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Changing the Call : To the Frustration of Family and Friends, Stanford’s Leon Vickers Trades a Possible NFL Career for Role With a Controversial Church

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Leon Vickers couldn’t have been a better high school football player. As a linebacker at Garden Grove Rancho Alamitos in 1992, he was all-league, all-county, all-state and All-American.

Last fall, Vickers took his honors and his rock-solid, six-foot, 210-pound frame to Stanford, where he started one game at outside linebacker as a freshman; by spring practice, he had moved himself into a full-time starting position at safety.

But as the Cardinal prepared this week for today’s game at Arizona State, trying to shake itself out of a 1-2-1 start, Vickers was far removed from the Palo Alto campus.

Vickers is back home, working at a factory that makes screws for helicopters and airplanes. He is not attending school, instead giving much of his time and energy to a Garden Grove church he says will prepare him properly for a life beyond this one. But his decision to give up a promising football career, not to mention a valuable scholarship to one of the nation’s finest universities, has baffled family, friends and former coaches, teammates and educators, and they wonder if he’s being unduly influenced by the church.

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Vickers, 19, says it’s a decision he made on his own, guided by the Bible.

“When I watch Stanford on TV, sometimes I wish that could be me,” he said. “But I know I’m doing the right thing.

“I don’t regret it.”

He eventually will, many tell him. Bill Walsh, the Stanford coach who led the San Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowl victories in the 1980s, tried during the summer to persuade Vickers to return, even asking some of his former 49er players to make a pitch. But phone calls, visits and letters from across the country seem to have only strengthened Vickers’ commitment to the Church of Christ, whose followers believe in strict interpretation of the Bible and form what they say is part of a growing, nationwide network of autonomous congregations.

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“I’m looking at what’s going to benefit me spiritually,” Vickers said this week. “They’re (family and friends) looking at what’s going to benefit me materially.”

Jeff Byrd, Vickers’ best friend at Rancho Alamitos, left a starting running back spot at Columbia and transferred to Stanford this year on advice from Vickers. Now, Byrd is a third-string back trying to earn what Vickers gave up.

“He had a deal,” Byrd said from Palo Alto. “It’s definitely a precious thing to have a scholarship here. I told him, ‘I would die to be in your shoes.’ ”

Vickers said Byrd, like the rest of his friends and family, doesn’t understand.

“I’ve thrown away what a lot of kids want,” Vickers said. “But I think I’m walking into what a lot of kids need and don’t realize it. The church is looking beyond this life.”

Vickers’ exasperated mother, Nancy, isn’t looking beyond, however. She still has hopes of reaching Leon and getting him back into college.

“I’m never willing to give up,” she said. “I may take a break now and then because it’s so strenuous. But I’ll get him back. I know God will give me my son back.”

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Nancy Vickers said she began to lose her son during his senior year of high school, when he began attending classes at the Church of Christ. At the time, her husband, James, was in the Persian Gulf War, and Leon was being heavily recruited by Stanford and USC.

“Recruiters were all over him,” she said. “There was a lot of pressure then, and that’s when he went to his first Bible study.”

Leon attended the class with a school friend and was hooked immediately. “I just went,” he said, “and the things I heard, there was no denying them.”

Nancy Vickers said her son has always been more religious than the rest of the family.

“He’s always been seeking the Lord in some way,” she said. “He’s always gone to Bible study.”

But Nancy Vickers said she realized this was more than that when Leon came home for the winter holidays during his freshman year.

“Last Christmas, he told me he wasn’t celebrating Christmas or Easter or any of the holidays,” she said. “It started to hit home then.”

Once her son was away from home and the church, Nancy Vickers says, she figured he would be able to concentrate on football and school. But she didn’t realize the Church of Christ also had a congregation in Vallejo, some 90 minutes from Palo Alto.

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“That really backfired on me,” she said. “Once he got up there, they snatched him from me.”

During spring practice, Vickers began asking Walsh if he could leave workouts early. The coach allowed Vickers to leave one practice per week 45 minutes ahead of schedule but wouldn’t agree to three early days a week.

“I started realizing how much of the Bible I do need,” Vickers said. “It takes work to go to heaven. The more Scripture I can put into my mind, the more filthiness I can get out.”

Over the summer, Walsh and Vickers negotiated how much practice time Vickers would be able to miss this season.

“Bill Walsh was understanding,” Nancy Vickers said. “He said he’d give Leon two nights a week. The man has bent over backward for Leon.”

But Vickers didn’t see it that way.

“My priorities are learning about God,” he said. “It was a shame, because I love to play football. In the church, once you add something on, you can’t take it off. I didn’t want to give half of myself to God.”

And Vickers said he was playing better than ever.

“I would be starting at strong safety this year,” he said. “I had an awesome spring. It was going to be good. Just like in high school, it took me a year of adjustment. But in spring ball, it just clicked. I was a man out there. I know I could have played pro ball.”

Now, Vickers said his mind only occasionally wanders back to the football field. He quotes Ecclesiastes 12:13:

“ ‘To fear God and keep his commandments. This is the whole duty of man.’ That’s just what we’re all about.”

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Some, however, say the Church of Christ is all about something else. Priscilla Coates, chairwoman of the Los Angeles affiliate of Cult Awareness, which describes itself as a national preventive education organization, says the Church of Christ is “not a safe group.”

“Any group that teaches a program of manipulation or undue influence and makes you believe your past life is all evil is a dangerous group,” she said.

Vickers, who said he spends about 20 hours a week involved in church-related activities with about 35 others, denies it is dangerous or that the Church of Christ could be called a cult.

“It’s nothing like that,” he said. “We’re real big on book, chapter and verse. The things we’re doing are supported by Scripture. None of our practices are bizarre or strange. We sing songs and have fun.”

Nancy Vickers attended one class with Leon and said, “I didn’t care for what I heard.” Since her son became involved, she has researched the Church of Christ’s practices and hasn’t liked what she has found.

“It’s the same principles the Nazis used on the people of Germany,” she said. “What Hitler did with his people, that’s what they’ve done to my son.”

Said James Vickers, who attended the same class: “They talked about the Bible and tore every other religion apart.”

Kim Smith, a Church of Christ member who teaches Bible classes to the Garden Grove congregation, said she can relate to the Vickerses’ concerns.

“I understand, but this man did not make this decision coming to one Bible class,” she said. “We’re not averse to education, but he had to make a choice, and God is at the top of the list. To me, he’s an awfully inspiring kid. Believe me, he’d probably still be at Stanford if there wasn’t a conflict with what he wanted to do with his evenings.”

Smith, who said she is a former Catholic, dismisses those who label her church a cult. She says the Church of Christ is not affiliated with the controversial Boston Church of Christ Movement, a sect that uses “disciplining methods” in which each baptized member is subject to a “discipliner” who gives advice on spiritual problems and daily life.

Smith says her church has no group leader or headquarters. She said each church is autonomous, with congregations across the country. (The Garden Grove church also is not connected to the more mainstream Churches of Christ or United Church of Christ.)

Vickers defines his church as “the only one that teaches baptism for remission of sins. That baptism is necessary for salvation. Where the Scripture speaks, we speak. Where the Scripture’s silent, we’re silent.”

But Coates sees a common thread in such movements. “The sad thing is the increasing isolation from family and friends and the increasing dependence on the group,” she said.

Nancy Vickers said she rarely sees Leon anymore, but at least she does see him.

“They’ve got control, and there’s not much we can do,” she said. “The only good thing is he is in my home. Once he leaves, then I’ll really worry.”

And she says her husband already feels as if the oldest of his three children is gone.

“It’s hurt him deeply,” she said. “He says, ‘I’ve got two more children to deal with, I can’t worry about Leon anymore.’ ”

*

James Vickers, retired from the Air Force and working as a security guard, still attends every Stanford home game. Nancy hasn’t gone to any of them. “My stomach can’t handle it,” she said.

Although he has somewhat accepted his son’s new life, James said he remains “bitter” toward the Church of Christ.

“I feel that any church that could come between a kid and his education has to be undermining,” he said. “But who knows? This may be for him. I don’t think so. I told him he’s making a mistake and that he could have both (college and the church), but he doesn’t see it that way.”

James said he moved his family to Garden Grove from Florida specifically to enhance Leon’s football and academic careers.

“This is a big shock to the whole family . . . a lot of hopes were on him,” he said. “We did a lot of sacrificing getting him to Rancho Alamitos. We had heard they had a good football program and that it was a good school.”

Another of Vickers’ sons is David, a Rancho Alamitos freshman who appears to be as athletically gifted as his older brother. He has already run for more than 500 yards and has returned three interceptions, a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns.

David chose to wear No. 2 instead of the No. 20 Leon wore for the Vaqueros and James also wore during his high school days.

“David’s dealt with this now, but he didn’t want to be compared to his brother,” said Nancy Vickers, whose daughter, Detra, is a Rancho Alamitos senior.

Doug Case, the Rancho Alamitos head coach who was the Vaqueros’ defensive coordinator during Leon Vickers’ career, said Vickers still comes by the school and lifts weights. Case said he is “still in great shape and cut like he always was.”

After trying to persuade Vickers several times this summer to return to Stanford, Case said he has become too frustrated with the situation and now has a hard time talking about it.

“My opinion was he’d be more useful to the church if he led a productive life and graduated from Stanford,” Case said. “He had a chance to get out of the middle class. Having a bachelor’s degree from Stanford would be more valuable than your average state school.”

Vickers said he intends to return to college next semester at Golden West College. After he earns his associate of arts degree there, Vickers said, he will go to Long Beach State and major in liberal arts.

Nancy Vickers is skeptical.

“I just don’t see it,” she said. “When he first joined, they said he’d still be able to play pro football. He’s supposed to be taking a class now. All that college talk is just a ploy to appease the parents.”

And the talk about after college?

“I want to get just a job,” Leon said. “My goals have changed from wanting to make millions to wanting to provide for myself. I’ll take any job, as long as it doesn’t conflict with my Christianity.”

Mark Miller, Vickers’ coach at Rancho Alamitos, believes Vickers is selling himself short.

“In every aspect of his life, he’s been an overachiever,” said Miller, who has also done extensive research on the Church of Christ. “I had him in algebra class, and he’d be camped at my door at 7 in the morning asking questions about the homework. I told him, ‘God gave you a great hand, you have to play the hand you’re dealt.’

“I talked to him for four hours one day. I just didn’t want him to wake up one day and say to me, ‘Coach, what the hell did I do? Why didn’t somebody say something?’ ”

Miller, as has Vickers, said an NFL career was definitely realistic.

“You don’t walk into the Pac-10 (Conference) as a true freshman and start,” Miller said. “If Bill Walsh says he can play, what scout isn’t going to listen to him? I’d bet Bill Walsh would still take him back.”

Several attempts were made to reach Walsh, but he did not return phone calls. James Vickers said he spoke with Walsh three weeks ago.

“Walsh told me the door is still open for Leon,” James Vickers said. “He said Leon is still welcome back if he can get himself together.”

Byrd said his teammates still ask about Vickers, but not as much as they used to. He said he has moved on with his life, even if his friend won’t come with him.

“He was my backbone,” Byrd said. “He was always there for me. He told me I could play at this level, and he didn’t lie. I tried to be there for him, and he wouldn’t listen to me.

“But I don’t know why I’m feeling sorry for him. As long as it’s something he wants to do, I guess it’s OK.”

Nancy Vickers says she still hopes this will all prove to have been a bad dream.

“Leon dated this girl through high school who we didn’t think was really right for him,” she said. “One day, he finally woke up and said, ‘Wow, what was I doing?’ I have a funny feeling the same thing will happen here.”

But Leon Vickers says the change is permanent.

“I try to explain my beliefs to people, and I know it’s not easy,” he said. “I can understand where they’re coming from.

“I thought like that a year ago.”


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