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Looking Back

Still Following His Heart

October 20, 1998|DAVE McKIBBEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PRESCOTT, Ariz. — It has been more than four years since Leon Vickers shocked his family and friends by walking away from a free Stanford education and a possible NFL career for a life devoted to serving God. Vickers, now 23 and living in this quiet mountain town 100 miles northwest of Phoenix, fills his days with work as an apprentice electrician and his nights with church-related activities for the Church of Christ, a strong fundamentalist sect.

But there are times when his mind drifts back to Rancho Alamitos High, where he was an all-state and All-American safety, and to Stanford, where he was fast becoming a standout defensive back for the Cardinal.

"That's unavoidable," Vickers said. "Everybody does that. Like the average person, I think about what would have happened. What could have been. Even a plumber does that--thinking about how his life might have been different."

And what does Vickers see from his living room, which sits only a few hundred yards from Prescott High's football field?

"I kind of feel very strongly that I would have gone pro," Vickers said. "The turnaround that happened that spring [of his freshman year at Stanford] was almost a phenomenal switch. But getting out here and seeing things, it's not all that life's about."

More than anything, Vickers understands life is about choices. And he made his most important choice in the summer of 1994, when he told then-Stanford Coach Bill Walsh he could no longer honor his scholarship because practice conflicted with Bible study classes. Vickers wanted to be excused early from practice three days a week, but Walsh agreed to only one day. Even now, Vickers said he would have played his sophomore season, but probably no more, had Walsh given in to his demands.

Since leaving his past behind, Vickers has tried to reclaim it once, but his comeback lasted just 15 minutes. Last fall, Nancy Vickers received a frantic phone call from her son.

"He said, 'I need to get back into school, even if it's a junior college,' she said. 'I need to start playing ball, but I have to stay in the church.' I told him, 'Fine, we'll come get you.' My daughter, Detra, was here and she said I turned pale. I almost passed out."

Nearly out the door and on her way to Prescott, Nancy Vickers heard the phone ring again.

It was Leon.

"Someone must have really gotten to him in those 15 minutes, because he changed his mind," Nancy Vickers said. "He apologized for putting me through that. It was tough, but I thought, 'At least there's hope.' "

But where Nancy Vickers sees hope, Leon sees "carnality."

"That situation is a tremendous fault on my part, where I wasn't as spiritual as I needed to be," Leon said. "I was looking at the world too much. Giving my mind over to things of the past. Basically, I just consider it a weak episode within my Christianity that will never happen again."

Vickers said another member of his congregation guided him back to reality.

"I was split the whole time anyway, just yearning for the old things," he said. "I got some help from an individual who said, 'You've done too much to turn back now.' Even John The Baptist had a similar situation. There was a time when he was about to be beheaded and he kind of doubted Christ."

But there are some links to Vickers' past that he simply won't let go. He still speaks with several of his Stanford teammates and he says has attempted to reach former Stanford assistant coach Keena Turner. He keeps the 1995 Stanford football media guide and he's still proud to show off the line in his biography that speaks of his emerging physical presence.

Although he's no longer the presence he once was, Vickers still looks formidable. He carries about 190 pounds on his 6-foot frame and he stays in shape by running and lifting weights. When he's home on church business, Vickers has put on pads and tested his skills against his brother, David, a redshirt freshman at Colorado State.

"I've lost all my skills," Vickers said. "David and his friend were getting the best of me. I really realize now the skill level that a professional athlete has, day in and day out. You don't really realize it when you're at that level, but once you stop it . . . the footwork, the body movement, your whole body is not in sync like it used to be."

Occasionally, Vickers flips on the television to check on his old school or he'll call his closest friend from Stanford, Nicademus Watts, for an update. Watts, a microbiologist in Sunnyvale, Calif., was one of Vickers' many friends who tried to convince him to stay in Palo Alto.

"I thought he was by far an NFL-caliber player and he was also giving up a Stanford degree," said Watts, who played outside linebacker. "He was by far our most physical defensive player. I can remember some of the hits he put on people in practice. They'd be out for days. He had the strength, the speed, the agility, all the tools to be a really good safety in the NFL."

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