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‘So close’: WSU great Leon Bender left a life of promise, 25 years later his legacy lives on

By Dave Boling For The Spokesman-Review

One way to judge the impact of a man’s life is the persistence of grief that follows his death.

Leon Bender has been dead 25 years. Longer than he lived.

But pain still can be heard in the voices of those who now recall his incandescent smile, his charisma and his massive potential that went tragically unfulfilled.

Impossible, still, for them to reconcile the unfairness of it all, that Bender stood on the threshold of his dreams – as a husband, father and high-draft choice in the National Football League – only to fall dead from a seizure at age 22.

Twenty-five years ago. Long enough that his circumstances have faded in the minds of many fans.

So we call upon the collective memories of key participants to revisit his story: The Washington State head football coach who invested so much in Bender but, for a time, lost faith in him; the counselor who believed in him like a son; a teammate who shouldered his casket and years of grief. And most important, the widow and the daughter – the human legacy – who helped turn his life around.

We also offer an important reminder distinct from his talents as a football player: Although a chronic academic underachiever early, the belatedly determined Bender was on the edge of earning a degree in the field of human development.

Human development? Perfect, because that was the essential thrust of his story. The last few years of his brief life gave witness to a human’s extraordinary capacity for development, especially when powered by enough patience and love.


Leon Bender still occupies space in coach Mike Price’s house, and perhaps his heart, too, although it’s complicated. Two framed pictures trigger frequent memories for the retired coach. One is of Bender and Price hugging after the 1997 Apple Cup win over Washington. In that triumphant moment, Washington State secured its first trip to the Rose Bowl in 67 years.

Another is a photo of Bender, also that day, flashing his huge, dimpled grin, with a rose in front of his face. It is unclear whether Bender is going to smell the rose or take a bite out of it, and that ambiguity reflects the dualities in Bender’s life, and also his relationship with Price.

“He was one of my favorites, but at times he wasn’t,” Price said. “He was such a character. He had that great smile and was a great leader. Some kids can push your buttons, though, and have a way of getting to you, and he could get to me. I loved him … but it was confusing.”

Price’s staff recruited Bender as a high school senior in Santee, California. His big-time talent carried a potential pitfall. Bender was an academic nonpredictor who would have to sit out his freshman season to prove his worthiness in the classroom.

“It’s hard to find big, rangy guys like him, powerful, who can run,” Price said. “And he had a mean streak in him; he played with great emotion and enthusiasm.”

As predicted, classwork vexed Bender, to the point where he was kicked out of school, his career, seemingly, over.

“I admit, I kind of gave up on him,” Price said. “He would do things … I was frustrated. He was such a leader that a lot of times kids would follow him and not me.”

Price echoed a coaching axiom that sometimes the players hardest to reach are the ones who end up being the most rewarding.

“He was a thoroughbred and a really good guy,” he said. “But it wasn’t always easy.”

Leon Bender stands at Washington State practice in the summer of 1997.  (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)
Leon Bender stands at Washington State practice in the summer of 1997. (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo


So many stories of achievement are rooted in the faith and fortitude of people behind the scenes. Price said that Bender’s mother, Antoinette, “never gave up on him,” and came to Pullman to help during her son’s times of need.

Another was a large, powerful man at WSU to whom Bender could relate: Milford Hodge.

After starring as a defensive lineman at Washington State in the early 1980s and playing four seasons in the NFL, Hodge returned to his alma mater to serve as athletic academic advisor.

He became much more than that to Leon Bender. Big brother, watchdog, role model, teller of uncomfortable truths.

“Price told me that Leon had some problems and to make sure he goes to class and doesn’t get in trouble,” said Hodge, who sensed the player’s range of potential and risks – both in abundance.

“I would go to his house, make sure he got to class, doctor’s appointments, mentored him … almost everything.”

Bender exuded such a joy for life that it made him instantly likable to teammates and staff, but Hodge came to see that Bender’s exuberance recognized no guard rails.

“When he got here, it looked like sometimes trouble tried to find him,” Hodge said. “It didn’t seem like he would purposely get into trouble, but he was not a great person to pick fights with. You had people who kind of wanted to challenge him, and he always won any challenge.”

At 6-foot-5 and fluctuating between 300 and 320 pounds, Bender was destined for a career as a defensive tackle in the NFL. But Hodge knew it wasn’t going to happen if Bender couldn’t stay on the team.

As close as he got to Bender, Hodge feared this message wasn’t taking hold. The promise of an NFL payday wasn’t enough to keep Bender focused on staying eligible.

A Cougar co-ed, Liza Garcia, was, however.

“She was the best thing that ever happened to him,” Hodge said. “I remember when he told me about meeting her; he talked about her all the time, and then I could see the way he was when they were together.”

Hodge recalled the time Bender told him of being challenged in some way while in town on a date with Liza. He responded by turning away and walking toward his future – focusing on his school work with new purpose.

“He came into my office and we talked a long time. I said, ‘ OK, you’ve had some sidetracks, but you don’t have any chances left; it’s time to take control,’ ” Hodge said.

The result? “Leon grew up big time.”

Leon Bender’s widow, Liza, right, and his daughter, Imani Bender.  (Courtesy of Liza Russo)
Leon Bender’s widow, Liza, right, and his daughter, Imani Bender. (Courtesy of Liza Russo)


Liza Garcia was not impressed by the attentions of classmate Leon Bender.

“He kind of annoyed me, actually,” she said in a telephone interview. “He was just very persistent. It was kind of funny the way things came about. I knew he liked me and we would hang out. Then we fell in love and it was special.”

His appeal? “He just had a way … he could make people feel special, being open and welcoming to them. He had a lot of charm and charisma.”

But the substandard grades and off-the-field troubles?

“We dealt with those in the early phase of our marriage. I just think it was immaturity, being away from home. You’re on your own and going to class is all on you. He struggled academically, but it wasn’t for not being bright and capable.”

When their daughter, Imani, was born, Leon had officially flunked out. Off the team. Done. But Bender discovered one final chance: To try to pick up credits at the Clarkston branch of Walla Walla Community College.

“Becoming a father, he realized that people were relying on him, and it had a big impact,” Liza said. “He realized that he wasn’t going to live up to that (football) potential if he stayed on the path he was going down. Those things helped him turn that corner.”

It was roughly 70 miles round trip from the Benders’ apartment in Pullman to classes in Clarkston. Leon made it there, to all his classes, and salvaged his grades. Liza, mother of their newborn daughter, drove him each day.

She had no choice. Leon never had a driver’s license because he suffered from epilepsy and associated seizures since childhood.


Liza Bender never had seen an epileptic seizure until she met Leon. “I was not prepared at all,” she said. “It was scary; he was a big guy. It was traumatic. You just don’t know what you can do to help them.”

Epilepsy is a neurological disorder caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain cells that can cause seizures of varying intensity and duration. It goes back millennia, with famed sufferers including Julius Caesar, Beethoven, Newton, da Vinci, Michelangelo.

Bender had dealt with the disorder since he was a child, and it was effectively controlled by regular medication.


Love Jefferson, friend, teammate, pallbearer, spoke to the qualities that drew him toward Bender.

“Mostly, I remember his infectious and genuine smile above all else,” Jefferson said. “He was a great person, always in the moment, and that’s what helped him excel not only in athletics but in creating friendships and relationships. People had tremendous respect for him.”

Although the Cougars finished a middling 5-6 (3-5 in Pacific-10 Conference) in 1996, Jefferson remembers that Bender had started talking up a Rose Bowl appearance to his teammates. Not just mentioning it, but becoming obsessed with it.

“Leon laid it out for everybody, making it mandatory that nobody was going home during the summer (of 1997),” Jefferson said. “He said, ‘Everybody’s staying here, we’re going to the Rose Bowl.’ He was the powerful voice making everybody commit to staying that summer and busting our tails. He provided that energy and the confidence.”

The team had talent and experience, especially with quarterback Ryan Leaf as the headliner, Jefferson said, “but I would attribute our getting to the Rose Bowl to Leon’s leadership.”

Jefferson saw in Bender the rare ability to immediately transition from a teddy bear in the locker room to a grizzly bear on the field. “And you didn’t want to poke that bear.”

Leon Bender holds a rose after Washington State’s 41-35 victory over the University of Washington on Nov. 22, 1997, in Seattle that secured WSU’s Rose Bowl appearance against top-ranked Michigan.  (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)
Leon Bender holds a rose after Washington State’s 41-35 victory over the University of Washington on Nov. 22, 1997, in Seattle that secured WSU’s Rose Bowl appearance against top-ranked Michigan. (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo


Apple Cup week, late November 1997.

Leaf was on his way to All-American honors, becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist and was the biggest story out of Pullman most of the season. But no Cougar was more popular among media covering the team than Leon Bender. He flashed his wit and candor with the same enthusiasm he overpowered blockers on the field.

From a newspaper across the state, I called Bender to fill up a column I was writing about the upcoming rivalry game with Washington that could earn the Cougars their first Rose Bowl berth since 1931.

Genial and comical, Bender had a way of talking trash without the bite of mean-spiritedness. And he was equally tough on himself and teammates when they didn’t play up to his expectations.

Heading into this game, though, Bender was entirely reserved on the topic of the rival Huskies. His caution, he explained, was the byproduct of a schooling by Price, who warned that degrading the Huskies in print this week would be counterproductive. Too much was at stake to risk fueling the opponent’s motivation.

Instead, Bender stressed the personal implications of the game, talking about the second and third chances he had received at WSU, realizing how close he had come to missing out on this precious moment in his career.

“It was a dream of mine to play in the Pac-10 and maybe go to a Rose Bowl,” he said. “I almost didn’t get the chance, I was almost back on the corner at home, not accomplishing anything – with the rest of my buddies.”

The reference to the pressures by peers on the street corner perhaps revealed the roots of his lackadaisical approach to school in his early times at WSU.

“Now, I’m working hard to get my degree. I’m going to graduate. People always said, ‘Leon Bender isn’t going to be here, Leon Bender isn’t going to make it.’ They counted me out and now I’m proving them wrong.”

The Cougars won 41-35 on the Huskies’ home field; players were handed celebratory roses.


A year earlier, Bender had predicted to family members that the Cougars would play in the Rose Bowl against Michigan. It had been 67 years since WSU advanced to the Rose Bowl, so it’s unlikely anyone aside from Bender could have envisioned it.

“He said it and it became true,” Liza said. “He knew they could do it and he was forceful with it to the rest of the team. That’s the part of the charisma and leadership he had to get everybody rallying behind him, hyping everybody up.”

The Cougars lost the game to the national champion Wolverines 21-16, but Bender made five tackles and knocked down two passes – impressive stats for a defensive tackle, especially playing against Michigan’s precocious freshman guard, Steve Hutchinson, who would become an NFL Hall of Famer.

Bender already had been named to the All-American third team, but his potential now seemed even more impressive to pro scouts, who seemed eager to make him a millionaire.


Bill Doba, defensive coordinator for the Cougars, got a call from Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden. Doba had coached with Gruden’s father, Jim, at Indiana University in the mid-1970s. Bender’s disjointed career at WSU produced a few red flags, and Gruden wanted the opinion of a coach he could trust.

“He wanted to know everything about him, so I went through the whole thing,” said Doba, retired in Michigan. “I told him he was awesome; his footwork was incredible. He attacks the line of scrimmage, and he gets so much push into the backfield that he can chase running backs from behind.”

And of his character?

“I told him he was a great guy, doesn’t miss practice, doesn’t miss weights and always works hard,” Doba said. “I said, ‘He may miss a class now and then,’ and Gruden said, ‘Well, we’re not worried about him getting to class.’ ”

Gruden was convinced. “He told me they were going to take him early,” Doba recalled. “And he promised they would take care of him for us.”

Washington State’s Leon Bender (91), pursuing on the play, was an impressive combination of speed and power for the Cougars.  (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State’s Leon Bender (91), pursuing on the play, was an impressive combination of speed and power for the Cougars. (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo


The Raiders drafted Bender with the 31st selection on April 18, 1998.

“He was over the moon; he shed tears,” Liza said. “We were all around … family … and it was really a special moment.”

In a few weeks, Bender left Pullman for Marietta, Georgia, to train and condition with other NFL players, staying at the home of Terry Bolar, an associate of his agent, Eugene Parker.

Liza stayed in Pullman, taking summer school classes so she could graduate and they could quickly relocate to the Bay Area before the season began. They talked on the phone every day, charting their future.

“We were so excited,” she said. “We were talking about the move, finding the right neighborhoods that had the best schools, things like that. We were planning for this new life, this big, exciting life full of so much promise – such an exciting time.”

Liza Russo (formerly Bender) paused briefly at this point in the interview before adding two more words about the great promise of that time.

“So close.”


Terry Bolar offered a vignette from Leon Bender’s final hours of life, one that tells a great deal about who he had become as a father.

“We were going to go for a workout in the morning, and I wanted to go to bed, but Leon spent most of the evening playing and having fun with my two young daughters,” Bolar said – it being obvious that Leon was missing playtime with his own little one.

“He was such a great dude, one of a kind, and we were all very protective of him. He was on top of the world, so hyped up.”

Asked of the morning Bender died, Bolar retrieved painful memories and excused himself for his hesitations. “It’s pretty hard, just trying to get it out.”

Leon was going to shower before Bolar took him to work out with other clients. “I was reading the paper while he showered, but it seemed like he was taking a long time,” he said. “I finally knocked on the door and kept calling him, ‘Leon, come on, we’ve got to go work out.’ He should have been ready.”

He found Leon on the floor of the bathroom. “I didn’t know what was going on … I was so panicked.” He called 911. “I was trying to do what they told me. I was giving him mouth-to-mouth, and I never did that before.”

Bender was dead on arrival. Ruled a result of a seizure. Perhaps his fall had contributed. But no drugs, no foul play. Natural causes.

But nothing is natural about a sudden death of a young athlete like Bender. “I was in a daze,” Bolar said. “Such a tragedy, such a good guy and a genuine good person. I felt like I was his protector … but …”


Questions arose at the time.

•Bender’s epilepsy had been under control. Did he stop taking his medication? Liza quashed that one at the time, saying Leon had never forgotten. She never had to remind him. He knew how important it was.

She added that as Bender settled into the structure of married life and fatherhood, his seizures had stopped. “He had gone a long while without one,” Liza said. “He never had one in front of (daughter) Imani, and she was 2 when he died, so it had been at least more than two years.”

•Bender’s condition had been kept a secret. Not true. Bender didn’t advertise it to teammates, but the coaching and medical staff certainly knew.

“Oh, hell yes, we were prepared to take care of him at a moment’s notice,” said Mark Smaha, longtime athletic trainer at WSU. “He never did have a full-blown seizure on a trip or in my presence. One trip, I can’t remember when, he was struggling because of fatigue, but he didn’t have one. We were ready, though.”

•Were the Raiders trying to shortchange Bender on the contract he signed? The full deal was $3.45 million over five years. But his signing bonus was $1.2 million, Bolar said, which was fully paid in increments to Liza. “The Raiders lived up to it and they stuck behind him,” Bolar said.

“Yes,” Liza said. “We got resolution on that.”

Washington State’s Leon Bender takes a break during preparation for the 1997 Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.  (Christopher Anderson/The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State’s Leon Bender takes a break during preparation for the 1997 Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. (Christopher Anderson/The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo


It still hasn’t made sense to those in Bender’s sphere. A man so young, so full of life, who had found the path to success only to be struck down.

Jefferson: “The news destroyed us. Teammates and friends met. We cried our eyes out, everybody. It was hard to process. You just don’t expect that when someone had climbed the mountain and gotten to the top ready to live the dream of their life … then something comes out of the blue.”

Hodge: “Tough? Yeah, it was really tough. I must say that he was almost like a son to me. We developed a real friendship. Liza called me and asked me to come to their house. It took me a while to get over that. His wife used to come to my office after it happened and just wanted to sit there and talk because she knew Leon was always in my office. And when I’d see his daughter as a child, I could see Leon. Tough … yeah … it was tough.”

Price: “He loved his wife and loved his baby and he loved Cougar football. When he died, we had a service for him at Washington State and it was huge; it went a couple hours with kids standing up and telling Bender stories. I also went down to his service in San Diego. It was just tremendous. I certainly haven’t forgotten him. I loved him.”

Russo: “I feel like I was kind of a zombie, in a sense, and I don’t even know for how long, or how I was functioning, to be honest. I mean, 22-year-olds just don’t drop dead. The effect it had on so many people, family and friends, was so powerful. Shocking. Stunning. It was just a blur. Just very unfair.”


Russo has been with Starbucks in Seattle for almost 15 years, working in talent management, a part of the human relations department. Her daughter, Imani, is 27 and works with the YMCA of Greater Seattle. She was an athlete at Ballard High and is a graduate of Washington State.

“The biggest part of our loss (of Leon) is that he did not get to see Imani grow up because she’s absolutely one of the most beautiful human beings.

“I’m her mom, of course, but she is just wonderful. She’s smart and hilarious and has such a good heart. The work she does in the community, and with homeless youth, is super inspiring. For (Leon) to not be a part of her life and watch her grow is just so unfortunate and sad.

“He would have been so proud.”