The NFL stands for “National Football League” however, for many in the game, it is also known to mean “not for long.” Not only is it difficult to make it to the NFL, but to last more than a few seasons and be successful is rare and few and far between. Case in point, Ben Leber, played 10 seasons in the NFL as a linebacker for the San Diego Chargers, Minnesota Vikings and St. Louis Rams from 2002 to 2011. During his career, Ben was considered a versatile and cerebral player who carved out his niche as a leader both on and off the field. He finished his career with 496 tackles, 24 sacks, five interceptions, 12 forced fumbles in 143 games played (source: NFL.com).
Since retiring from pro football in 2012, Ben has made the transition to broadcasting and currently works as a color commentator/analyst for FOX College Sports. He also does assorted NFL analyst work for a variety of radio and media outlets including KFAN FM 100.3 in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota.
We were able to catch up with Ben last month (April 2014) to discuss his background, football and post-football endeavors and are pleased to present this interview.
Please note that HalfKorean.com comments/questions are in BOLD.
Background: The Basics on Ben
Where and when were you born, raised and currently reside?
I was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa and when I was about two we moved to a small town in southern Iowa called Albia. I lived there until I finished 5th grade and then we moved to Vermillion, South Dakota. That is where I went to high school and graduated from. My dad was a high school principal so that was why we kind of jumped around when he had better opportunities. He was in fact my high school principal.
I currently live in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I played my last year of football in St. Louis but we had set our roots here in Minneapolis. So after that one year, we came back here and have been living here ever since.
How did your parents meet?
The great mystery. You know, I don’t know. So basically, my dad during the Vietnam War was stationed at an officer’s R&R camp in Pusan, Korea. He worked there and – this is where it gets kind of foggy – I don’t really know how they met. I don’t know if they had met at a bar or if he was just around town. I don’t know how they met but somehow they met and they started a relationship. Funny thing now and kind of gross to think about, my mom couldn’t speak English and my dad spoke very little Korean so I can only imagine what the attraction was. So, then my dad goes back to the States and they continued their relationship via letters. She had to have a translator and vice versa. I’m not sure how much longer it was but eventually my dad sent a letter of proposal and she accepted and he flew her over to the States and they got married in Council Bluffs. We don’t have a ton of details and I don’t know why they won’t answer and it’s like they don’t want to talk about the fine details. At this point, it don’t really care because I kind of already know what happened in the back of my mind. You were an American GI who was partying with your friends and then you met some Korean girl and you hooked up.
Do you have any siblings?
Yes, I have two older brothers and an adopted Korean sister that is a year and a half younger than me.
How much Korean can you speak and understand?
Not at all. That was one of the things that when I got older I was kind of upset with myself about. We were kids and I think we pushed back and wondered why do we need to speak Korean. I think we thought people were going to make fun of us and not know what we were saying. I wish my parents would have pushed it more because, now as an adult, it would have been awesome to know a second language and especially Korean. It would have been really cool.
We can pick up some words from my mom when she talks with her friends. And, of course, we would get the cuss words in Korean from our mom as she would be yelling at us and she would just switch it over because she would get frustrated trying to find the right word in English and then would just go off on us in Korean. We would know that she was really pissed when should would yell at us in Korean!
What is your favorite Korean food?
I love it all and my mom is a fantastic cook. I haven’t been to any place that has better kimchi than my mom’s. That’s probably one of the staple things that most Korean households would say, that they love their mom’s kimchi. That’s my favorite. She also makes the rice cake things that have hot pepper sauce with beef. If she puts the hot pepper paste on anything, I’m all in! I love the spicy stuff.
Did you grow up around other mixed Koreans?
No. You know our town was 10,000 people and was predominantly white. We had one black girl in school and that was it. There was some Native Americans, but that was it. We didn’t have a lot of diversity around us.
Being that there was a lack of diversity in the areas you grew up, was there any conflict at all?
I would say probably more so when we were growing up in southern Iowa. I think there was much more close mindedness. I never really thought that we got picked on but there were certainly times when kids would call us derogatory names or do the “slant-eye” deal. I think it happened more to my middle brother than it did me. I don’t know why, if it was he had meaner friends or not, but if I ever got pissed at somebody it was because they were making fun of my name. For some reason, they would call me “Ben-Gay.” That was the big thing when I was growing up and would get called that all the time and it pissed me off. I probably got more of that than the Korean thing.
Did you ever experience any identity issues while growing up?
I don’t think it was so much an identity thing as most kids struggle with it no matter what ethnicity they are, is trying to fit in with the right crowd. Growing up with basically 99% white people, you wanted to be like them but you weren’t and then you realize that it’s really fun to be different. That didn’t really happen for me until high school. I was proud to be different and stick out from the crowd more and don’t just blend in. I never really truly appreciated my heritage and my ethnicity until I was in high school.
Have you ever been to Korea?
I went when I was two years old. My mom had a older brother whom had passed away so she went back for the funeral and she took me along. It was just my mom and me. She took me because my older brothers would be easier to take care of for my dad since he was working full time. I have really cool pictures when I was there but, of course, I don’t remember anything. I wish I remembered everything but unfortunately I don’t.
Do you plan to visit Korea soon?
It is a topic that we talk about a lot now that my parents are getting to retirement age and they are trying to figure out what they want to do. So we’ve been thinking about all going on a family trip. For me personally, it is something I’d like to do in the next five years. I would definitely take my immediate family. My sister and I have the youngest kids in the group so I’m thinking in five years from now. Maybe we just take the oldest kids, I don’t know but something. Then you start getting into logistics and once we are there my mom is going to want to see her family and if we come in with a herd of 20 people we have to think where we are going to stay and do all this stuff.
Other than your mom, are any of your other Korean family living in the US?
I think my mom’s niece lives in LA and that is the only one and the rest live back in Korea.
Have your Korean family been accepting of your father, yourself and siblings?
As far as I know, no. I think that there was a rift very early on and I don’t think it truly got repaired until maybe about 12 or so years ago and they started corresponding a lot more. I never fully understood the dynamic but my mom would tell us that she could not call her brothers because of the culture and society. So she had to wait for her brothers to call her. But, for her sisters, it was okay for them to call each other back and forth. I know that she talks to her sisters a lot more than her brothers. It has only been recently that things have been more normal between my mom and her family. But, early on, they were not too happy with her leaving for a GI.
What do people who meet you think your ethnicity is?
What a great question. It’s different at different parts of the year only because my dad has Italian blood and we tan pretty dark in the summertime. So, I’ve gotten, “Are you African American? Are you Middle Eastern?” When my skin is darker and much more tanned, I get everything. People have told me that I must be a Black and White mix and I tell them that I’m Korean. They then tell me that there is no way. Korean is much further down the list as far as what people guess that my ethnicity is.
Do you ever get people who can tell you are part Asian?
I’ll get that. I think it is because of my size, the fact that I’m 6’2.5” and, when I played, around 240 pounds. Most people just don’t think you have an Asian background when you are 6’2.5” and 240. After I tell them, they say they can see it but they want to know where I get my size from. My dad is only 5’10” and my mom is 5’5” so I tell them I don’t know! My mom claims that she is tall for a Korean but I don’t know if that is true or not.
At what age did you start playing football?
Competitively with pads on was 7th grade. I had played flag football in 5th and 6th grade. Growing up in small towns, we didn’t have any of the Pop Warner little leagues so there was no association for us to put pads on until 7th grade. It was a school run football program in 7th grade where I had my first introduction into contact football.
Did you play any other youth sports?
Ever since I was a kid and as far as I can remember we played a sport every season. So we did baseball, football, basketball and we ran track. I did all four sports all the way through high school.
How supportive were your parents towards playing football and pursuing a career in the NFL?
They were super supportive. The one thing my parents always tried to do was sacrifice a lot for all four of us. If there was a game to be played in high school or even in middle school, one of my parents was always there. I can’t remember a game where my mom wasn’t there. Most of the time my dad would try to get there after school was out. They were always there. My mom had her video camera and she would videotape and we have thousands of video tapes of all of us playing sports and stuff. They were extremely supportive of what we did. My oldest brother played football and was a running back at University in Vermillion, so it was easy for my parents to go to those games and they would even travel to the away games. My middle brother played baseball at a JUCO in Kansas and then went to Tennessee Tech, which is a Division 1 school, and they would try to make it to as many games as they could even though it was in Tennessee. Even for me, they went to all of my Kansas State games. So, they have always been supportive everything we’ve done athletically and, of course, academically with my dad since he was a Principal. They remained supportive throughout my career and I have a lot of gratitude for what sacrifices they made just to be there and watch.
Since you mentioned it, we have to know how difficult was it for your dad to also be your high school principal?
It wasn’t that difficult. I got in trouble at school and did the normal teenager BS, got in a couple fights. My dad just set a rule that he wasn’t going to deal with our discipline and left that up to the vice principal. If we got in trouble, we would get sent right to the vice principal. That was the way he could get away with the fairness of how to judge these situations to see who was in trouble and who wasn’t. But, for the most part, he left a lot of it at school. We’d come home and we would chat about it and, of course, I would get in trouble about it at home but he would just drop it. It wasn’t like a double jeopardy type of situation like my dad would yell at me in school and suffer the consequences and then have to come home and do the same thing. He would try to separate the two and he did a really good job at it. We didn’t get in trouble a lot so it didn’t happen all the time. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. I saw more of the perks that went with it. If I had to use the restroom and I knew that my dad was out of the office, I would just sneak into his bathroom and use the restroom in there. If March Madness was on, my buddies and I would hurry up and eat lunch as fast as we could and we would go into his office and watch some of the games on his TV. I was like, this is great as long as I have some of these perks, whether he knew it or not that I was using his bathroom and watching his TV, I don’t know but I took advantage of it whenever I could.
Who was your favorite football player and team growing up?
I didn’t really have a favorite team. My two older brothers were much bigger sports fans that I was. My oldest brother loved the Cowboys and Emmitt Smith and my middle brother loved the 49ers and Joe Montana. In the 80s and 90s, there wasn’t a better NFL rivalry. So, I just kind of learned by osmosis about the NFL and the teams. I knew more about those two teams after listening to those two fight about everything. I didn’t need a favorite team, I had all the sports drama I need right here in the house. It pretty much remained that way. I’ll preface this with I never in my wildest dreams had ever thought that I would be playing in the NFL and we didn’t really grow up in an area where we had a hometown team. If we had grown up in Minneapolis and had been Vikings fans are whole life and gone to games, it would have been easier for me to visualize myself playing and setting that goal. But, growing up in South Dakota where we didn’t really have any major close affiliations. We could go to Chiefs games but couldn’t really afford to go to Chiefs games. So you could pay attention from afar but you never really grabbed a hold of one team or go to a lot of games and be exposed to it. I never even dreamed of playing in the NFL, I didn’t think about it and was the furthest thing from my mind. It wasn’t until I got to college and my sophomore year, that I thought that maybe this NFL thing could happen.
You mentioned that while at Kansas State that you started to realize your NFL potential. How and when exactly did that come about?
It was after my sophomore year when I started seeing a bunch of guys, upperclassmen, getting drafted and hearing those guys talking about it and starting to focus on the NFL. I thought that I’m a starter now and it is not out of the realm of possibility that I could have a chance to do this. Then I set my sights on the NFL and knew I had to play really well in college and started looking at it more closely to see what I needed to do and set my goals accordingly and re-adjust some stuff. So, it was midway through college when I felt that it was something that could happen.
What did you study in college?
I probably was as ambitious about college as other people going to college. I really had a fascination with military stuff and was really close to committing to the Air Force academy. I decided not to but that was always my fascination; military stuff and rockets. I wanted to fly but because of my eyesight I couldn’t fly fighter jets. Plus, with my size they said I probably wouldn’t even fit. Not that I couldn’t fly but I would have to fly something else. I went into Kansas State with those ambitions. I jumped into Aeronautical Engineering as a major and I thought that it was going to be great and I was going to learn how to do build rockets and stuff like that. I think I got one “A” my first semester and I couldn’t even grasp the concepts of some of the prerequisites for the major. So, I got put on academic probation and I had this scholarship that I care about so I had to change. After my first semester I switched to Business Management and was the major I graduated in and got my degree in four and a half years and that was that.
Now that you are doing sports commentating work, did you take any courses when you were in college?
I did no communication studies in college at all.
According to NFLPlayers.com, the average NFL career is 3.5 seasons. Taking that into consideration, you can say that you had a long career. What would you attribute to your being able to play 10 successful seasons?
I don’t know. I guess it is a lot of things as you can’t just pinpoint one thing. I think discipline is one of the biggest. A lot of guys have a lot more talent but discipline to the craft and trying to be professional. Hitting the weights, watching the film and digesting everything around them. Being coachable and versatile. There are a lot of things that I think helped me stick around and versatility was probably my biggest thing. I was open and able to play all three positions at the linebacker spots and that’s one thing that coaches all the way up to when I was done would say that it was nice to have a guy who can fill in when a guy gets hurt, a swing guy. I took pride in myself in being smart, understanding the playbook, understanding not just my position but all three positions plus the guys in front and guys behind. Obviously I couldn’t play those positions in front or behind but I knew their responsibilities. So, if I knew their responsibilities then I could just plug myself in at any linebacker position and would know where I have to be. I would just say studying and being versatile and coachable were the biggest things for me to stick around.
You played for three NFL teams, the Chargers, Vikings and Rams. Was there a team that you felt closest with during your playing days?
Well, you have to put yourself back to the present time. When I was back in San Diego, that was all I knew and that is what I focused on. I got to know a lot of people in the organization and that was home for us and who I cared the most about. Then, when I went up here to Minnesota, it kind of changes. You obviously don’t forget the people in San Diego but you focus on your new team. Now that I’m still here, there is definitely still a closer relationship with the Vikings. A lot of the people in the front office have remained the same even with the all new coaching staff, so I still have a good rapport with the people up here and they still allow me access that a lot of media members can’t get. I still have some friends on the team so this is the team I cheer for and the team I care about the most. It was nice that I got to play in both the NFC and AFC because I can still cheer for the Chargers without really pissing anybody off here. It’s not like I played for the Packers and came over here and then torn between the two. It is nice to have an AFC team to cheer for, so I do still cheer for San Diego and pay attention to them a lot. I still do some radio stuff with them down there as well.
How about teammates? Was there any specific teammates you considered closest to?
The player I looked up to and admired the most was Junior Seau. We only played together for one year but in that one year he took me under his wing a little bit, which he did with a lot of guys. He took me under his wing, both my wife and I, and we got to know his inner circle of friends and some of the friends we are still friends with today. He would come back after that one year when he was with Miami and would train in the off-season. For two seasons after that I would train with him as well in the off-season. I got to be around him a lot and you couldn’t find a bigger personality as a player or person to look up to. This guy just embodied a professional football player and especially a linebacker. I looked up to him a lot and still do to this day even though he is gone. He probably had the biggest impact on me as far as timing goes, being a rookie and having Junior Seau put his arm around you. It was like, this is amazing! He was the biggest. I played with a lot of great players and a lot of great people but he is the one who sticks out the most.
How about coaches?
As far as coaches go, probably because I was just so young, Greg Manusky was my linebacker coach and is now the defensive coordinator for the Colts. He was kind of new to coaching, I think it was his second or third year when he took over in San Diego. He was a 12 year NFL veteran himself who played linebacker and special teams and he just got it. He made football fun and he taught me a lot about the game, a lot more than I ever knew at Kansas State. I was influenced by him as well. I wanted to go out and please him, make sure I did right and get a pat on the back. That’s the way he pushed me. Early in my career I was heavily influenced by him and Junior Seau.
Throughout your playing career, was there ever any point when the game was not fun to play anymore? Did it ever become more of a “job” than a game to you?
For me personally, the second you sign the contract it automatically becomes a job. In a lot of ways it was relieving and refreshing. We all know in college that it is your job even though they don’t tell you it is your job. You don’t get a paycheck but you do get the scholarship. You are an amateur, even though you’re really not. So it was kind of refreshing to see that this is a business now and although I didn’t know what it really looked like yet, it was refreshing. I was getting paid to do this and is my one focus and don’t have to worry about school and can just focus on football. It brought a sense of pressure in some ways but it also took a lot off of my back because now I knew it was a business and anything can happen now. Some things are not personal but are just business.
I do remember a time in my second year in San Diego and we were terrible and finished the year 4-12. It was awful and a heavy season for me personally because they had gotten rid of Junior Seau and they basically said that I was going to take his spot. I was like, “How? How am I suppose to live up to the standards of Junior Seau?” I didn’t play that well and couldn’t grasp some of the things that they wanted me to do at the linebacker position playing all three downs. So, I really struggled mentally. We weren’t very good as a team and was a very painful year. So much so that I questioned myself if I could really do this. I was only in my second year and was wondering if I could even finish out my contract. It was that bad and that heavy at times. That was probably the most challenging year I had both personally and professionally.
You’ve only been retired a couple of years. How did you come to the decision? Was it something you had been planning?
I would say going into that last year with St. Louis that I had more doubts in my mind than I ever had about my willingness to play again. I really wanted to get to year 10 and that was one of my goals I had set early on. I had to get to double digit seasons and the 10 year experience. That became a goal but then it became overshadowed by whether I really wanted to play. I was dealing with some injuries and wasn’t fully healthy. I didn’t like the prospect of going to another team. In all fairness to the Rams, I probably went in with about a 90% commitment in my mind. It just didn’t work out.
I ended up getting the 10th year on paper but it was just a bad season overall for a lot of different reasons. I knew before that season even started that it was going to be a rough year for me mentally and emotionally and then when it didn’t work out I got released in December. I knew it was over and that I didn’t have it and didn’t want it anymore, which is probably the most key thing. I didn’t want it anymore, I was done and tired, beat-up and emotionally drained. So from the time I signed my contract with St. Louis to the time I got released and even after, to come full circle and to really realize that I was done was a good 6-8 months. I had some other opportunities after that following Spring to maybe go and try out for another team but I just didn’t want to go down that route and decided to retire that Spring.
On Wikipedia – not the most reliable source, of course – it states that you have not officially filed retirement papers. Did you ever consider a comeback?
The funny thing about that is that Wikipedia stuff can obviously be edited and changed around. So the guys at the radio station here in town, KFAN, that I work with, took the liberty of messing around with some of my stuff. The inside joke to that is that a few years ago when Brett Favre went to the Jets and retired and did this whole flip-flop thing. There used to be this thing in the NFL, where you had to sign paperwork to say that you were retired. Well after Favre did the whole flip-flop thing a lot of paperwork got screwed up because it was getting transferred back and forth. A lot of it has to do with when your health insurance kicks in and your retirement stuff starts. So, after that, the NFL said that there were no more papers to be filed. The new rule is if you don’t sign with an NFL team after one season, the NFL is going to declare you as retired.
When I retired, I didn’t have to sign anything. When you retire you just tell your agent that you are retiring and to tell teams that may call that you are not interested and that you are going to retire. That’s it. There is no fanfare or anything official that you have to sign. Well all of these news outlets still say that “so and so” hasn’t signed his retirement papers. The joke is that there is no papers to sign! So I went on this big rant one time on the radio how a key member of the Vikings was said he was going to retire and all of these media outlets like USA Today and all where reporting that “he hasn’t filed his papers yet so there is still a chance.” I’m like, there are not f’ing papers to sign! They stopped this like five years ago! So the ongoing inside joke is that people will tweet at me or whatever that I’ve never signed my papers yet so that is why they put that on Wikipedia that I haven’t “officially” signed my papers yet because there are no papers to sign! There used to something on my Wikipedia page about me being BET Man of the Year or personality of the year, something like that, which is obviously totally false because I’m not black. They had my hobbies as something like crocheting and making doilies, stuff like that.
Now that you are retired and can look back on your career, what were some of your greatest memories?
I would say probably my rookie year when I had three sacks against David Carr of the Houston Texans in San Diego. I had a sack in my first game as well so there was a time that I was leading the league in sacks. Here I was just this schlub out of Kansas State trying to make my way. So, it was kind of fun, for a few weeks I was leading the league in sacks. That was a fun moment. Playing against Jerry Rice was an awesome moment. Still when I give speeches I talk about that experience of looking across the line and seeing Jerry Rice staring right at me and I’m like I cannot belong on the same field as this dude, what is going on? I remember in San Diego going to a playoff game in 2004 and playing the Jets. With just the crowd, people were rocking your cars as you try to pull into the stadium. The buzz in San Diego was awesome. Then, here in Minnesota and that whole Brett Favre season in 2009 was just electric. I mean the moment he came in. I still remember sitting in the cafeteria and watching the TV with the local and national news and helicopters following the Suburban around. It was so ridiculous and to watch the whole thing and for him to be on the team. Just the whole season was great. There are a ton of great memories and obviously can’t go through every single one but those are probably the best.
Any regrets or disappointments?
The 2009 season was a huge disappointment in my career because we were so close. So many guys play this game for a long time and never make it to the Super Bowl.
The dynasties of the NFL make it seem like it that it is kind of easy to get there. Not every team can have a Brady, Manning, Brees or a Rodgers, guys that are responsible for taking their teams there. So, to be that close and not make it, I still think about it and just shake my head and think that, damn, we were so close. I had a buddy who played for Seattle last year who was on the Vikings with me in 2009 and just lived through him was awesome. I just thought what a great feeling, to be so close in 2009 and then to dominate in the Super Bowl against Denver. I was happy for him.
I don’t have any major regrets. There was some day to day stuff like maybe I shouldn’t have challenged the coach that day or maybe I should have kept my mouth shut here and there or maybe as a leader on the team I missed an opportunity to step up and say something. But nothing that eats at me or that I look back at and pound my fists down about.
Being that there are have not been many people of Korean or Asian descent (full or mixed) who have played in the NFL as it is, do you think that being Korean had any effect on your career?
I don’t think so. The NFL is such a melting pot of people even though there are not a lot of Asians full or mixed descent. I never thought that it was an advantage or disadvantage. Never felt like I was outside the circle because of my heritage. Not at all. To be honest, it is probably one of the most inclusive places when you compare it to society. It’s more inclusive and respectful in the NFL locker room when it comes to race, background than a lot of corporate places in America.
During your playing days, there were a couple other half Koreans also in the NFL. Obviously, almost everyone knows about Hines Ward and then there was Will Demps as well. Did you ever have an opportunity to talk with them at all about being Korean in the NFL?
Demps and I trained for a little bit down in San Diego during one off-season but here I was a married guy with a kid and he was Will Demps, single guy, party all the time. We would see each other at workouts and from there we kind of went our different ways so we didn’t really talk about it.
Hines and I played against each other but never really talked. We both did an NFL broadcast boot camp that they had at NFL Films a couple years ago. He and I would sit next to each other and kind of B.S. and stuff and that was really the first time I got to talk to him. He told me about his experience when he went back to Korea. Here I am just being envious of his situation. He told me that I wouldn’t believe the endorsement deals that he could get in Korea just from winning the Super Bowl and being of Korean descent. He said there was so much more access there than ever here in the States. I thought, damn, that is a hell of a deal and shows what winning a Super Bowl can do for you.
What was your take on Korea’s reaction to Ward’s Super Bowl XL MVP & victory?
I didn’t really follow the social aspect of it. I certainly saw him go back and the way he was kind of paraded around and how embracing the people were. I didn’t really think about the social aspect and the impact he had. They are a really proud race and country and had looked down on mixed race Koreans. It’s funny to think that an event like that in this day and age for people to change their opinions. He’s still an ambassador and guys like us can be ambassadors for people to change their minds about us. Damn, we are people too!
Ward was known as one of the toughest WRs to play in the last decade and you played the Steelers a few times during your career. Did you guys ever come into contact on the field?
Oh yeah, I knew where he was at! Believe me, we watched film all week, and especially since I was an outside linebacker I’m an overhang player sometimes on rundowns. If I saw that jersey coming in motion believe me, my head was on a swivel. I knew exactly where Hines was at all times. I don’t think that we ever had any major collisions that I can remember. Nothing like where he tried to decleat me or anything like that on a crackback. I was pretty fortunate to not feel the wrath of Hines coming down on a block.
I know that you have a young son and am curious about what is your opinion on the current state of youth football. Would you allow your kids to play tackle/contact football?
I don’t know. I’m still on the fence about how I’m going to approach it. I definitely would want my son to play but I’m not going to push him. Going from my experience and not to say that I don’t believe in Pop Warner football, football is different than any other sport. Like baseball, basketball and hockey, those are fine motor skill sports where you have to practice. The most successful people practice at a young age, develop the hand-eye coordination. In football, you can pick it up in middle school or high school and be every bit as good as other guys because so much of it depends on your attitude, willingness to go tackle somebody or be tackled and get back up and do the same thing. I’ll let my son play flag football and let him do some other stuff but he’s not putting pads and a helmet on until I feel like I’m ready and most likely, right now, it’s going to be in middle school like I was in 7th grade. You’re a little more mature, your body can handle the blows a little more. I don’t want to put pressure on him that he has to play and I could care less if he doesn’t play at all. My biggest stance right now is no youth football.
What’s your opinion on concussions in football and the actions being taken to limit them? Did you have any during your playing career?
I didn’t have a lot when I was playing. I had one diagnosed concussion when I was in high school. Outside of that, I never missed any time or went to a trainer because I felt like I had a concussion. Now, I don’t know if I just played through some concussions or some of the dings that players now feel empowered to report and should report. We weren’t educated I think enough when we would feel kind of dizzy but I feel fine and I should probably report that. So, I’ve only had one diagnosed concussion but I’m sure I’ve suffered a few more. I feel fine and never have had any issues and I’m lucky in that respect.
The way I feel about it is that a lot more can be done that’s not being done and I don’t know why. I would rely more on the technology than the fundamentals on how to tackle as tackling is a big part of it and guys do get concussions when they make a tackle but a lot of these concussions in my mind are coming on blocks and hits from random fall to the ground and someone knees you to the head sort of things. Some of them are just unavoidable. I know that we can’t stop every concussion but I think about the safety aspect of some of these rules. Thinking of some of these “concussion helmets” that all of these major helmet manufacturers are putting money into, they seem like they are missing the mark. The helmets are bulkier, heavier, seem more cumbersome than the older helmets that I wore.
I’m not a scientist but if I were to have a choice in helmets, I would want a lighter helmet and not a heavier helmet. I’ve talked to some doctors, neurosurgeons and they said that the biggest thing with concussions is the whiplash effect, where your brain is still splashing around because your head is on a pivot point. Well, if you put a heavier object on top of that pivot point, you are just going to have more sloshing and will have to rely more on neck and shoulder strength to keep the head in place. So, why are we making concussion helmets heavier and not lighter? We have the materials and money to make helmets. I don’t care if the helmets have to be $500, make these helmets really light and extremely strong. I think that would do a lot more for concussion prevention than some of these rules and techniques. That’s part of the reason why with kids, they are not making these kids helmets fit them properly and they are too heavy for their little necks. You have to focus on neck and upper trap strength to hold your head in place and to take the repetitive blows. If they have a weak neck and put a two pound helmet on them, it will just make everything worse. It will compound everything. Until technology gets better, I’m going to hold my kid out of youth football.
Now let’s switch into your post-NFL career as a commentator and analyst. Was it a natural transition and had you planned to go this route?
As I said, before I retired I was out in New Jersey for the NFL Films broadcasting boot camp. That was where I met Hines and got to talk to him. That was what piqued my interest in doing media stuff. At that boot camp they put in the field of media doing everything like sports anchor, analyst, color commentary, field reporting. You pretty much learn the whole thing in a crash course of four days. I thought that this would be fun as I want to stay in football but don’t want to coach or be a scout or do administrative stuff with the schedules and time away from home. This was just the perfect blend of being involved in football, paying attention to football and having better hours. And, for some of the guys, you can make a decent living by doing it. That was where I started to focus on what I wanted to do post-football.
When I was done with the boot camp, I reached out to the media members in Minneapolis, got a broadcast agent out in New York with IMG. They started putting stuff together for me like devising a plan and started shopping me around and all the while I was doing anything and everything I could do for free to get behind a microphone, get on TV, get comfortable on camera, taking on-camera classes from actors. Anything I could do to help prepare myself for it and eventually, luck would have it, that FOX College gave me an opportunity along with ESPN3 for my very first season to do color commentary for college football. I got a half season doing that between the two networks and did a bunch of Viking work with radio stuff during that first season. The second year, FOX basically came and said they wanted to give a full package of work exclusively with them and not with ESPN or anyone else anymore. So, this last year I did all Conference USA color commentary on FOX. I would come back on weekends and work radio for the Vikings games and then do a lot of pro bono contributions throughout the week for NFL and college while getting ready for my next college game. The fall became football, football, football in both college and pros and it has been great. Hopefully it something I can keep doing. I haven’t been renewed yet for FOX this year but everything sounds like it is going to be. That is where I am at now doing media stuff and loving it!
Getting to work NFL games would be my ultimate goal. Anything on top of that would just be gravy. If I get to work with FOX all the way to NFL doing sideline stuff or color, any of that stuff would be the ultimate. But, right now I’m just focusing on getting better because it is a much tougher job than some of these good guys make it look like on TV.
Are you planning to stay around the game in some form?
Absolutely! The football camps have kind of faded away after I was done playing. But, I will be putting another one on here at the end of June. It’ll be a small group thing charity event here in Minnesota with the Lupus Foundation.
I go and do speaking tours as well in South Dakota and Minnesota. I do love the Play 60 program and do a lot of stuff with them. I would never say that I am a health and fitness guru but I do believe in practicing good eating habits, exercising regularly. Understanding that with kids it is so important to have a good nutritional foundation and understand what are good foods and what are bad foods and the importance of moving around and playing 60 minutes. That whole NFL initiative with Play60 has been right up my alley and something I’m passionate about. Whenever they call to have someone to go out and speak and meet with kids, I’m always happy to do it. Those are the biggest charity things that I work on. I don’t have my own foundation, never set anything like that up. I just try to do stuff wherever I can.
At some point, would you want to get into coaching or front office?
I think the front office stuff would be much more enticing than the coaching aspect of it. I do get a kick out of watching film, evaluating players and their talent. I think it’d be fun, kind of like picking stocks. Bringing them in and seeing if they work out our not and seeing if your eye test can get the team better. I think that is fascinating. But, at this point, I would never close the door on that but when I hear about the hours that these guys have to keep and stuff like that, I want much more of a balance of work and home life than some of these guys have. A lot of these guys pull it off but it is probably a lot more work than I want, especially with a young family and I have another boy on the way. We’ll have three kids and are a young family and to work 80 hours a week like these guys work and travel all the time, I just don’t know if I could deal with that right now.
Where do you see envision yourself in the next five years?
In the next five years, I’d like to be working for a bigger conference in college football and hopefully doing more studio work on a national level than I am now. I just think trying to make my mark on the national media scene doing color commentary and studio stuff. I don’t have a specific grand plan for the next five years but just like football or doing anything new, taking small steps and hopefully it leads to bigger things down the road.
With the 2014 NFL schedule out now, what are some of your predictions for the upcoming season?
Well, the Vikings will be tested early with a new coaching staff, defensive minds, changing of philosophies with players and schemes. They have a tough road. They have all big quarterbacks in the first six games starting with St. Louis and Sam Bradford and that offense, which is nothing too scary but at any point in time could start clicking with some of their offensive weapons. And then you have Brady, Brees, Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Stafford in the next five games all back-to-back. If they fall 0-6 in the first part of the season, it is over no matter what happens. The only silver lining to the whole thing is after their bye in week 10, they play four division games. So you are hoping that they are battle tested through those early games in the season and if the team is starting to gel, guys are starting to figure each other out. In the second half of the season, they could have a terrible record but still win the division with the four division games they play after the bye and get in the playoffs. It’s quite possible they could start the season really poor but they’ll have an opportunity to leave the door open to get in the playoffs. It’s interesting.
As far as the rest of the NFL goes, honestly, I haven’t looked at the whole schedule of the NFL and all the key match-ups but it is going to be interesting to see what happens with the 49ers and Aldon Smith and their defense. They are poised to have an unbelievable draft with 11 draft picks with one in the first, two in the second and three in the third. With this being such a deep draft, the 49ers could definitely reload. That will be the division to watch obviously with the Super Bowl Champion Seahawks. I think it is going to be the same contenders. The guys I mentioned earlier. When you have quarterbacks that are franchise guys, those are the teams to beat. It’s going to be a sneaky team like Miami that maybe comes up and surprises people. Will Atlanta bounce back from last year and is Matt Ryan the guy? I don’t know. There are a lot of question marks out there outside of the perennial guys. I don’t foresee Denver having as good a year as they had last year. There is something about Peyton Manning this year. Not that it is going to remind me of Brett Favre from 2010 but, to me, he looked really deflated after last year’s season and I don’t know if he has enough juice in an aging body to be the guy they need him to be to win a bunch of games. The storyline I’m watching is how is Denver and Manning going to bounce back. I think they will have a very mediocre year.
Do you think the Seahawks have a good chance of repeating?
Yes, but it depends. They lost some key members of their defense and we’ll see if they can bounce back and if their defense can be just as strong. I think they will be. John Schneider has a pretty good eye for talent and they’ll probably find some sneaky good guys later in the draft that can contribute and will make great players out of them. As long as Russell Wilson can shake the cobwebs of his divorce and doesn’t affect him going into the season I think he’ll have an even better year. So you will have that looming over him throughout the off-season. They no doubt have a very good chance but again, Arizona is on the rise. St. Louis, you can never count them out as far as being a spoiler here and there. They are one or two players away from really gelling and being a pretty good team. There are three teams in that division that have kick-ass defenses and are a lot of fun to watch and they will beat up on each other. If they can make it through the season relatively injury free, I think that division whoever comes out of there is the most dangerous in the postseason.
I know that you are happily married with children. Did you ever have any ethnic dating preferences when you were younger?
No, no preference. The only thing is that I never looked at another Asian woman ever as far as someone I’d want to be with. I always just saw my mom. It’s so silly because I’m lumping all of the women in one group. I’d have buddies who’d be like “check out that girl” who was Asian and I would say I can’t do it.
What do you do to relax?
One thing that I love to do with my kids is go fishing. It’s surprising that my daughter is a complete princess, always and ever since she came out. She saw the color pink as soon as she came out and loved it and wears a princess dress ever since. But, she loves to get her hands dirty. I took her fishing when she was young and she loved it. So now that all of the ice is off the lakes and it is starting to warm up around Minnesota, she is pumped to go fishing. My son enjoys it as well. It is one thing I look forward to doing. I’m pretty much a homebody. Anytime we can find a nice day to go fishing, I really enjoy it even if I’m just repairing lines and re-baiting all the time. It’s still fun to help them and watch them pull the fish, see the excitement. It is just a lot of fun.
I don’t have any major hobbies. I’ll golf every once in a while but I still can’t justify being on the course for six hours as I feel like it is very unproductive. I’ll play in a charity event because at least I’ll feel like it is contributing to something but just to be out there with my buddies for six hours sounds like fun but I’ll get to hole 10 and I’ll be pretty much done.
Anybody in particular that you respect and look up to?
I always looked up to my dad when I was growing up because I saw his ability from his position to treat people fairly and I thought that was a great attribute. No matter what the circumstance was, he seemed to always approach with an open mind and tried to treat everyone fairly. Which is hard to do with some of these punk kids in high school, you have to treat everyone fairly. You can’t have any prejudices, preconceived notions or what have you. So that is something I try to do, treat people fairly and respectfully. I looked up so much to my brothers, probably more than they even know. Just the way they compete, they way they do things. Being the third boy, I always looked up to my brothers. I am fortunate to have a good family behind me.
Are you exposing your children to some Korean culture and/or foods?
We do a little bit but both of my kids have not found their love for spicy foods because that is pretty much what I have around. Whenever I bust out the kimchi, they won’t touch it. They won’t even smell it. I think it is going to be awhile before their pallet gets there. They do love rice. I have a rice cooker and have rice on the ready pretty much every day of the week. If they have a bowl of rice they just chow it down! My daughter loves regular steak but when you have any funky seasoning on it, she doesn’t like it.
What did you think about HalfKorean.com when you first heard about it?
My brother told me about it. He had just joined Twitter a couple months ago and I checked it out to see who he was following. I saw your Twitter and wondered what it was so I clicked on it. I checked it out and thought it seemed legit and a real deal. Being from the Midwest, there was just not a lot of Korean culture and experience or Korean people. It’s kind of all new to me and makes sense how you guys are on the West Coast.
Any words that you would like to pass on to the mixed Korean community?
Treat people fairly and respect everybody no matter what race, color or whatever. Even though I didn’t have a brutal upbringing as far as being teased and whatnot, I know that other people have. It’s such a big thing with bullying these days. Respect each other’s space and who people are and we’ll all get along just fine.
We want to thank Ben for spending time with us for this interview and wish him much continued success.
Make sure to check Ben calling Conference USA football games this Fall on FOX College Football and also his guest radio appearances on KFAN FM 100.3.
For more info on Ben please follow him on his Twitter @nacholeber.
Interview by: David Lee Sanders
Ben with his daughter
Ben (left) with his sister Gina and two older brothers, Jason (middle) and Aaron (right)
Ben’s parents with his two oldest children
Ben’s parents with his daughter
Ben’s daughter wearing a hanbok (한복), the traditional Korean dress, for her baek-il (백일) 100th-day celebration.
Ben Leber #59 of the St. Louis Rams defends during the game against the New York Giants on September 19, 2011 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.The Giants defeated the Rams 28 to 16. (Photo by Rob Tringali/SportsChrome/Getty Images)
LeSean McCoy #25 of the Philadelphia Eagles is tackled by Ben Leber #59 of the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome on September 11, 2011 in St. Louis, Missouri. The Eagles defeated the Rams 31-15. (Photo by Jeff Curry/Getty Images North America)
Ben Leber #51 of the Minnesota Vikings celebrates after a fourth quarter fumble recovery against the Buffalo Bills at the Mall of America Field at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome on December 5, 2010 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images North America)
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers is hit by Ben Leber #51 of the Minnesota Vikings after being chased from the pocket at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome on November 21, 2010 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images North America)
Ben Leber #51 of the Minnesota Vikings recovers a fumble of the Houston Texans during the second quarter at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome on November 2, 2008 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Vikings won 28-21. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images North America)
Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints talks with Ben Leber #51 of the Minnesota Vikings after the Saints won 14-9 at Louisiana Superdome on September 9, 2010 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images North America)
Minnesota Vikings’ Ben Leber (51) intercepts a pass in front of Dallas Cowboys’ Patrick Crayton (84) during the second half of an NFL divisional playoff football game Sunday, Jan. 17, 2010, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Andy King)
Ben Leber #51 and the Minnesota Vikings celebrate his recovery of a fumble by quarteback Jon Kitna #8 of the Detroit Lions for a fourth quarter touchdown after Kitna was hit by Pat Williams #94 of the Vikings October 8, 2006 at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Vikings defeated the Lions, 26-17. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Ben Leber #51 of the San Diego Chargers celebrates a sack of Gus Frerotte #12 of the Cincinatti Bengals (Photo by Ernest Coleman and Jeff Swinger/Cincinnati Enquirer)
Linebacker Junior Seau #55 of the Miami Dolphins greets former teammate linebacker Ben Leber #51 of the San Diego Chargers after the game on October 27, 2003, played at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona due to wildfires in San Diego. The Dolphins won 26-10. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Ben Leber #51 linebacker for the San Diego Chargers celebrates one of his three sacks with Junior Seau #55 in their game versus the Houston Texans on September 15, 2002 at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
8 Sep 2001: Ben Leber #52 of the Kansas State Wildcats looks on from the field during the game against the Southern California (USC) Trojans at the L.A. Coliseum in Los Angeles, California. The Wildcats defeated the Trojans 10-6. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Allsport)
(Pictures courtesy of Ben Leber / Getty Images / Cincinnati Enquirer)