Baltimore Ravens all-pro fullback Vonta Leach, a former standout at South Robeson High School and East Carolina University, has made leaps across the football field that few could imagine.
In fact, Leach is still wrapping his head around it all.
The Rowland native is Super Bowl bound for the first time in his nine-year NFL career after the Ravens upset the New England Patriots, 28-13, in the AFC Championship game last Sunday. Baltimore, making its first Super Bowl appearance in 12 years, will face the NFC champion San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday, Feb. 3 at the Superdome in New Orleans.
“It’s been overwhelming,” Leach said. “The phone at home is ringing off the hook. I had 200 some text messages on my phone and 100 voicemails Sunday night.”
Aiding the Ravens’ victory against the reigning AFC champion Patriots, Leach opened lanes for Bernard Pierce and All-Pro running back Ray Rice, who combined for 100 yards, and bullied pressure away from quarterback Joe Flacco who flung for 240 yards and three touchdowns. Leach added two catches for 20 yards and two carries for nine yards.
“I was just trying to do whatever I needed to do to help this team get to the Super Bowl,” Leach said.
That’s been priority No. 1 for Robeson County’s own ever since entering the NFL out of East Carolina as an undrafted free agent with the Green Bay Packers in 2004. Whether he’s bowling over tacklers or moving the chains on third-and-short, Leach sees every snap as a potential step towards the biggest national stage in all of sports — the Super Bowl.
“Playing in this game, that’s what the dream always is,” Leach said. “Once you get to the NFL you want to be the best player at your position and get to the Pro Bowl and be an All-Pro. The next step is the Super Bowl.”
Done, done and done.
But, getting to the Big Easy this year hasn’t been an easy road for Leach.
During his first three seasons in the league with Green Bay, Leach saw limited action — he started just six games — before the Packers released him on Sept. 13, 2006. The following day, the New Orleans Saints claimed the Rowland native off waivers, but soon released him before he saw a single snap.
Despite being teamless, Leach knew his time in the NFL was far from over and his dream of playing in the Super Bowl wasn’t going anywhere.
“You can’t take anything for granted, you have to finish what you start,” Leach said was his mantra.
Maintaining that mentality, the 6-foot, 260-pound fullback began putting his imprint on the NFL landscape when he was signed by the Houston Texans in October of 2006. Leach’s lead-blocking in Houston began garnering him a reputation as one of the most feared and effective fullbacks in the game. In 2010, paving the way for Arian Foster’s league-leading 1,616 yards, Leach was selected to his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams.
“A lot of people don’t really know what the fullback’s job is,” said Leach, who was selected to his third straight Pro Bowl and All-Pro team this season. “It’s not on the stat sheet all the time. But I block some of the baddest linebackers in the game.”
Five years with Houston opened the door for Leach to sign for bigger money with a bigger contender in the Ravens. He inked a 3-year, $11 million contract with Baltimore on July 31, 2011.
It didn’t take long for Leach to get a taste of what being on a Super Bowl contender is like.
Last season, Baltimore fell just short to New England, 23-20, in the AFC title game. It was an especially heart wrenching Ravens’ loss riddled with stomach-punch miscues — Lee Evans dropped what would’ve been a game-winning touchdown and Billy Cundiff shanked a potential game-tying field goal in the final minute.
Needless to say, the Rowland native and his Baltimore counterparts had plenty of pent up motivation heading into Foxborough last Sunday.
“We put in all the hard work during the offseason,” Leach said. “It’s going back to last year when we lost the game there (in Foxborough). We got a chance to celebrate on the field where our season ended last year.”
As they trailed 13-7 at halftime against the Pats, there was only one word circling the Ravens locker room, one that goes back to Leach’s mantra: Finish.
Baltimore did so and then some, orchestrating perhaps its most impressive 30 minutes of football this season as it outscored the three-time Super Bowl champs 21-0 in the second half.
“We talked about finishing plays. The difference is this year we just finished,” Leach said. “Last year we were back where we wanted to get (AFC Championship game), we just didn’t finish. We wanted to finish what we started and it came full circle. We just finished better this season.”
Which has brought Leach to his sought after Super Bowl appearance. A game he’s envisioned playing in since he first corralled a football in the schoolyards, back yards and football fields of Robeson County.
“I always dreamt about this growing up in Rowland,” Leach said. “That’s what you play this game for. It took a long time to get here. I’m just going to embrace all of it and enjoy the moment.”
Reach Sports editor Kaleb Roedel at 910-272-6111 or email@example.com.