NEW ORLEANS––To the Green Bay Packers, Vonta Leach is the fish that got away.
Today, Leach is at the peak of his game. He was just named to his third consecutive Pro Bowl at the fullback position in 2012, and on Sunday will be aiming for the first Super Bowl victory of his career with the Baltimore Ravens.
According to Ravens running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery, Leach is a leader on the offensive side of the football and has a desire to succeed that has helped him become one of the best players in the NFL at his position.
"He wants to be the best blocking fullback that ever played the game," said Montgomery, "and to have a mindset to be the best, then you've got to bring your A-game on the practice field, which he does every day."
If you're a Packers fan and you've forgotten that Leach once donned a green and gold jersey, you can hardly be blamed. He wasn't a Pro Bowler back in those days. Leach rarely touched the football and didn't gain a whole lot of publicity.
He came to the Packers as an undrafted free agent in 2004 with the goal of simply making an NFL roster.
"Early on, you just try to establish yourself," said Leach this week. "I started my career in Green Bay trying to establish myself, trying to make a team, and that's what I did. I ended up making the team."
That first season in the NFL, Leach played in just six games, but he did well enough to receive an expanded role the following season. In 2005, the East Carolina product played in all 16 games and caught five passes out of the backfield.
Then in 2006, the first year of the Mike McCarthy era in Green Bay, Leach played in one game with the Packers before being released. To this day, he still can't quite understand why he was released. Leach says he graded out at 94 percent in his lone game against the Chicago Bears in '06 and was released the next day.
But his time in Titletown wasn't all for naught. Leach looks back fondly on the years he was under the tutelage of then running backs coach Edgar Bennett and veteran William Henderson.
Henderson was a Pro Bowl fullback in the days he and Leach were teammates and was recently inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 2011.
"To be able to learn from a guy like William Henderson that played in the league years and years, and hey, I took that and took what I learned and just take it to my position and what I'm doing today," said Leach.
Since being cut by the Packers, Leach later landed with the Houston Texans in 2006 and spent the next five seasons there. In 2010 he was the lead blocker for the NFL’s leading rusher and touchdown scorer, Arian Foster, who ran for 1,616 yards and hit pay dirt 16 times.
Houston was where Leach first established himself as a Pro Bowl player, which also made him a valuable commodity when he hit free agency following the 2010 season.
During that offseason, Leach received phone calls from two Pro Football Hall of Famers, one current and one future, and when you receive interest from that caliber of player, he was receptive to what they had to say.
“I was sitting at home and (Ravens general manager) Ozzie Newsom called me and said, ‘I need you over here, I want you to come over here,’” recalled Leach. “Then five minutes later I got a call from Ray Lewis saying, ‘You need to get your tail over here, we want you.’ Ray Lewis gets you on the phone and calls, that’s going to sell you.”
Leach signed with the Ravens and in his first season with Baltimore, he helped pave the way for Ray Rice to lead the league in yards from scrimmage with 2,068.
While teams across the NFL are phasing out the fullback position, Leach has been well-utilized in the Ravens offense and even gets the occasional opportunity to carry the football, such as he did in the wildcard victory over the Indianapolis Colts this year when he scored his first postseason touchdown.
Leach enjoys his moments in the spotlight much like any other football player, but he doesn’t go out seeking attention or beg the coaches to feed him the ball, says Montgomery. He goes out and quietly does his job and now has a chance help his team win the iconic trophy named after the legendary coach where his career began.
“Everybody in this locker room knew what we were capable of and knew that if everybody played like they were capable of, we were going to go to the Super Bowl,” said Leach. “That was our goal from the get-go and our goal never deterred. Even when we dropped a couple of games, this was our goal—to get to the Super Bowl. We always believed.”
Brian Carriveau is the author of "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and an editor at Cheesehead TV. To contact Brian, email firstname.lastname@example.org.