I remember the first time I saw Leotis Palmer play football in an Air Force uniform. It was Saturday, August 28, 1999, in Falcon Stadium in that fall's Blue-Silver tune-up before the ensuing week's season opener against Villanova. That Blue-Silver scrimmage drew a "crowd" of maybe--and I stress maybe--seventy-five people.
WHO IS THAT GUY? The tale of how Leotis Palmer even came to be on the field that day is a memorable one. Palmer had been a quarterback in high school at McIntosh County Academy in Georgia and had been scouted as a potential QB for Air Force. During fall practice in Palmer's freshman year of 1999, there had been a rash of injuries suffered by halfbacks on the squad. Qualario Brown had a stress fracture of his big toe. Scotty McKay had turned an ankle quite badly in practice and his return was of indeterminate status. Their respective replacements were also hurt as Chris Wade had undergone knee surgery prior to the Blue-Silver scrimmage and Matt Rillos had a hip pointer at that juncture and was being withheld from contact drills. HBs Daniel Stuart, Tom Heier, Mustafa Danquah, Ahmad Swan, Keegan Dougherty and Bert Giovanetti were all on the squad, however none of the six had performed well enough in practice to warrant being more than a third string player in back of the four primary, but injured, halfbacks.
In the midst of this backfield personnel shortage, coaches approached Palmer about the notion of his being moved to HB for the Blue-Silver scrimmage. Leotis consented to the switch. As I entered Falcon Stadium that afternoon I made my way to the East stands directly in back of the benches the Falcons customarily use during regular season games. I noticed that a few people seemed to have single page handouts listing the players' names and numbers. I asked where I could get a copy and was motioned toward a stack of rosters piled on a nearby bench.
As the scrimmage unfolded I kept noticing a quick, diminutively sized halfback, who wore number nine on his jersey, making consistently impressive runs outside the tackles. I looked at my program to find that the player in question was Mustafa Danquah. Throughout the course of the scrimmage this scatback kept gaining four, six or maybe even ten yards each time he ran the ball toward the perimeter of the opposing defense. I was suitably impressed because in 1999 I had been attending Air Force football games regularly for twenty-three seasons and had never seen a halfback able to run the ball outside on such a productive basis.
I have distinct memories of returning home that afternoon and making a post on an America Online, Air Force football bulletin board about having seen the future of the Falcons' running attack and that his name was Mustafa Danquah. There's nothing so sweet in life as a well kept secret and this was certainly one of them. It wasn't until reading the Sunday morning Denver papers that I learned number nine was, in fact, Leotis Palmer. It seems there had been a mistake in the printing of the game rosters and that Danquah had been assigned another number and Leotis Palmer had been left off the roster altogether. Now armed with this newly acquired piece of biographical data, I returned to the cyber-bulletin board and said that everything I had written about number nine yesterday still held true, but that the player's name was Leotis Palmer.
I'm certainly no oracle in the field of assessing football talent, but in this instance I did have a measure of trenchant insight concerning Palmer's ability before he ever took the field in a varsity game. Even in a preseason scrimmage, manning a position for which he had not been recruited to play at Air Force, Leotis displayed skills and talent that were far from ordinary. He will enter Saturday's game against San Diego State standing at the brink of excellence in the history of option era football at the Air Force Academy. By gaining a total of seventy-six yards in the final two games of the season, one at home and the other a bowl game, Palmer will become the second most prolific ground gaining halfback in the option era at Air Force.
UNDERVALUED. The option based attack--in its many varieties, which AFA coaches Ken Hatfield and Fisher DeBerry have used for over twenty years--is an offensive scheme which places the quarterback and fullback on center stage and in the spotlight's gleam. Players employed in the other so called "skill positions" of the option attack--the halfbacks, wide receiver and tight end--are complimentary, rather than central, components to this offensive scheme. As a result, only over a period of time have vigilant onlookers been able to detect the seemingly subtle talents of Leotis Palmer and fully appreciate them. A deep rooted admiration for the virtuosity of an exceptional halfback in an option attack cannot be cultivated by merely watching him on those infrequent occasions on which the ball is actually handed or pitched to him during the course of game.
Rightly or wrongly, when an AFA quarterback places the ball in the fullback's belly not many people in the stands focus on the Falcons' halfbacks to see what they are doing as the play develops. Therein lies an apportionment of sorrow. If you have never taken the time to watch Leotis Palmer deliver well executed, forceful blocks, then you have denied yourself the opportunity to see a vaster array of the diversity of his talents. If you have never watched the precision and conviction with which he runs a pass route, even though the ball is thrown to another receiver, then your appreciation of Leotis' ability is not as elaborate as it might be.
FOCUSSING ON THE GOAL. I began this tribute to a multitalented student-athlete by saying he has been a model. In fact, to watch Leotis Palmer play football is to understand the nature and essence of the manner in which Air Force plays the game. The success authored by coach Fisher DeBerry's teams bespeaks the triumph of collective effort over individual stardom and aggrandizement.
Air Force football focuses upon the achievement of the team rather than the enhancement or advancement of individual stars. The manner in which Leotis Palmer plays football is a demonstration that the mindset of Air Force players being "brothers-in-arms" is more than a banal catchphrase. Leotis has always been willing to use his considerable talents to secure victory for the team and DeBerry and his staff have summoned Leotis to display his craft in any number of ways.
ONLY PART OF THE STORY. It was Benjamin Disraeli who said that there are "lies, damn lies and statistics." And so there are. An examination of Leotis Palmer's individual statistics merit inclusion in any thorough summation of his football career, but they by no means depict or describe his full impact on the team's success over the past four seasons.
For his career Leotis Palmer has carried the ball 254 times for 1,403 yards, a 5.52 yards per carry average and 9 TDs. He has caught 22 passes for 219 yards, a 9.95 yards per reception average and 1 TD. Palmer has returned 40 punts for 390 yards and an average of 9.75 yards a return. Leotis has returned 19 kickoffs 389 yards for a 20.47 yards per return average. He has completed 5 of 9 passes for 165 yards, a 31 yards per completion mark and 2 TDs.
Leotis runs after catch against Hawaii in '01 (Associated Press)
Palmer needs to gain four yards on Saturday to surpass Qualario Brown, another former teammate of his, to become the third most prolific ground gaining halfback in AFA option era history. A total of just 76 yards in his final pair of games will vault Palmer to second place among halfbacks in rushing yardage in the option era.
The full force of Palmer's impact on Air Force football doesn't come from insurmountable statistical figures he has compiled. It comes from his continuing willingness to do what is asked of him for the good of the team. He's been needed to run the ball and met the challenge. He's been asked to catch an occasional pass and has been proficient in doing so. He's been thrust into the punishing job of returning all manner of kicks and has never flinched. He's been called upon to help diversify the offense by throwing option passes and has two scoring strikes among his five completions.
AN UNREALISTIC EXPECTATION. I have trouble coming to grips with the notion that this Saturday will be the final time Leotis Palmer plays in Falcon Stadium as a member of the Falcons' football team. Being in a position to recall nearly twenty-eight complete seasons of watching Air Force football, I can name players who have had more storied careers than Leotis Palmer. There have been some whose profile on the collegiate football landscape were more pronounced. There have been some who earned more awards of distinction accruing to football acumen than will this able bodied senior from Darien, Georgia. There is no Air Force player from whom I have derived greater enjoyment than Leotis Palmer.
I am continually astounded that a frame allegedly measuring only five feet eight inches tall and weighing 175 pounds can house so great a heart as that which has driven Leotis Palmer to the considerable success which has distinguished his playing career at Air Force. Leotis is the figurative and literal embodiment of the idea that determination can overcome deprivation where physical stature is concerned.
Leotis Palmer's selflessness and willingness to subjugate personal acclaim to the loftier goal of team accomplishment, are the enduring forces which power the Falcons to unanticipated victories against opponents perceived to be more highly skilled. Character which seeks to improve the performance of teammates and brothers-in-arms is a legacy Palmer's career will bequeath to future Falcons' football teams.
Your career has been admirable and the manner in which you have conducted yourself bears emulating. Mr. Palmer, Leotis--if I may, it has been my considerable privilege and distinct pleasure to have watched you play football throughout your career and I will not soon forget those occasions. I do not expect to see your equal at any point in the near future and I will be a long time awaiting your superior as will all fans of Air Force Falcons' football. Good luck and Godspeed.