It has been more than four years since Leon Vickers shocked his family and friends by walking away from a free Stanford education and a possible NFL career for a life devoted to serving God. Vickers, now 23 and living in this quiet mountain town 100 miles northwest of Phoenix, fills his days with work as an apprentice electrician and his nights with church-related activities for the Church of Christ, a strong fundamentalist sect.
But there are times when his mind drifts back to Rancho Alamitos High, where he was an all-state and All-American safety, and to Stanford, where he was fast becoming a standout defensive back for the Cardinal.
“That’s unavoidable,” Vickers said. “Everybody does that. Like the average person, I think about what would have happened. What could have been. Even a plumber does that--thinking about how his life might have been different.”
And what does Vickers see from his living room, which sits only a few hundred yards from Prescott High’s football field?
“I kind of feel very strongly that I would have gone pro,” Vickers said. “The turnaround that happened that spring [of his freshman year at Stanford] was almost a phenomenal switch. But getting out here and seeing things, it’s not all that life’s about.”
More than anything, Vickers understands life is about choices. And he made his most important choice in the summer of 1994, when he told then-Stanford Coach Bill Walsh he could no longer honor his scholarship because practice conflicted with Bible study classes. Vickers wanted to be excused early from practice three days a week, but Walsh agreed to only one day. Even now, Vickers said he would have played his sophomore season, but probably no more, had Walsh given in to his demands.
Since leaving his past behind, Vickers has tried to reclaim it once, but his comeback lasted just 15 minutes. Last fall, Nancy Vickers received a frantic phone call from her son.
“He said, ‘I need to get back into school, even if it’s a junior college,’ she said. ‘I need to start playing ball, but I have to stay in the church.’ I told him, ‘Fine, we’ll come get you.’ My daughter, Detra, was here and she said I turned pale. I almost passed out.”
Nearly out the door and on her way to Prescott, Nancy Vickers heard the phone ring again.
It was Leon.
“Someone must have really gotten to him in those 15 minutes, because he changed his mind,” Nancy Vickers said. “He apologized for putting me through that. It was tough, but I thought, ‘At least there’s hope.’ ”
But where Nancy Vickers sees hope, Leon sees “carnality.”
“That situation is a tremendous fault on my part, where I wasn’t as spiritual as I needed to be,” Leon said. “I was looking at the world too much. Giving my mind over to things of the past. Basically, I just consider it a weak episode within my Christianity that will never happen again.”
Vickers said another member of his congregation guided him back to reality.
“I was split the whole time anyway, just yearning for the old things,” he said. “I got some help from an individual who said, ‘You’ve done too much to turn back now.’ Even John The Baptist had a similar situation. There was a time when he was about to be beheaded and he kind of doubted Christ.”
But there are some links to Vickers’ past that he simply won’t let go. He still speaks with several of his Stanford teammates and he says has attempted to reach former Stanford assistant coach Keena Turner. He keeps the 1995 Stanford football media guide and he’s still proud to show off the line in his biography that speaks of his emerging physical presence.
Although he’s no longer the presence he once was, Vickers still looks formidable. He carries about 190 pounds on his 6-foot frame and he stays in shape by running and lifting weights. When he’s home on church business, Vickers has put on pads and tested his skills against his brother, David, a redshirt freshman at Colorado State.
“I’ve lost all my skills,” Vickers said. “David and his friend were getting the best of me. I really realize now the skill level that a professional athlete has, day in and day out. You don’t really realize it when you’re at that level, but once you stop it . . . the footwork, the body movement, your whole body is not in sync like it used to be.”
Occasionally, Vickers flips on the television to check on his old school or he’ll call his closest friend from Stanford, Nicademus Watts, for an update. Watts, a microbiologist in Sunnyvale, Calif., was one of Vickers’ many friends who tried to convince him to stay in Palo Alto.
“I thought he was by far an NFL-caliber player and he was also giving up a Stanford degree,” said Watts, who played outside linebacker. “He was by far our most physical defensive player. I can remember some of the hits he put on people in practice. They’d be out for days. He had the strength, the speed, the agility, all the tools to be a really good safety in the NFL.”
Rancho Alamitos Coach Doug Case, the Vaqueros’ defensive coordinator during Vickers’ career, said he never saw a high school player disrupt an offense like Vickers did.
“I obviously still wonder what his college career would have been like,” Case said. “He was probably the best athlete that’s ever come out of Rancho. It was unlimited what he was going to do. But emotionally and spiritually and mentally, he might be peaking at that.”
Watts said he hopes for the same thing.
‘At first, I had my suspicions, but he treats the church as if it’s his lifelong calling,” Watts said. “If he’s at peace, then I am.”
Watts, who calls himself an agnostic, said he and Vickers have formed a tight but rather odd bond.
“We definitely have two different perspectives on life,” Watts said. “But there’s a commonality there that allows us to be best of friends. It’s funny.”
Even though they agree to disagree, Watts said he often argues with Vickers about religion. James Vickers used to have similar debates with his son, but he knew he was fighting a losing battle. When Leon originally left Stanford, James Vickers battled to keep his son away from the Church of Christ. He even contemplated hiring someone to kidnap Leon and then deprogram him.
“For about six months, I wanted to just go out there and deal out death,” he said. “I was really bitter.”
But James Vickers’ bitterness turned to despair and then to resignation.
“I’m over it now,” he said. “Once he said, ‘Dad, you hold no credence in my life anymore.’ I said, ‘That’s it for me. I guess I’m out of the pool.’ He’s got to live his own life. I’ll be there for him if he ever wants to come back.
“I think he could have played at the next level, but I just wanted him to get his education. That was really important to me.”
Vickers senses that his father has been more affected than anyone by his decision to leave Stanford.
“He never had a father and he wanted us to have more than him,” Leon said. “He instilled in me the work ethic and the values in order to be successful. For me to not follow through on that, kind of hurt him.”
The hurt isn’t constant for Nancy Vickers, but it’s there.
“I still can’t watch anything to do with Stanford, football or basketball,” she said. “I have to immediately change the channel. And Bill Walsh, he’s a wonderful man, but it hurts me even to see his face. Too many bad memories.”
Though Nancy Vickers still holds out hope she’ll get her son back, Leon contends he never left.
“Basically, she still has her son,” he said. “She always has me. What’s the difference there? Because I’m not playing football? Football’s a game. I think she just gets too emotional sometimes.”
While Leon said he understands his parents’ frustration, he also believes they are gradually learning to trust his decision.
“I think the biggest thing they see is that this is no harmful cult,” said Vickers, whose parents are planning a trip to Prescott this winter. “I’m doing well. I have nothing to hide. I think they were concerned for my safety as much as anything. Now they see it as just a church and that I’m just trying to serve God as best I can.”
By serving God, Vickers is living his life strictly by the Bible, or at least the Church of Christ’s interpretation of the Bible. He does not smoke, drink or engage in premarital sex. He does not attend movies or listen to pop music and he rarely watches television.
“TV is not taboo, it’s what’s on TV,” he said. “There’s a lot of things on TV that I watch and lots of things that I want to watch.”
Vickers became involved with the Church of Christ, which he said broke off with the mainstream Churches of Christ in 1906 over doctrinal differences, during his senior year at Rancho Alamitos. Shortly after leaving Stanford, he moved to Prescott to help grow a small congregation. He is currently working toward becoming a preacher within the church.
“My goal is to become a faithful man and a faithful preacher--someone who can be counted on and can set an example for a congregation and is wise enough to give counsel to others,” he said. “That’s the primary goal of my life. Everything else revolves around that.”
His secondary goal is to provide for himself and his future family. Omitted from his list of goals is a college degree.
“I think now I can get a job and perform as well or better than most college graduates,” Vickers said. “I’m an electrician now. I’m still going to earn a pretty reasonable living.”