Defending his turf
Miles of clear blue sea surround Byron Leftwich as he sits on the waterfront patio of the The Wharf Restaurant in Grand Cayman. Yet despite the humid temperatures, he doesn't feel the slightest urge to jump in as he looks down at the tropical fish meandering around in the ocean.
"I'm scared of the water," he says. "I'm a 3 to 4 feet guy; that's my territory. The water here is so clear you can see what's in there, but I'm still scared. I just don't trust what's in there. As human beings, you're in there territory. You see how bad we treat fish when people go out fishing. You think they don't remember that stuff? They're not stupid. They remember."
At the moment, Leftwich is trying not to remember the nightmare that was last season as he sits in this veritable oasis -- but it's impossible. Everything he's done for the past seven months has centered on avoiding a repeat of the most frustrating season of his four-year career.
Leftwich still vividly remembers the high he felt after leading the Jaguars to nationally televised wins over the Cowboys and Steelers to begin the season. They were the talk of the NFL and Leftwich had finally overcome a left ankle injury that had sidelined him for five games in 2005 and was beginning to come into his own. Yet just as his dream season was beginning to unfold, it came to a painfully sudden stop when Leftwich reinjured his ankle against the Redskins in Week 4. Although he ignored the injury at first, two weeks later, he could barely walk on it, putting an end to his season and the Jaguars' post-season aspirations.
"I was riding high, and then I woke up the day before the Houston game, and I couldn't walk," says Leftwich, who is here for the NFL Quarterback Challenge. "It was a situation where I tried to push the ankle harder and harder (until) it finally gave up on me."
At the time, Leftwich also felt that his coach Jack Del Rio gave up on him when he named David Garrard the starter and told Leftwich he couldn't play until his ankle healed. While the two have mended their relationship somewhat, Leftwich says he doesn't plan on sharing a beer with Del Rio anytime soon.
"I don't hate the man. He knew I was hurt and he wouldn't allow me to play, and that's what it came down to," says Leftwich, who has missed 15 games the last two seasons. "I felt that I could still help the team, and he felt that I was too injured to help the team and that's all it really was. We're not close, but I know that he knows that I give us the best chance to win when we're out there. For us to go from 12-4 to 8-8, that's something that none of us wanted to go through; and that's something we're going to try to avoid this year."
Leftwich has been trying to avoid a repeat of the past two seasons by putting himself through a stringent off-season conditioning program at Perfect Competition, a personalized training facility in Davie, Fla. frequented by many NFL players, since the season ended in January.
"I started early this year and I just wanted to focus on taking better care of my body," says Leftwich, who's dropped about 25 pounds since last season. "Really focus on the ankle that had bothered me the past two years and get it in the best shape that it can possibly be in; and I think I've done that. So now that my body's in shape, it's time to focus more on football."
Despite injuring the same ankle the past two seasons, Leftwich says he isn't superstitious when it comes to the injury. In fact, the only thing he's superstitious about has nothing to do with his left ankle -- but his right hand.
"No one touches the palm of my right hand on game day," he says. "Nothing touches my right hand. If you look at me before a game, it's balled up. I do everything with my left hand. I don't wash my face with my right hand; I don't shake no one's hand with my right hand, nothing. The only thing that touches it is the football. One time we were at a coin toss and Matt Hasselbeck knew that and he tried to shake my right hand. But I got away."
During his off-season workouts, Leftwich got away from away from Jacksonville and stayed silent, refusing to do interviews or appear on camera. Even after Del Rio dispelled rumors the starting quarterback job would be up for grabs this training camp by naming Leftwich the starter in February, Leftwich stayed clear and would not comment.
"That wasn't news to me at all," says Leftwich. "Anybody who didn't know that I was the starter of that football team didn't know that team. That wasn't news to nobody. Everybody wanted me to talk, but I was focusing on what I had to do, and it just wasn't news to me. I've always felt that way, so why would I comment on that? I know once I'm healthy, I can play football; and I think everybody else knows that so I didn't think there was any need to comment."
There is little doubt that Leftwich is the best quarterback on the Jaguars when he is healthy. But there is serious doubt that Leftwich, who has yet to play a full 16-game season during his career, can stay healthy even though he insists he's fully healed and in the best shape of his life.
"If you've been hurt the last two years and missed the amount of games that I've missed the last two years, you're going to have some doubts," he says. "All that I can ultimately control is staying in the best shape that I can so I'm out there on the field ... because when I'm out there on the field, my ability has never been doubted. The doubt comes from me not being out there and people not being able to see me week in and week out on the football field. So I understand that."
As Leftwich enters his fifth season with the Jaguars, he realizes this is a make-or-break season. His contract with the team ends after this season, and the Jaguars won't offer him a new deal until they see how he performs. Yet even if he plays up to his expectations, one has to wonder how badly Leftwich would want to return to a city -- and a team -- with whom he endured a perpetual love-hate relationship. It's a notion that Leftwich laughs at, as he insists he's committed to remaining in Jacksonville beyond this season.
"They love me when I'm out there playing, and they hate me when I get hurt," he says. "I'm the same way. I love and hate myself. When I'm out there playing, I love myself; and when I'm hurt and not playing, I hate myself. It's not that I heard whole lot of different things. I've heard the same things over and over again from the fans. Now that I'm healthy, hopefully I can stay out on the football field and they'll love me again."