As a boy, retired Minnesota Viking linebacker and NFL broadcaster Ben Leber had aspirations of being an astronaut or joining the Air Force. He didn’t start playing football until he was a seventh grader in Vermillion, S.D., where he would eventually be named to several high school All-America teams. He knew of the Vikings but didn’t really understand the full impact they had until he began playing with them in 2006. His skills and hard work brought him both high school and college athletic and academic accomplishments.
After high school football in South Dakota, Leber’s college career began at Kansas State where he attended on a full-ride scholarship. He credits his linebacker coach, Brent Venables (a 2016 Broyles Award for the nation’s top assistant coach), as the individual who helped him achieve his level of athletic performance — in a way that is no longer available to coaches. Leber describes him as a “vocal motivator” and says this brought a self-motivation aspect to his life and a mental and physical push going forward, resulting in an “I could do more” attitude that pushed him beyond what he thought he could do.
When asked to compare his college career with his professional career, Leber said in some ways it was as different as night and day. In college, it was harder as you were often “changing gears”, going from the academic studies to football with the player rules and balancing a college social life in between.
As a professional, you were in a business which you lived every day. Pro football is a job. Living the life of a professional football player did not make family life easy. It is difficult to balance being at top performance to play football and being a family man. With the high stakes, high pay and pressure of professional football, one needs to be somewhat selfish, taking care of yourself physically and mentally as you realize a short-lived opportunity. Ultimately though, taking care of yourself in turn leads to taking better care of your family.
Leber began his NFL career with the San Diego Chargers in 2002. He diligently prepared himself for the draft by working out for the Senior Bowl in Alabama, participating in the NFL Combine, and interviewing agents in his college apartment. Then came the wait, knowing that his life could change with one phone call. It was a relief when the phone call came on the first night of the draft. So much had led up to that point; the hugs and emotions were overwhelming.
Leber’s ability and leadership were immediately apparent as he was named a 3-time player representative while with San Diego. He was selected to both the Pro Football Weekly and Football Digest All Rookie teams in his first year as a Charger. He was injured during training camp of his third professional season, and again during the season itself. In 2006 Leber signed as a free agent with the Minnesota Vikings where he played five seasons and continued to demonstrate outstanding leadership both on and off the field. Leber finished his 10 years of professional playing with the St. Louis Rams in 2011.
Equipment has changed a lot since Leber’s high school and college career. No longer is it thought that “size and bulk keep you safe”. At one point, using his own funds, Leber’s motivation to play better led him to purchase a titanium face mask to make his helmet lighter with better weight distribution. He feels with the advancement of technology, equipment will keep getting better and better, for the safety of the players.
Leber’s decision to retire was a combination of things, including the yelling and screaming of his body, telling him through pain and fear that he just couldn’t do it anymore. Eventually, fear of further neck injury and dealing with bone-on-bone arthritic knee pain took a toll. It was more than he wanted.
Not playing on a professional level, Leber misses taking on the personal challenges with the constant analysis of preparation. He enjoyed not only playing the game, but, even more so, the strategy behind preparing for the game. Football challenges and pushes you every day. The fellowship of the players is also a rewarding experience as you develop relationships with a common bond.
Knowing he wanted to stay close to the game, Leber began working as a broadcaster and analyst for the NFL and working on the radio (KFAN – Minneapolis). He is seen and heard more now as a broadcaster, making it more intense with the public. He indicated this brings him more acknowledgement on the street than when he was a player, and that it is “fun to talk sports as a broadcaster and interviewer.”
Leber feels the Vikings are facing challenging times this season. They are a young team in some places, and as a result they need to learn to play together and learn what to expect of each other — something veterans of the game have already accomplished. The first third of the season will be a “feeling out period”, and they may stumble out of the gate at first.
Attendance at games will depend on the practices established by the city and state they are playing in. Therefore, televised games will be different for the viewing fans and for those fans planning to attend. With the COVID-19 issues, training camp will be more of a sterile environment with no spectators. He feels that the NFL guys are willing to comply with the COVID rules as long as they can play the game. In spite of the COVID 19, the NFL will put forth their best efforts to have the games.
Leber still lives in the Cities and likes the idea of always having something to do, even though he likes it “back home” where one can take a deep breath and roam free. Today, Leber enjoys his family time doing things together such as fishing and just the joy of taking family out. He always tries to find something to occupy his mind, including becoming a self-taught fly-fisherman, something he always wanted to do and now finds he has the time to learn.
Leber’s advice to young people (and people of all ages): “There is no substitution for hard work.
“You can make your own advantages by doing a little more every day than anyone else. Self-doubt can do more harm than anything else you can imagine. You don’t have to believe everything you are told or fit into somebody else’s box just because of where you are from.”
Leber says he was told that he was just a small-town South Dakota guy, so at the time he didn’t necessarily see that as a benefit. In fact, when he first went to college, he was asked things such as, “Do you have colored television?” or “Do you still have covered wagons?” These questions made him wonder if he was good enough, but he now realizes that South Dakota kids have a true work ethic and true grit bred into them. You need to look inward and know who you are.
If you don’t believe this, just take a look at Ben Leber today!
Our thanks to the Wilf Family (owner of the Minnesota Vikings), their staff and Ben Leber for their support of the Kingsbury Journal. — Bob and Nancy Montross