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What's the Catch? 

Great quarterback, good student, nice guy. Is Chris Leak the ideal student-athlete?

Unflappable. Not a word you often hear from a football coach, but one that regularly rolls off the lips of Independence High's Tom Knotts. That's how the second-year Patriot coach describes 16-year-old junior Chris Leak, widely considered the best high school quarterback in North Carolina, and perhaps the best the state has ever produced. Last season as a sophomore, Leak lit up the night sky. He set state records for single-season passing yardage (4,544) and touchdowns in a season (51), all the while leading Independence to the 4A state championship and a 15-1 record.

But Leak's steady leadership is more than precociousness. It's how the six-foot, one-inch, 208-pound quarterback plays the game. In this age of chest-bumping, finger-pointing, end-zone-dancing football players, Leak is a throwback to another era, that of the Baby Boomers and those who came before them. He loves the game, but he doesn't make a spectacle of himself or need his ego massaged. "He is a stoic, whether he throws an interception or a touchdown," Knotts says.

Consider a game recently at North Mecklenburg. Leak threw a rare interception about midway through the second half, when the game's outcome was still in doubt for the still undefeated Patriots (9-0). James Taylor ­ this one a North Meck cornerback ­ had the end zone on his mind. Running the ball in from the 28-yard-line, Taylor helped pull North Meck to within two at 19-17, and sent several thousand Viking fans into a frenzy. Could North Meck do what no other team had done this season? Defeat Independence, a heavy favorite to defend its state title, given that it returned 20 of 22 starters from last year's team.

"I was surprised he didn't react," Knotts said of the interception. But to look at Leak, you would have never known that he and star receiver Mario Raley had gotten their signals crossed. Leak calmly trotted to the sideline, didn't even pull off his helmet or shake his head. He talked dispassionately to his brother C.J., a former Independence star quarterback himself, and learned what he could have done better. "He's like my eyes off the field," says Chris, who then kept his arm warm by throwing on the sideline.

Chris knew getting angry wouldn't do any good, something he'd learned by watching college and pro players, he said later. "I try to keep my cool at all times. You've got to forget about mistakes and think about the next play." He's also intent on keeping the team focused. "It's a great feeling when you're leading a team down the field, seeing everybody's eyes in the huddle," he says.

And lead Chris did. As the game at North Meck wound down, the Patriots' next two possessions resulted in a pair of touchdowns and the game, 33-17. Leak's passing spurred the second drive, which was capped by his own three-yard TD run. As his team's extra-point squad ran on the field, Leak dropped to one knee in the end zone and bowed his head.

"He said a quick prayer to thank God," explained his father, Curtis. "His brother did it. They are humble kids, thankful for being in the position to play football."

The Leak brothers have been quarterback sensations for several years now. C.J., at six feet, four inches and 235 pounds, was one of the top five prep quarterbacks nationally after his senior season (1998). He shocked the football world in selecting Wake Forest University over Notre Dame and Penn State. A prep All-America choice, C.J. played his freshman year in 1999 and part of 2000 before suffering a knee injury against Clemson. Following the coaching change at Wake after last season, C.J. transferred to Tennessee. He's sitting out the 2001 season and recovering from a dislocated kneecap.

Meanwhile, Chris, only a junior this season and an All-America selection as well, has already surpassed C.J. in the record books, holding the two state records and a host of additional Mecklenburg County records (passing TDs in a single game ­ seven, passing attempts in a single game ­ 53, passing attempts for a season ­ 481).

Chris currently is leaning toward going to Tennessee, mainly so he can play with his brother. "They've been the best buddies in football since they were little," Coach Knotts says. "I think Chris defers to C.J. and may play behind him, but that idea could change next year. Chris could go his own way."

Here's how a Tennessee scenario could work if both players remained quarterbacks: Chris would go there in 2003 and red-shirt his first year so he can learn the system. Meanwhile, C.J. returns in 2002 and has two more seasons after that. If that scenario played out, the brothers would compete for the starting job in 2004.

Though Chris now sees Tennessee as his leading choice, he's undecided. "I'm keeping my options open and want to make all my official visits," he says. "Tennessee is first on my list, but Florida is a close second." NC State is his top choice in the ACC, he says. Other schools recruiting him include Auburn and UCLA.

But don't expect Chris to wind up at a small school as his brother did initially. "He knows if you go to a small college you're not going to have the help around you (offensive line protection)," his dad says, "and you can't win by yourself."

With the ability to throw lightning-bolt passes, Chris has been in the public eye ever since junior high school. When C.J. was being recruited by Wake Forest, the school amazed observers by offering Chris, then an eighth-grader, a scholarship. At 14, Chris may have been the youngest player ever offered a college athletic scholarship. He initially committed verbally to the Winston-Salem school but has since changed his mind.

Chris can thread his lightning bolts between defenders whether throwing on the run or in the pocket. He consistently hits receivers "in the numbers" or leads them with the ball. At Nike's 2001 Football Training Camp at Georgia Tech last Spring, he was recognized as the Student Sports National Sophomore of the Year. Named Most Valuable Player in the state championship game last December ­ a 24-19 win over Hope Mills ­ he was 25 of 44 for 359 yards and three touchdowns.

Knotts, who has been coaching high school football since 1980, says what makes Chris such a great quarterback is experience.

"He's been a quarterback all his life, since he started playing (when he was eight)," Knotts says. "Chris's father played college football (at Johnson C. Smith, where he was a wide receiver and kick returner), and he's done a good job with him. As a quarterback, it helps a lot to have a football background. I have mommas and daddies who show up when their son comes here in the ninth grade, and they think he's quarterback material, but the kid doesn't know the position."

In addition to accolades on the field, Chris earns them elsewhere as well. He has a B average (his best subject is math), is polite and doesn't get into trouble.

"We have a saying on the wall in the locker room," Knotts says. "It says, 'Discipline yourself so others don't have to.' You never have to with Chris. I've never even heard him say a profane word. He's the ideal student-athlete."

His dad says he has never seen him get upset, even away from football. "He's always lowkey ­ kind of a quiet kid," says Curtis Leak.

Unflappable, you might say. *

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