A lengthy NFL career took Ben Leber all across the country. While piling up 498 tackles, 24 sacks and five interceptions over 10 seasons with the San Diego Chargers, Minnesota Vikings and St. Louis Rams, he got to experience every aspect of the professional game and its lifestyle.
It was a fun ride for Leber, who announced his retirement two years ago. But he doesn’t miss it as much as you might expect.
To Leber, retirement is just a word. He stays busy and remains close to the game he loves as a commentator. On Saturdays, he travels to a college football game and provides color for Fox Sports. On Sundays, he returns to his Minneapolis home and co-hosts a radio show after each Vikings game. He’s still adjusting to the other side of the microphone, but he is having fun. Perhaps the best thing about his new job is it takes him places the NFL could not — such as Kansas State.
On Saturday, Leber will return to his alma mater for his first regular-season game since the end of his college career in 2001. His main focus will be commentary on an 11 a.m. kickoff between No. 25 K-State and Texas-El Paso, but the former standout linebacker under Bill Snyder is also looking forward to seeing familiar faces.
“I made it back once for a spring game, but before that I hadn’t been back in a number of years,” Leber said. “As a NFL player you are busy during the season. I could never make it back or attend a game. The schedule never worked out. When we had a bye week, K-State was playing somewhere else. It will be fun to be back, to be around the complex and to see some old coaches and people I know. But it will be a better question for Sunday after all this takes place, because it has been so long. I honestly don’t know what to expect.”
Leber likely will be welcomed with open arms. K-State fans began sending him positive notes on Twitter minutes after Fox Sports announced its broadcasting team for the game.
Snyder spoke highly of Leber during his weekly news conference, describing him as a model defender.
“Ben knew how to get himself into the right spot. He was very reliable, dependable and disciplined,” Snyder said. “He was not necessarily flashy, he was just a guy that got to where he needed to be. ... Plus, he is an excellent young man. I admired how he handled himself both on and off the field.”
Leber was part of a memorable time for K-State football. The Wildcats won 50 games during his five years (1997-2001).
Funny thing is, he remembers liking Colorado out of high school in Vermillion, S.D. He loved the Buffaloes and their game-day atmosphere, but driving to Boulder was expensive. When K-State and Colorado both invited him to a junior camp, he accepted an invitation from the Wildcats because the drive was more affordable.
“It was a perfect mixture of finances and timing,” Leber said. “My family couldn’t afford the Colorado camp, so I went down to Kansas State and gave as much effort as I could. Then I got an offer from (then linebackers coach) Brent Venables. That was it. I made the decision to go to K-State.”
Ask Leber what he remembers most about his time as a K-State player, and he points to bowl victories. Counting his redshirt year, Leber was part of three postseason wins — the 1997 Fiesta Bowl, the 1999 Holiday Bowl and the 2001 Cotton Bowl. He also points out the 11-0 start and the No. 1 ranking in the USA Today coaches poll that accompanied it in 1998.
“We were minutes away from the national championship game,” Leber said. “For a young guy tasting success on that level, that fueled my passion to get better each day and really fulfill my dreams.”
Leber did, going on to make 216 tackles for the Wildcats. The Chargers selected him in the third round of the 2002 NFL Draft. He lasted four years in San Diego and then signed with the Vikings as a free agent. After five years in Minnesota, he ended his NFL career with a lone season with the Rams.
Few players last a decade in the NFL. Leber beat the odds with his versatility. He played both outside linebacker and middle linebacker at K-State. In the NFL, he dabbled at both positions and also rushed the passer out of 3-4 formations.
“That is the main thing I preach to players now,” Leber said. “Don’t pigeon-hole yourself into one position. Learn to play other positions, because you never know when you may be called upon to play a new role. ... I wasn’t great at any one of those things, but I was good at all of them. I made it hard for coaches to take me off the field. That is pretty much what kept me around.”
He hopes to find similar success as a commentator. His passion will help. He treats each game like he is still a linebacker, studying video and seeking out information that will give him an edge. When asked to provide a prediction for Saturday’s game, he declined, citing neutrality. But he rattles off keys to the game like a seasoned pro.
Leber takes his current job as seriously as his old one.
“I approach every week like a player,” Leber said. “You build up to the game a little bit each day. Then Saturday arrives and you call the game. On Monday, you start all over.”
UTEP at No. 25 Kansas State
WHEN: 11 a.m. Saturday
WHERE: Bill Snyder Family Stadium, Manhattan, Kan.
TV: Fox Sports KC
Other story lines
RETURN OF THE RUN: K-State manage 40 rushing yards against Auburn. Players have said rebounding with a better effort this week is a must. UTEP is the team to get right against on the ground. It allowed 410 rushing yards to New Mexico and 226 rushing yards to Texas Tech.
ENCORE: Dakorey Johnson and Travis Green both had strong showings while starting for the first time against Auburn. It will be interesting to see what the linebacker and safety, respectively, can do for an encore against UTEP.
ALL ABOUT JONES: UTEP might not have the overall talent to match K-State, but running back Aaron Jones could start for just about any team. He is the nation’s second-leading rusher with 549 yards through three games.