday. “He saw it on TV, and he also said, your fans aren’t very smart, they’re not going to get that thing through a revolving door. But he still talks about that.”
Tensions between players and fans from both Iowa and Minnesota prompted creation of Floyd of Rosedale. At the suggestion of Minnesota governor Floyd Olson, the bronze pig was created in the 1930s to put the focus on the rivalry trophy instead of the bad feelings between the two states.
Creative Charters emailed that their motorcoach group will be stopping Friday in Floyd, Iowa at Dugan’s Restaurant and Tavern on the way to Iowa City. The mayor of Floyd and city council members have been invited to lunch with the Minnesotans.
“With the Floyd of Rosedale trophy on the line, it only makes sense to stop in Floyd” said Steve Erban, Creative Charters, “We haven’t won in Iowa since 1999. The Travelin’ Gophers need to pull out every stop.”
With a win Saturday, Iowa can move within one victory of tying the Floyd of Rosedale series since it began in 1935. The Hawks have won six of the last seven games but Minnesota still leads the series 42-40, with two ties.
For Gophers fans, that’s close enough for the Hawkeyes in moving ahead in the series. That could become a social media message this week, tossed in with more than a few “We hate Iowa” postings.
The Gophers’ recent woes in the series have come despite the annual ritual of Darrell Thompson consuming large amounts of bacon. During Iowa week Thompson, the Gophers all-time leading rushing leader, enjoys his bacon.
“Every day, my man,” Thompson told Sports Headliners Wednesday. “I had bacon pie this morning. My wife made me this phenomenal bacon pie.”
The pie has a pecan crust and includes eggs, onions, peppers, cheese, and of course, bacon. Thompson put away two pieces, and wrote about the pie on Twitter.
What about the four-game losing streak against Iowa, despite Thompson’s bacon ritual? “That’s why I am eating more bacon this year,” he said. “I’ve increased it. Yesterday (Tuesday) I had two side orders of bacon. I didn’t think I was eating quite enough. Sometimes more makes things better.”
The Gophers go into Saturday’s game 9-0 overall and 6-0 in Big Ten games, with Iowa at 6-3 and 3-3. Minnesota’s most recent win, coming last Saturday in an upset over then No. 5 nationally ranked Penn State, attracted 6,736,000 viewers on ABC TV, according to Sports Media. It was the network’s largest college football audience in three years for a noon (eastern time) game.