Harry Leons has never told his 6-year-old son Jack about the magical football season he and his Eastern Washington University team experienced in 1997, the year the Eagles advanced to the semifinals of the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs before losing to eventual national champion Youngstown State.
“I will some day, I suppose,” the 35-year-old said during a phone interview from his office in Chicago, where he works as a sales representative for an industrial supplies company. “And when I do, he’ll probably be surprised to learn his goofy dad was involved with football.”
When that day arrives, Leons may want to make it clear he was more than simply “involved.”
As the unlikeliest of heroes on a team that finished the regular season 10-1 and gave the school its first outright Big Sky championship, the Eagles’ senior quarterback quietly threw for 2,588 yards and 21 touchdowns with only five interceptions.
He completed 61.9 percent (159 of 257) of his throws and finished the year with a single-season school-record pass efficiency rating of 169.5 since broken by Erik Meyer. Eastern went on to make its deepest NCAA postseason run.
For his contributions, Leons was named the BSC’s most valuable offensive player, and was the first-team quarterback on the Burger King Coaches I-AA All-America team.
“We had a pretty unique group, and a unique coaching staff,” Leons recalled of the team coached by the always eloquent Mike Kramer. “You probably remember Kramer. We had to use a thesaurus after every team meeting just to figure out what the heck he was talking about.”
That Leons played such an important role on Eastern’s most successful football team was remarkable, considering the humble beginnings of his college athletic career.
Not only did Leons walk on to the football team in the fall of 1993 and then leave in mid-October to walk on to the Eagles basketball team, but he spent the better part of his first two football seasons playing wide receiver on the scout team and a kickoff cover man on the junior varsity.
It wasn’t until midway through his sophomore year that Kramer put Leons on partial scholarship.
“If my parents, who were paying for my school, knew how far down on the depth chart I was those first two years, they would have probably told me to give it up and get a job,” Leons admitted. “But I didn’t elaborate on where I was with them, because I was trying to keep my personal dream alive.
“Looking back, I don’t know if (the coaches) were trying to run me off the team, or what. I might have just been too dumb … to realize I wasn’t part of their plan.”
But Leons became a big part of Eastern’s plan as a sophomore in 1995, when a midseason injury to Brian Sherrick thrust him prematurely into the role of the Eagles’ starting quarterback.
“I wasn’t ready for that,” Leons admitted. “I threw four interceptions against Idaho State in the first game I started.”
And nine more that fall as the Eagles lost six of their last seven games to finish 3-8.
The following year, as a junior, Leons led Eastern to victories in four of its first five games before suffering a knee injury that ended his season. He underwent surgery in the winter and came back that next fall to help the Eagles make history.
After receiving his degree in radio-television in the spring of 1998, Leons spent three seasons as a seldom-used backup quarterback in the Arena Football League, playing for both the Portland Forest Dragons and Los Angeles Avengers. But Leon’s AFL career ended in 2002 when he separated his right throwing shoulder in an Avengers preseason game.
It was during his stay in L.A. that Leons met Tiffany Tomasich. After Leons was placed on injury waivers by the Avengers prior to the start of the 2003 AFL season, he decided to close the football chapter of his life and move to Chicago with Tomasich.
Their plan was to settle in a quiet suburb, get married and raise a family.
The marriage part never worked out, but about a year after moving to the Windy City, the couple had a son, whose arrival changed Leons’ outlook on everything – including his football career.
“I always thought I was proud of some of the things I did on a football field,” Leons said. “But after Jack was born, none of that mattered anymore. That was, by far, the most important and exciting moment of my life.”
Despite having ended their romance several years ago, Leons and Tomasich remain amicable and live in the same neighborhood so they can share time with their son.
“After we split up, we made sure we lived down the street from each other so we were both always around Jack,” Leons said. “He lives with me, but stays with her a lot, too, and we both see him every day. Tiffany and I worked very hard to make sure this worked out.
“Jack is a well-adjusted, happy little boy, and I’m really proud of him. He’s really into baseball right now, and he’s a much better athlete that I was.”
Leons has stayed in touch with several of his former teammates and last returned to Cheney in the fall of 2008, when he was one of eight quarterbacks named to the Eagles “100 for 100” All-Time Team that marked the school’s 100th season of football.
He remains an Eagle at heart, and is closely following this year’s team, which is ranked No. 1 in the nation and hoping to make another stirring playoff run.
“I’ve seen a lot of video clips of them,” he said of the Eagles, “and I’ve really been impressed. I like their quarterback (Bo Levi Mitchell) a lot.
“And I love that red turf.”