Player Profile: Leigh Bodden

There aren't many undrafted free agents who carve out a niche in the NFL. Fewer still, are those from small schools who find their way to pro success. The odds are against him, but Leigh Bodden may be one player who can beat those odds.

There are benches, not luxury boxes, at the football field. Fans park in side streets, pay cash at the ticket booth and stroll in. The players on the field every Saturday are more focused on passing tests than selecting agents.

No one thinks of these guys as NFL players. The scouts don't visit, and the only TV broadcasts appear on cable channels with high numbers. High school teams in Ohio and Texas likely get more media coverage.

This is the world of "mid-major" I-AA football, and this is where Leigh Bodden comes from.

Three of Bodden's interceptions for Duquesne University last year came against teams from St. John's, Canisius, and Fairfield College. In 2003, none of those colleges will even field a football team, having ended their football programs. Duquesne will find itself in a six-team league.

Of the hundreds of football players on NFL rosters last year, only four played at this level.

Arguably, Leigh Bodden isn't even the best defensive back from 1-AA trying to make the jump to the NFL in 2003, that sort of recognition having gone to Bethune-Cookman's Rashean Mathis.

Let's be real. What are the odds that one defensive back from a small college will make an NFL roster next year, much less two?

Our advice: Don't bet against it.

Leigh Bodden might be that rare case of a player who slips through grasp of the major college programs, succeeds at a smaller level, and then makes smart decisions when going for the brass ring of an NFL roster spot.

There is no denying Bodden's impressive accomplishments while at Duquesne. Playing cornerback, Bodden pulled down 28 interceptions in four years, was twice named a consensus 1-AA All-American, and helped Duquesne win four straight conference championships. His senior year, Duquesne achieved a ranking in the I-AA Top 25 rankings, an impressive accomplishment for a small college program. Only Mathis has more career interceptions (30) at I-AA than Bodden's 28 picks.

Bodden's accomplishments don't start and end on the gridiron. He raised the level of Duquesne's track program as well, winning an Atlantic 10 long jump championship, and his speed showed up on scout's stopwatches this Spring. Bodden has timed consistently in the 4.3 - 4.4 range in the forty, which is generally a good way to get the NFL's attention.

There are suggestions that Bodden could have, and possibly should have, played football at a major college level. The player himself offers that his high school coach didn't have much experience guiding his players to major college programs. His coach at Duquesne, Greg Gattuso, was a member of Penn State's 1982 championship team, and says flat-out that he feels Bodden could have started for that squad.

Despite not having played against major college teams, Bodden didn't escape the talent-hungry NFL's eyes for long. The Chargers, Dolphins, Steelers, and Redskins all had an interest in signing him, and there were suggestions in April that Bodden might be the first Duquesne player drafted in more than fifty years.

He wasn't selected, but free agent offers came rolling in. Bodden, however, listened to his coach, who told him to ignore money and go with the team that presented the best opportunity. The Cleveland Browns, their defensive backfield relatively thin and needing upgrades, were apparently perceived to be the best fit for Bodden. 

Given Butch Davis' focus on special teams, Bodden may have made the right call. Called a "prototype special teams guy" by his agent, Bodden's size and speed might make him dangerous on punt coverage in particular. His coach at Duquesne has likely not made it a secret to Bodden that finding a special teams role with the Browns is an important first step: "Now they have to catch the coach's eye right away.", Gattuso told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, "Special teams is the best place to do it. It doesn't matter where you come from."

Now that the Browns have drafted two cornerbacks, Bodden has his work cut out for him at that position. His size, however, might make him a potential fit at safety (which is where we have listed him in our depth chart). His best way to make the team, though, will probably be on special teams.

It's not impossible. Last year, unheralded Kalvin Pearson came on strong in camp by delivering crushing tackles day after day. He won a role on the Browns, got some playing time on defense, and now is refining his skills in Europe.

One glance at Leigh Bodden's history quickly shows that he has dominated at his level. There is little else he could have done at I-AA which he didn't do in his four-year career. A new challenge awaits.

Now all he has to do is get Butch Davis to look, see, and believe.

- AB

A big "thank you" to Duquesne University's Athletic Department for the photos and information they provided in compiling this report.

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