MINNEAPOLIS — 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 football gameday analyst, Minnesota Vikings sideline radio analyst, 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, S.D., 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 prep All-American 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. Despite a scholarship offer to play football at Kansas State, doubts nagged at Leber.
Early on in Manhattan, Kan., 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 a luncheon 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 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 sports and cheerleading than football.
Leber is an advocate for the game and 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 luncheon 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.
With decades of experience as a sports reporter and columnist covering professional and college sports, Twin Cities-based sports columnist David Shama not only shares his perspectives, but he also quotes many of Minnesota’s biggest newsmakers among players, coaches and owners.