SE: Q&A With Linebacker-Turned-Analyst Ben Leber – Kansas State University Athletics –

Ben Leber, a former Kansas State All-American linebacker and retired 10-year NFL player with the San Diego Chargers (2002-05), Minnesota Vikings (2006-10) and St. Louis Rams (2011), has become of the top radio and TV personalities in the Minneapolis/St. Paul media market over the past decade.


A mainstay at FM 100.3 KFAN, which is recognized as the No. 1 sports radio station in the United States, Leber also serves as sideline reporter for the Minnesota Vikings while also appearing on all the major TV stations as an NFL and Vikings analyst.


Leber, a native of Vermillion, South Dakota, arrived at K-State in 1997 and graduated in business administration while becoming the third-round draft pick of the San Diego Chargers in the 2002 NFL Draft. He left K-State as an All-American, a fan favorite, and he remains one of the most outstanding defenders to play at K-State in the past two decades.


Leber spoke with D. Scott Fritchen of K-State Sports Extra about his K-State career, his NFL career, and how he transitioned from football star to media star:


DSF: Thousands of K-Staters saw you star on the football field at K-State and in the NFL, but what most K-Staters probably don’t know is that since your retirement from the NFL you have become one of the top radio and TV personalities in the Minneapolis/St. Paul media market. Exactly how did you initiate this career in radio and TV after your retirement and what makes it so fulfilling?


BL: It was pretty organic. I attended an offseason NFL boot camp, the Stanford entrepreneur program, and the NFL’s film and TV program in Los Angeles. I also attended the level one and level two broadcast boot camp at NFL Films in New Jersey. It was after participating in that first level boot camp that I thought, “Maybe this is something I could do? It’d be a good transition, I could stay close to the game, and I wouldn’t have the stress of coaching and moving my family around.”


About two years prior to my NFL retirement, I believe I internally planted the seed to become involved in radio and TV. I had always been cool with the media. Upon my retirement, FM 100.3 KFAN, the No. 1 sports radio station in the United States, offered me a non-paying position just to become involved in radio. My involvement continued to increase. I filled in on some radio shows, or I would do segments on the Minnesota Vikings. Our local NBC affiliate asked me to appear each Monday at 6 a.m. to breakdown the Vikings game the day before. I didn’t get paid for my services for the first two years, but I took the approach that I was just going to work hard, and I continued to make connections within the industry.


At the same time, I knew if I was going to become a personality on national TV, I had to find an agent. I certainly wasn’t a household name and knew I’d always compete with recently retired NFL players who had bigger names, so I needed somebody on my behalf to put out some feelers within the industry. Ten friends offered the phone numbers of their agents. I didn’t hear anything back for six months and at that point I figured I had to grind on my own. Then Michele Tafoya’s agent phoned me regarding a position at FOX to work high school and college football games. So, I bought myself a plane ticket and flew to Los Angeles and met with FOX Sports. We spoke for two hours mostly just about life. They called me that next morning when I was in the airport and offered me a six-game TV package to serve as color analyst for college football.


DSF: Did you even in your wildest dreams think at any point during all those times that Manhattan media interviewed you during your K-State junior and senior seasons in 2000 and 2001 that you might one day have a media career of your own?


BL: Not at all. It’s interesting, and not a lot of people know this, but I was actually interested in mechanical engineering when I arrived as a freshman at K-State. In high school, I had thought about playing football at the Air Force Academy, then enlisting in the engineering department to learn how to build missiles and bombs. I thought that was the coolest thing ever. I found that I could major in mechanical engineering when I came to K-State and could then move into aeronautical engineering, so I thought I’d give it a try. Then came K-State football season, which required my time, while at the same time I had to accept the fact that I wasn’t cut out for mechanical engineering. I received a 1.8 GPA in my pre-requisite courses and was placed on academic probation my first semester. Suddenly, I thought it was a great idea to change majors so I could keep my football scholarship. I switched to business administration. But, no, I had no plans to go into communications or media. That was never on my radar. I was just consumed with football.


DSF: Exactly how did an All-American running back and the son of a high school principal in Vermillion, South Dakota, wind up in Manhattan playing the linebacker position?


BL: My older brother, Jason, was an All-American running back as well, an incredible running back, but we as a family didn’t know you had to promote yourself to gain attention in the state of South Dakota. We thought game and season statistics, in a humble way, would merit attention, and believed that it was wrong to self-promote. Eventually, some schools recruited Jason, and the Iowa Hawkeyes became very interested in him. Then they decided to give their running back scholarship to someone else the day before signing day. He ended up going to Division II University of South Dakota right in our hometown. When it became my turn to go through the recruiting process, my dad made homemade highlight tapes and sent them to schools. I really wanted to go to Colorado because of its tradition, the mountains, and players like Eric Bieniemy and Kordell Stewart. Colorado showed zero interest.


We received a generic letter to attend a K-State football camp. I knew nothing about K-State, but I guess I performed at a level worthy of a scholarship offer, and without really knowing much about the program, I committed to Brent Venables and Greg Peterson. Brent said, “You’re not going to be a running back. You’re going to be a linebacker.” I said, “If you’re going to give me a free education, I’ll play any position you want.” And that was it. One week after high school graduation, I drove to K-State. I immersed myself in the program. I stayed with Mark Simoneau and Monty Beisel. I was ready to work.


Ben Leber vs KU


DSF: When you came to K-State, Mark Simoneau, Jeff Kelly and Travis Ochs were the stud linebackers. Then you came along, followed by Terry Pierce, Josh Buhl and Bryan Hickman. That’s a lot of All-Americans or All-Big 12 linebackers right there. How would you describe the linebacker tradition at that time and the sense of pride that went along with it?


BL: When I came to K-State, I learned to be tough. Dirk and Travis Ochs were tough guys. Joe Bob Clements was a tough guy. Mark and Monty were tough guys. All of those guys living in that house that I stayed in that first summer when I came to K-State were tough guys. I learned early on that if you wanted to be a defensive player at K-State, and if you wanted to be a part of the Mob, you had show a high level of toughness. Mark was a football wizard. I didn’t know anything about Xs and Os, and he was in the film room breaking down all of this stuff. I thought, “Geez, so this is what it takes to be good.” Not only did Mark lift every weight inside the weight room, he was also one of the fastest and most athletic linebackers I’d seen, and one of the most powerful guys I’d seen. Jeff Kelly had this amazing personality, and he blew up guys in practice all the time. I learned on the fly all about the K-State football program, where it had been, and what Coach Snyder had accomplished, and I felt very fortunate. Travis Ochs was a horrible host on my recruiting visit. We all went out to dinner as a group, and then he told me to go have fun. He basically ditched me. That was it. I can say that now because Travis and I are still best friends. I was very lucky and thankful that I was with a group of tough guys, some of the toughest guys in the nation, who showed me the way.


Ben Leber Senior Day


DSF: How did K-State football and Coach Snyder prepare you for the NFL?


BL: Today I have a podcast “Unrestricted with Ben Leber,” and I had Darren Sproles on as a podcast guest last week. We both discussed how thankful and lucky we were to play under Coach Snyder because K-State was the best NFL prep course that a player could ask for prior to a professional career. Quentin Jammer came from Texas and was the first-round draft pick by the San Diego Chargers. Jam was swimming as we went through training camp under Marty Schottenheimer. Jam could barely keep his head above water. He was struggling both with the physicality in practice and in the time commitment. I told him, “This is just an extension of what we did at K-State. We had physical practices every day in training camp. And actually, these practices here are easier than at K-State, because we don’t have to run gassers after practice.” We were used to the physicality, and we were used to having meetings util 9:30 p.m. Jam told me, “This is not what we did at Texas.” He wasn’t prepared for it. He went on to have a great career, but I didn’t have that stress early on in adjusting to the NFL environment. Coach Snyder held us accountable and we either sank or swam. That was a great lesson for me at K-State. Sproles said the same thing. He said, “I thought a Schottenheimer practice was easy. Our K-State practices were way harder.”


DSF: You mention Sproles being on your podcast, “Unrestricted with Ben Leber,” which is available on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Media, Spotify and Google Podcasts. What is the intent of your podcast?


BL: The podcast has been fun and challenging. It’s been a little more difficult than I thought trying to produce content on a weekly basis, but I really enjoy sitting down with people and having open dialog. It’s more of a conversation and I try to keep it light. I’d love K-Staters to subscribe and listen. I’m not a national name, but I have a great following around the Twin Cities, so I’ve really focused my attention on guests with familiar names around the area — a lot of current and former Vikings players, and people around the sports world in the Twin Cities. I’m really passionate about health and wellness, and fitness, so I’ve been lucky enough to have experts, people I follow on Instagram, appear on my podcast. I’ve had some pretty amazing podcasts with those people.


DSF: What did you most appreciate about your NFL career with the Chargers, Vikings and Rams? Who were some of the most impactful people in your life that you truly appreciated during that time?


BL: Junior Seau and I spent one year together before he went to the Miami Dolphins, and we remained friends and spent a few offseasons training together. Junior showed me how to approach practice. He never took a practice off. To a fault, guys hated practicing against him, because even if we were without pads and helmets, he’d knock guys onto their butts. He was full tilt all the time. He and Rodney Harrison were two guys who had a motor that never stopped. You tried to aspire to do that and elevate your play. You realized you could push yourself even harder because you were trying to keep up with those guys.


Donnie Edwards, a free agent from the Kansas City Chiefs, came into San Diego with me at the same time. He was the cerebral linebacker. Donnie taught me how to watch tape. He was extremely smart. We roomed together my rookie year. After meetings, when I thought about watching some TV or decompressing before morning practice, Donnie would say, “Young rookie, let’s go,” and we’d crack open our books on the table and restudy all of the defense that we had installed that day. Then we’d re-study our notes prior to practice the following day. He showed me that the work is never finished. Just because you go home doesn’t mean you shut off your brain. If you wanted to give yourself the upper hand, you had to prepare every day. If it wasn’t for those first three or four weeks of training camp, I don’t know where I’d be. Junior and Donnie showed me how to make it in the NFL.


Leber, Ben  51


DSF: Since retirement, you’ve kept going and going. What is a typical week like for you now during football season and how do you balance all your responsibilities?


BL: Balancing is never 50-50 and things always get sacrificed. It’s not always pretty. I leave a lot to my wife, Abby, which sucks, and it puts a lot on her plate, especially on the weekends. On Monday, I breakdown the Vikings on KFAN 7-9 a.m. I leave the next several hours open so I can go home and pick up, run errands, and be around for anything that needs to be done around the house. Monday afternoon, I try to get a workout in, then I start my preparation for that next week’s college game, which takes so much more preparation time than preparing for the Vikings. I dig through news articles, go through film, take notes, and organize my thoughts. Then the kids get off the bus and I run around doing kids’ stuff. There are times I’ll be coaching flag football, or taking someone to taekwondo, or to a golf lesson. Then I do a little bit of work Monday night.


Tuesday is a huge workday for me. I have to be prepared to interview the coach of the away college football team Wednesday morning. Then I continue preparing for the home college football team before jumping into the studio to appear on two different shows for the Vikings on Wednesday afternoon. Then I have two more radio shows Thursday morning, and I spend the rest of the day finishing my preparation for the Vikings’ next game. Friday is a travel day. Saturday is the game. After the game, I try to get to the airport as quickly as possible to return to the Twin Cities or wherever the Vikings are playing on Sunday. Then I cover the Vikings game. Then its rinse and repeat the following week. It’s not as bad as it sounds. It’s just time consuming, but it doesn’t stress me out.


DSF: Charity work appears to be very important to you, including the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. How did that begin?


BL: My middle brother’s first child died of brain cancer at a very, very young age. The experience allowed our family to understand all the many ways that St. Jude’s helps families — free grocery carts, free gas, free housing, and free care for the children. Spreading the message of St. Jude, which does all these incredible things for free, is a good way for me to help pay it forward. They’re unlike any other organization because they’re using hundreds of thousands of dollars to save the lives of children. It’s something that’s close to my heart. It’s an incredible place.


DSF: You’re also a professional speaker for various teams and companies. How rewarding are those experiences for you?


BL: It’s super rewarding, and it’s fascinating because I never thought of myself as being interesting. I had spoken a few times around the Twin Cities, and more people approached me. So, I put some time into crafting my story and message. A couple years ago, Farm Bureau in Manhattan actually brought me in as its keynote speaker for a large conference. Matt Rhule, when he was head coach at Baylor, brought me down to talk to his football team. If there’s one area I really enjoy addressing, it’s speaking to student-athletes, because a lot of the topics that I discuss, and how it pertains to sports and business, is overcoming self-doubt, which is a part of my journey.


It’s important to realize that our stupid brain tries to hold us back more than we know. If sports have taught me anything, it’s having no self-limitations. Whether it’s conscious or unconscious, we place limitations upon our abilities. I know it was something that I had to break through, and it was the hardest thing for me to do. It comes with self-assessment and evaluation, but it also takes someone to push you. Brent Venables was the man who pushed me. He was the guy who pushed me to my breaking point — “Get out of your own head! You can do this, and you have to start showing us that you can do this!” he’d tell me. I made the decision to push through my self-limitation ceiling, and I’m forever grateful for that. However, a lot of people don’t have that somebody in their world who is emotionally invested in them.


I want to share that you can push yourself to do it. That’s my message: We’re all mentally stronger than we think, and whether it requires an outside influence such as a coach or a boss, or if it comes from within, we ultimately can get there, and hopefully that’s just enough to make you find success, whatever that success might look like in your life.