By Joseph Santoliquito
Philadelphia, PA (CBS) — Kevin Leyden can still hear his voice, strong and commanding, whether it’s on a football field, ice hockey rink or playing lacrosse. The voice is telling Leyden to deliver the blow, to play with intensity, to not fear anything.
Maybe it explains why there is a great crunch each time a tackler converges on the 6-foot-1, 170-pound Haverford High School junior tailback. Maybe it’s why Leyden will lower his head and deliver the blow like a baby ram testing its new horns—sending defenders reeling backwards.
Leyden is a hidden gem, among the best football players in Delaware County, with 12 touchdowns, 512 yards rushing (9.6-yards per carry average), 216 yards receiving (15.7-yards per catch), and one of the country’s best lacrosse players, already committed to Penn State—as a sophomore—on a lacrosse scholarship.
He’s the best player on the Fords’ football team, which is 4-1 and aiming for its first District 1 Class AAAA playoff berth since 2007. He’s the best player on Haverford’s ice hockey and lacrosse teams, too.
There is a deep, hidden inspiration why he pushes to be the best and they come in the initials, “ML,” that fit neatly on the back of his football helmet. They represent Mike Leyden, Kevin’s father, who died of cancer on April 23, 2011, at the age of 49, leaving his wife, Kathy, and three boys, Michael, Kevin and Sean.
It’s his father’s voice Kevin still hears imploring him to succeed, like last Friday night, when he tore through Marple Newtown for three touchdowns and 137 yards in a 28-14 victory.
“I still miss him, I play for my dad and his memory every game,” Kevin says. “My father was always a physical guy, and he would tell me to run over someone. I’m a little bit of a different person when I get on the field. I don’t want to let my father down. I definitely think he’s still watching me; sometimes I can hear his voice in my head.”
Leyden and his brothers endured the six-month battle his father waged. That was the toughest part, watching as the cancer ravaged a virile, strong man. Kevin tried being strong, but it wasn’t easy seeing his father wither before his eyes.
“I hoped against hope my father would always get better,” Leyden said. “There were some dark times. Weeks I’d cry myself to sleep, scared I’d never see him again. I’d run through a wall for him. That’s where the intensity comes from when I play. My mother sees it. I think it’s a good intensity, because I know when to turn it off after I get off the field. I always played with intensity before, but it’s greater now, because I’m always remembering my father when I play. But father never missed a game, either.
“He always loved it when I ran someone over or made a big hit. I could tell he was in the stands, too, because he was the yeller. I remember one game, against Ridley my freshman year, I ran into this kid really hard during a lacrosse game. Oh, I heard him.”
Sports helped Kevin get through it. That was the bridge-strong cable connection he had with his father. Leyden began playing ice hockey at three, able to ice skate not long after he began walking. Football followed, and then in third grade lacrosse, which he’s excelled to such heights that he garnered the attention of Penn State, a national-caliber lacrosse program.
Here’s Leyden’s pleasant dilemma: He’s such a stellar athlete, he may be able to double-dip and possibly be able to tap Nittany Lions’ football coach Bill O’Brien about the possibility of playing football.
“I’ve been at Haverford for 21 years and Kevin has as much ability as anyone I’ve ever coached, and in addition to ability, what makes him special is his competitive desire,” said Fords’ legendary coach Joe Gallagher. “The one thing that’s apparent is when Kevin finishes a run, it is very serious. At the end of his runs, it’s intense. He punishes tacklers. He’s the one delivering the blow—and it’s very apparent.
“We’re not where we are without Kevin. He’s such an excellent lacrosse player that I’m glad and very appreciative he’s playing football. I also know he also has the potential to be a Division I football player. Everything he plays he’s good at, and if he gave me the word, he wouldn’t be hard to sell to Coach O’Brien. And he’s still growing. It’s obvious his father was a major influence on him and his father laid a great groundwork with the time he was on this earth. Kevin’s very lucky to have a great family, just great quality people.”
Time possesses a great healing quality. Leyden feels it every day. Along with an omnipresent voice that will never leave him.
“I’m always remembering my father when I play, I know it’s what made him happy,” Kevin said.
Joseph Santoliquito is a contributing sports blogger for CBS Philly.