Cole was only 5 or 6 back then, a kid who took a routine shot to his arm playing football only to have it swell up later.
In Denver, where he lived, Cole went to a hospital and was told the arm’s problems, including subsequent bleeding, were a result of a cancerous tumor. During his hospital stay, he met a handful of Broncos players during a visit. That’s when he first met Mike Leach, and when Leach – these days, the long snapper for the Cardinals – first realized he could impact more than just Cole when he took those visits.
Professional athletes spending time doing community work isn’t new. Every team organizes events in which player can take part. But this Tuesday is different for Leach and his wife Julie, a one-time basketball player at William & Mary. They are on their own, on one of their monthly treks to Phoenix Children’s Hospital, lugging along some team yearbooks and Leach’s self-made football card photos for him to autograph.
It’s tough to be any more under the radar than a long snapper, and Leach several times throws out self-depreciating humor about how no one really knows who he is. But he wears a Cardinals jersey, and that’s usually enough. Certainly, Leach isn’t looking for the spotlight, admitting that’s he’s a little uncomfortable the visit is even getting attention in the first place.
“We just do it because we feel good doing it,” Leach said. “Not to get our name in the paper or that kind of stuff. We get more out it than (the patients) do, I’m sure.”
Many staffers know the Leaches because they have been by so many times. It’s not unique. Former wide receiver Jerheme Urban and his wife would make frequent visits to the hospital when he played with the Cardinals. Sports makes for an easy connection with the kids, whether it is lanky tween Paul quietly telling the couple about how he is a basketball player or the bald, masked Nate, who high-fives Leach as the floor in which he is staying celebrates his departure home after a bone marrow transplant.
Leach’s future, at least professionally, is in limbo himself. He’s scheduled to be a free agent next week, and while he is hopeful to return, nothing is guaranteed. He’s been perfect in his snapping since arriving in Arizona, though, which tends to keep someone in his position out of the headlines.
Which is just fine, the way Leach sees it.
After the Leaches came to Arizona in free agency before the 2009 season – following seven of his nine previous NFL seasons in Denver – he and Julie wanted to find a way to continue visiting hospitalized children. The Cardinals, Julie said, made that happen.
Meanwhile, they stay in touch with Cole the best they can. Over the years, the Leaches started their own family (their children are 6 and 4) but still keep track of the now-13-year-old Cole, who got past his bone tumor and is a happy teenager.
Leach said Cole likes to say football saved his life. The intersection has also provided a window for the Leaches to do a little extra.
“If a guy in my position can make a little kid happy for a couple of minutes, I mean, they don’t know who I am, but they know my jersey,” Mike Leach said. “Sometimes the parents know, and if they can be distracted for a couple of minutes while they go through a hard time, that’s enough.”