A familiar face to Vikings fans will be on the sidelines and on the air this preseason, but, for the first time in years, he won't be in an NFL uniform.
Linebacker Ben Leber has been hired to take part in the Vikings Entertainment Network. During the preseason, Leber will conduct sideline interviews, have a role in doing video segments on the Vikings' official website and make regular appearances on the Vikings pregame show "Vikings GamePlan." He is also scheduled to be part of the VEN's new documentary program "Vikings: Beyond the Gridiron."
Leber is excited about his new opportunity with the Vikings on the media side of the operation, but admitted it's taken him awhile to get used to not spending this time of year gearing up for the annual grind of a 20-game NFL year.
"It's been great not having to worry about getting in shape for the coming season," Leber said. "It's been a long time since I could say that. It's different, but I'm not complaining."
Leber was a logical candidate for the assignment because he was always one of the more media-friendly Vikings – a player that could be approached for comment when most of the team wasn't talking following a difficult loss. He didn't actually seek out the position with the VEN, but the decision-makers liked what they heard from Leber during his weekly radio segments with Vikings play-by-play man Paul Allen's morning sports talk show on the Vikings flagship station KFAN.
"It kind of presented itself," Leber said. "I got brought in by the Vikings and asked if I wanted to put my name in the hat for their new project. I said ‘sure.' It sounded like a great opportunity."
Leber left Minnesota following the 2010 season and signed with the St. Louis Rams. It was a sour end to his playing career, because, despite being courted by the Rams and the Seattle Seahawks, Leber chose St. Louis, which he almost immediately learned was a mistake. Although he had been told differently during the recruitment process, Leber found that he was a round peg in a square hole – making him re-think his decision process.
"It was pretty much between them and Seattle," Leber said. "The offers were competitive, so it was never about money. It was about where I thought I could have more success. The Rams had made a lot of progress (in 2010) and I was familiar their linebackers coach (Paul Ferraro) because he had coached special teams with the Vikings. I quickly found out that it was a complete disaster down there and it was a culture I had never dealt with before."
Leber had figured that, with new head coach Steve Spagnuolo and his aggressive style of defense, he would be able to pin his ears back and be an impact player on blitzes. But, he soon found out, while the Rams were blitzing a lot, it wasn't coming from his side of the field."
"They had a blitz-happy scheme, but it came from the strong side, not the weak side," Leber said. "Seattle had told me they would use me on a lot of blitzes too, so I was excited about going to either place. In hindsight, Seattle would have been the better option because things went downhill fast in St. Louis. I wouldn't say it was all their fault and definitely wouldn't say it was all my fault, but I did make my share of mistakes. It was just a disappointment from the outset and I never felt like I truly fit in there."
Leber's return to Minnesota on the media side of things was a decision he had contemplated for some time. With the proliferation of NFL coverage on TV, radio and via the Internet, many players have found a second career behind the microphone. Leber was among dozens of current players that attended the NFL's Broadcasting Boot Camp – a four-day immersion program into the world of broadcasting and on-air analysis at the NFL Films headquarters in Mount Laurel, N.J.
Not knowing what to expect, the experience only solidified a potential career after football that Leber was seeking.
"I had looked at that as a possibility the last couple of years," Leber said. "When I went to the broadcasting boot camp in the spring of 2010, I got a chance to see a lot of different aspects to the media – from being an analyst to breaking down film for segments to actually do sports anchor work. I found that I enjoyed it."
Leber doesn't know where his foray into being a member of the media pack will take him – he's taking his first formative steps this preseason – but he likes what he has seen so far and hopes that it will become a career that will keep him involved in one his passions, even if it doesn't mean suiting up to play on game day.
"It's going to be different being on the other side of things – asking the questions like you guys do," Leber said. "But the big thing for me is that I still love football and this will keep me close to the game. The best part is that I really enjoy what I'm doing and I hope it will lead to a new career path for me."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
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