Caroming around the now-defunct World League and the Canadian Football League, former Washington State linebacker Mark Ledbetter had grown weary of the grind.
The body he threw into ballcarriers was breaking down. His fervor for the game was withering.
Stints with the Sacramento Gold Miners and Birmingham Barracudas – failed experiments by the CFL to expand its brand in America – and the WFL’s San Antonio Riders were enough for Ledbetter to start thinking about the next chapter of his life.
In 1995, just shy of Ledbetter’s 30th birthday, the Seattle native was en route to the airport to report to training camp before he was stuck with an epiphany.
He stopped, turned the car around and called his agent to announce his retirement.
A year later, his son, EWU defensive tackle Dylan Ledbetter, was born.
Their similarities are now striking.
Sporting the same mustache and 1980s-style mullet his father wore at the height of his career, Dylan Ledbetter is a relatively undersized commodity at 6-foot-3, 275 pounds, helping elevate EWU’s defense with his motor, technique and cerebral approach.
So was his father, who played nose tackle at 235 pounds his first three seasons at Washington State before moving to linebacker as a senior in 1988.
“I see (the similarities),” said Mark Ledbetter, who had a short stay with the New Orleans Saints as a rookie. “(Dylan) plays with reckless abandon. It’s a fight in a phone booth.”
But which of the mustachioed and mulleted Ledbetters wore it better?
“Dad has the better facial hair. He can grow the Fu Manchu,” Dylan Ledbetter said. “But I have the better hair.”
“It’s always a contest,” he said. “He thinks he has better hair, and he does.”
Dylan may also end up with the better college career.
When 22nd-ranked EWU (2-3, 1-0 Big Sky) visits Sacramento State (2-2, 0-0) on Saturday, the young Ledbetter, a team captain, will have 134 career tackles, nine sacks and 17 tackles for a loss to his name.
Ledbetter, who had two key fumble recoveries in EWU’s 35-20 win over North Dakota last week, has also carved out an impressive niche: blocking kicks.
Thanks to big, fast hands, coupled with an innate ability to jump a snap count, Ledbetter has six career blocked field goals and has batted down five passes.
All of this while commanding attention in the busy, body-filled interior of EWU’s defensive line.
“It’s just a feel thing. I don’t have a tip or a trick,” he said of blocking kicks. “It’s that you can’t take a play off. I’m able to get my hand up at the right time.”
Ledbetter was recruited as a defensive end out of O’Dea High School in Seattle, arriving in Cheney in 2015 at 240 pounds.
His frame and strength allowed for a lot more bulk, coaches said, and eventually moved him to the interior.
His first college snaps came as a redshirt freshman in 2016, when, coincidentally, EWU opened the season against his dad’s alma mater, upsetting the Cougars 45-42 in Pullman.
It served as vindication for Mark, whose Cougars didn’t offer his son a scholarship, but a preferred a walk-on spot.
“(WSU) missed an opportunity,” said Mark, who is now a projections manager for a construction business. “And I’m an Eagle for life now.”
Power 5 schools told Dylan he was a couple of inches too short, he said. At the Football Championship Subdivision level, he’s been a force.
Ledbetter started turning heads in 2017 when star defensive tackle Jay-Tee Tiuli – a future Big Sky Conference Defensive MVP who recently had a short stint with the Seahawks – went down with a season-ending injury and Ledbetter was plugged into the big man’s spot.
In his first collegiate start against Fordham, Ledbetter had three sacks.
“I feel I hang with the best of them regardless of how big I am,” Ledbetter said. “I am not going to eat blocks, I am going to initiate the strike and try to jump the snap.
“I’m not Jay-Tee. I can’t stand there and take double-teams, I have to attack.”
Ledbetter’s a natural leader, too, and carries a demeanor well beyond a man of 23 years.
When he isn’t vocally helping his team make shifts or point out glaring weaknesses in opposing offenses, Ledbetter ribs teammates, coaches and reporters alike.
“He’s always been kind of a kindred spirit and always took care of the underdog.” Mark said. “He knows there’s a bigger world and more to life than football.”
Mark didn’t want Dylan to play football until he was a freshman in high school, but Dylan said he signed in seventh grade behind his dad’s back.
He didn’t get in trouble. Mark understood his son’s eagerness to put on a pair of shoulder pads, and has been his biggest supporter since.
“Yeah, my dad is a smart guy who taught me a lot,” Dylan said. “He really knew how to simplify things.”
Mark will be in Sacramento on Saturday to watch Dylan and EWU face the resurgent Hornets, the same town he spent two years in the CFL.
A lot has changed since those days.
“After playing in the CFL and chasing (former CFL and NFL quarterback) Doug Flutie around, you learn to to respect the kids playing in today’s tempo,” Mark said.
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