GARDEN GROVE — Leon Vickers couldn't have been a better high school football player. As a linebacker at Rancho Alamitos in 1992, he was all-league, all-county, all-state and All-American.
Last fall, Vickers took his honors and his rock-solid, 6-foot, 210-pound frame to Stanford, where he started one game at outside linebacker as a freshman; by spring practice, he had moved himself into a full-time starting position.
But as the Cardinal prepared this week for Saturday's game at Arizona State, trying to shake itself out of a 1-2-1 start, Vickers' body and mind were far removed from the Palo Alto campus.
Vickers is back home, working at a factory that makes screws for helicopters and airplanes. He is not attending school, instead giving much of his time and energy to a Garden Grove church he says will prepare him properly for a life beyond this one. But his decision to give up a promising football career, not to mention a valuable scholarship to one of the nation's finest universities, has baffled family, friends and former coaches, teammates and educators, and they wonder if he's being unduly influenced by the church.
But Vickers, 19, says it's a decision he made on his own, guided by the Bible.
"When I watch Stanford on TV, sometimes I wish that could be me," he said. "But I know I'm doing the right thing.
"I don't regret it."
He eventually will, many tell him. Bill Walsh, the Stanford football coach who led the San Francisco 49ers to three National Football League titles in the 1980s, tried over the summer to persuade Vickers to return, even asking some of his former 49er players to make a pitch. But phone calls, visits and letters from across the country only seem to have strengthened Vickers' commitment to the Church of Christ, whose followers believe in strict interpretation of the Bible and form what they say is part of a growing, nationwide network of autonomous congregations.
"I'm looking at what's going to benefit me spiritually," Vickers said this week. "They're looking at what's going to benefit me materially."
Jeff Byrd, Vickers' best friend at Rancho Alamitos, left a starting running back spot at Columbia University and transferred to Stanford this year on advice from Vickers. Now, Byrd is a third-string back attempting to earn what Vickers gave up.
"He had a deal," Byrd said from Palo Alto. "It's definitely a precious thing to have a scholarship here. I told him, 'I would die to be in your shoes.' "
Vickers said Byrd, like the rest of his friends and family, doesn't understand.
"I've thrown away what a lot of kids want," Vickers said. "But I think I'm walking into what a lot of kids need and don't realize it. The church is looking beyond this life."
Vickers' exasperated mother, Nancy, isn't looking beyond, however. She still has hopes of reaching Leon and getting him back into college.
"I'm never willing to give up," she said. "I may take a break now and then because it's so strenuous. But I'll get him back. I know God will give me my son back."
Nancy Vickers said she began to lose her son during his senior year of high school, when he began attending classes at the Church of Christ. At the time, her husband, James, was in the Persian Gulf War, and Leon was being heavily recruited by Stanford and USC.
"Recruiters were all over him," she said. "There was a lot of pressure then, and that's when he went to his first Bible study."
Leon attended the class with a school friend and was hooked immediately. "I just went," he said, "and the things I heard, there was no denying them."
Nancy Vickers said her son has always been more religious than the rest of the family.
"He's always been seeking the Lord in some way," she said. "He's always gone to Bible study."
But Nancy Vickers said she realized this was more than that when Leon came home for the winter holidays during his freshman year.
"Last Christmas, he told me he wasn't celebrating Christmas or Easter or any of the (mainstream) holidays," she said. "It started to hit home then."
Once her son was away from home and the church, Nancy Vickers says, she figured he would be able to concentrate on football and school. But she didn't realize the Church of Christ also had a congregation in Vallejo, some 90 minutes from Palo Alto.
"That really backfired on me," she said. "Once he got up there, they snatched him from me."
During spring practice, Vickers began asking Walsh if he could leave workouts early. The coach allowed Vickers to leave one practice per week 45 minutes ahead of schedule but wouldn't agree to three early days a week.
"I started realizing how much of the Bible I do need," Vickers said. "It takes work to go to heaven. The more Scripture I can put into my mind, the more filthiness I can get out."
Over the summer, Walsh and Vickers negotiated how much practice time Vickers would be able to miss this season.
"Bill Walsh was understanding," Nancy Vickers said. "He said he'd give Leon two nights a week. The man has bent over backward for Leon."