Chris Leak: In pursuit of perfection

SUMMER WORKOUT REPORT: It is Thursday afternoon. An afternoon thunderstorm has dropped just enough rain on Gainesville to blanket the city with humidity so thick that you think only a chain saw could cut through it. It is a typical North Florida afternoon, typical in that people who know how a June afternoon in Gainesville can drain you are inside drinking something cold with the AC cranked up full blast.

No one would think less of Chris Leak if he waited until the sun goes down, when the temp drops about 10 degrees and the humidity settles into a range that is a bit more comfortable and reasonable. But he's aware that football games on September afternoons are played in hotter weather than this and that the post-Labor Day humidity in Gainesville is often the worst of the year.

So, instead of waiting for the weather to cool and the humidity to drop, he's out there on the far west practice field, throwing one pass after another to a group of wide receivers who are defended play after play by cornerbacks who are looking to get the extra work in. On this afternoon, the receivers will run only three or four different routes. Leak will make the same throw over and over again. He rarely says anything except to correct a receiver who's run a route a couple of steps too deep or who has made his cut a step too early. He just takes the snap, takes his drop, and then he delivers.

One throw after another. One tight spiral after another.

He throws a sideline route where the ball's trajectory is so flat that you could hang your laundry on it. Next throw goes about 55 yards down the field, a high, arcing parabola that seems laser guided. You can almost see the Nike swoosh because the spiral is wound so tightly as it finds the waiting hands of a speeding receiver.

In a game, this would be a touchdown pass. Leak would be jumping up and down, showing that emotion that he only showed in 2003 after a scoring pass. On this afternoon, however, there is no celebration. He merely allows a slight smile to crack an otherwise stoic face that advertises concentration and focus as if there is a neon sign flashing on his sweaty forehead.

Yes, he's just made the perfect throw, but he goes about business with the next throw as if all memory of the last smart bomb has been erased. As good as the last throw was, he will expect the next one to be better. This is only practice. Practice is for getting better. Practice is for honing skills that are already instinctively marvelous. Practice is for learning to make the perfect throw every throw.

And because he expects to make the perfect pass, he never takes even one single throw off. Even though this is practice, Chris Leak is all business.

Occasionally he throws a pass that shows some wobble. He looks at his hands for an instant as if he is questioning where that came from. These hands. This arm. Wobbles are neither expected or allowed. How could this happen?

He throws an imaginary ball once, then twice. Each time he checks his follow through. Each time he checks where his hand is at the release point. It is as if he has a mental checklist of every throw. If there is something wrong, he goes through the checklist until he has located the flaw.

Satisfied that he's found out what went wrong with the last pass, he takes another snap, makes the same throw again.

This time there isn't even a hint of wobble. The spiral is perfect. The throw is perfect, right on the numbers. If the receiver were wearing a jersey with a bullseye, this one would have hit the big red dot in the middle. It's a slant route that thrown in a game with a receiver in full stride would have split the seam and left a defensive back seeing only elbows and the soles of the feet of a receiver long gone.

This time, he allows another slight smile to crease his face. His eyebrows arch a bit as if to say, "that's more like it!"

By the time it's 6:30, he's ready to knock off for a day. He's made 100 or so throws and probably catalogued each one in his mind. Enough for one day. He will be back out Friday with a slew of mental notes about how to make each throw just a bit better. He will be out there every afternoon doing the same thing. The routine will not change.

His receivers understand his relentless drive to make every throw perfect. When they drop a ball or fail to run down a throw that perhaps could have been a catch with a little longer stride, an extra burst of speed or a little more stretch, the looks on their faces read disappointment and no one wants to make eye contact with the quarterback.

They are fully aware of the job description. Get open. Make the catch. Run for yards after the catch. They are also fully aware that if they do their jobs, the quarterback will do his. They are well aware that if they can create just that slight instant of separation from a defensive back, the kid will put the ball exactly where it needs to be.

They only have to run their routes with precision. They only have to give their best efforts on every throw. They understand that the quarterback won't take a throw off. Therefore, they understand that they are not allowed to give a half hearted effort on a single route.

It's all or nothing.

This is the way it is every afternoon. This is the way it will be every afternoon this summer. The hot sun, the humidity won't deter the kid. It won't deter a receiving corps that fully understands that Chris Leak is indeed something special. They know the quarterback had all the hype coming out of high school. They are beginning to believe that there is hype and then there is Chris Leak. Chris Leak. Better than all the hype.

You can see the admiration the receivers have for their young leader. He makes another perfect throw. They raise eyebrows and look at each other as if they are seeing something for the first time. In fact, they've seen this hundreds of times already this week. They will see it thousands more times before August gets here and fall practice begins, and they will see it another few thousand times before the first game of the season on that first weekend in September.

Yet no matter how many times they see the perfect pass, it is as if they are seeing it for the first time. And every time they see that perfect pass, they see how he puts that much more effort into the next pass, believing so strongly in his heart and mind that he can make each throw a little bit better.

This is Chris Leak's world.

This is why he came to the University of Florida.

The fire burns like an all consuming furnace within him. He wants to be the best. He wants his team to win. He wants to win championships. As good as he is already, he expects to be better. Not just better from freshman year to sophomore year. Better from one pass to the next. Better on each play.

He understands that games are won one play at a time. He understands that the preparation to make one play at a time begins in the offseason where he stands in the hot summer sun, throwing one pass after another, self-critiquing each throw, committing each perfect throw to muscle memory but believing so strongly in his heart that in a game, it has to be done even better than what it's done in practice.

He is not the best quarterback in all of college football.

Yet.

He will be. One day.

And one day will likely be sooner, not later.

He is that good now. He will be that much better in the future.


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