Leber heads for Cotton Bowl Former Tanager football player Ben Leber is heading to Dallas with his Kansas State teammates to face the Tennessee Volunteers in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1. by M. Jill Karolevitz Eggnog, Yule logs and Auld Lang Syne have something in common this time of year with cheerleaders, marching bands and helmets � �tis the bowl game season.
Families and friends all over this country gather in front of television sets or in stadiums to watch the best of college football � from the Aloha, Citrus, Gator and Humanitarian bowls, to the Motor City, Orange, Peach and Sun bowls. And among the fans in that alphabet soup of the gridiron are Al and Han Leber of Vermillion, who will be heading to Dallas Jan. 1 to watch their son Ben, a 1997 Vermillion High School graduate, play for the Kansas State Wildcats against the Tennessee Volunteers in the 2001 Southwestern Bell Cotton Bowl Classic.
�We�re looking forward to the game,� said Al, former VHS principal, now superintendent at Dakota Valley School. �Ben has had a pretty good college football career and we�ve seen improvements in every game he�s played.�
There�s no question about family support when it comes to Ben�s time on the field with the Wildcats.
�We have gone to all the bowl games since Ben has been playing for Kansas State,� Al said. �And in four seasons, I think I�ve only missed four games, but Han has gone to all but one.�
Ben, a 6'3", 250-pound junior linebacker for Kansas State, left behind some impressive stats from his years at VHS: Argus Leader Elite 45 All-State in 1995 and 1996; South Dakota Football Coaches Association Class 11A All-State Runningback and Fullback; Big Eight All-Conference in 1995 and 1996.
In 1996 as a Tanager, Ben was the leading rusher with 254 attempts for 1,319 yards and 16 touchdowns. In three years, he rushed 572 times for 3,486 yards, scored 43 touchdowns, caught nine passes for 102 yards and totalled 135 tackles. In the same three years, the Tanagers� record was 26-6, with one state championship.
According to his VHS football coach Gary Culver, Ben earned Academic All-State with a 3.806 GPA and was an �excellent leader both on and off the field at Vermillion High School.� He received honorable mention as USA TODAY Player-of-the-Year in South Dakota and was a member of the National High School Athletic Coaches Association All-American Football Team. Ben was also a PARADE Magazine High School All-American Linebacker.
Despite the statistics and honors, however, there�s more than football in Ben�s life. He�s majoring in business at Kansas State, where he has made the honor roll.
�People think it�s me (when it comes to Ben�s academics),� Al said. �But it�s really been his mother who�s made him study.�
Yet aside from the books, there are thoughts in the Leber family about a professional football career in Ben�s future.
�We all have our heroes in sports,� Al said. �And playing professionally has crossed Ben�s mind. This year, five Kansas State players were drafted and he�s talked to them about what�s happening and how the system works. He has the size and speed, but he still has another year to go. I just don�t know. It would be up to the pros whether they want him or not.
�I think he has a chance, but it�s still a dream at this point,� he continued. �Maybe we�ll know more a year from now.�
In the meantime, Ben has his sights set for the Cotton Bowl. He didn�t make it home for the Christmas holiday, and left Manhattan with the Kansas State football team Dec. 26 for Dallas to practice for the game.
According to k-statesports.com, Ben calls Tennessee �a very good team, skilled at every position.� He adds that the Wildcats �always want to jump at the opportunity to play a good team, and that�s what Tennessee is,� he said. �Especially in a bowl game, we�re representing the Big 12 and everyone has this mystique about the SEC and the Big 12, which one is the best conference. That�s our challenge.�
The Wildcats are 10-3 overall and the Big 12 Conference North Division champions. This will be their first-ever game against Tennessee, 8-3, of the Southeastern Conference. The Cotton Bowl is the eighth straight bowl appearance for the Wildcats and the ninth in school history. They appeared in the 1997 Cotton Bowl, losing 19-15 to Brigham Young. Last year, the Wildcats defeated Washington, 24-20, in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego.
Kansas State was ranked ninth in the Dec. 3 USA Today/ESPN coaches� top 25 poll and was 11th in the Associated Press ranking. The Wildcats placed ninth in the Bowl Championship Series rankings. Tennessee was 21st in both polls.