East Ridge football: Leach on road to recovery, says he'll return to field next fall
It’s the moment every football player fears.
Three minutes into a home game against rival Park, East Ridge senior running back Nick Leach was taken down awkwardly along the visitor’s sideline. He got up and limped a few steps before going back to his knees. As the medical staff ran onto the field, Leach stayed there momentarily, pounding his fist on the turf. He tried to get up and walk once more, shaking off assistance before finally accepting a hand off the field.
Not too long after, Leach was carted out of the stadium and taken to the hospital for evaluation, where an MRI showed he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee.
“It was devastating to him, it was devastating to us and to his family and to East Ridge football in general,” said East Ridge running backs coach Randy Spring, “Because, we know how good he is as a player, but also as a leader and the way the rest of the kids respond to his leadership.”
Leach had surgery to repair the knee on Friday, Oct. 4, and said he is confident he’ll return to the field next fall in his quest to play college football.
“I’m feeling really good and I’m ahead of schedule,” Leach said. “I’m hoping to be 215 (pounds) and run a 4.5 in the 40 again by the time I graduate.”
Before the injury, Leach —who led the Suburban East Conference in rushing as a junior — was on pace for a historic season. Through just three games, he rushed for 641 yards (11.4 yards per carry) and 11 touchdowns. His yardage and scoring totals led the state and were miles ahead of any running back in the conference. In fact, the amount of yards he amassed by himself was better than all but one SEC team.
“It’s really disappointing,” Leach said. “You never know how it could’ve ended up. I think about that all the time. But, things happen for a reason and God has a plan.”
Spring, who has worked with Leach the past three years, had his own devastating injury when he was a running back at Winona State. During his freshman season, Spring suffered a hamstring avulsion — the most severe hamstring injury, where the tendon tears completely away from the bone. In Spring’s case, the hamstring even pulled a piece of his leg bone away with it. However, Spring was able to return to the field and have a standout career at Winona State.
“I’ve told him over and over that I went through that and it turned me into a stronger and better person,” Spring said. “I fully believe that my experience happened so I can help him through this one. I’m just trying to be there for him as much as possible. Our coaching staff is constantly reaching out to him. I hope he knows how much we’re thinking about him and how mad and upset we are that he can’t be with us on the field.”
Spring said it’s been tough for him to go to practice every day and not have Leach by his side.
“That’s not fun for me at all,” Spring said. “Anybody who knows football knows how good Nick Leach is and how much better he made our team when he was on the field. He’s very tough to replace, but we’re going to try our best to do that and he’s going to be helping us every step of the way.”
Leach’s extraordinary start this season opened the eyes of a number of Division 1 football programs. Some saw the 6-foot-2, 205-pounder as a bell-cow running back, while others envisioned him making the move to linebacker or safety.
Despite the injury, Leach said colleges haven’t turned their backs on him.
He said the University of Minnesota has offered him a preferred walk-on spot and he’s spoken with Toledo, whose assistant coach is former Woodbury star running back Louis Ayeni. Leach said other teams still looking at him include Illinois State, North Dakota and North Dakota State.
“I say with 100 percent conviction that I’m not worried about him playing college football whatsoever,” Spring said. “All those schools that wanted him before the injury I guarantee are going to want him still. I do believe whole-heartedly if he doesn’t get a scholarship, which in my mind he has every opportunity to do, and he does walk on somewhere he will fully earn one. The kid is that good, he’s that competitive and he works that hard.”
Three days after his surgery, Leach began working with a physical therapist at the ETS gym in Woodbury.
“It’s pretty tough, she works me pretty hard,” Leach said. “I get sweating. I bent my knee yesterday at 110 degrees, could straighten it and was doing some squats.”
Leach said he’ll be back doing “football moves” in 21 weeks.
“It’s basically week to week,” he said. “Every week I have a new workout to do. I’m just going to attack it hard and see how it goes.”
Despite not being able to play, Leach and his teammates Matt Corcoran and Zach Kosel, fellow seniors who are out for the year with injuries, have continued to support the Raptors on the sidelines.
“They’ve all being going through the same emotional and physical struggles,” Spring said. “I think they’ve just done an awesome job being there for the team and being leaders. I’m so proud of them. It’s been a blast seeing the rest of the team rally around these guys.”
Spring said he and Leach “text or talk every day.”
“I truly care about the kid," Spring said. "We’ve formed a genuine relationship as a coach and an athlete that I believe goes above and beyond just the playing field. I tell Nick that looking back on that and what I went through I wouldn’t change it at all. The tough part is getting through these weeks where he can’t play football with his buddies. I really think when Nick looks back on this experience and the adversity he’s going to overcome it’s going to turn him into something that’s even more amazing and physically gifted than he is now. I’m excited about that.”