Vonta Leach Oral History Interview


Terzell Vonta Leach
Narrator

Donald Leggett
Interviewer

East Carolina University
June 24, 2020
Greenville, North Carolina

Donald Leggett:
Alright, this is Friday, June 26. I'm just not Friday, June 26, I'm using the wrong script. It is Tuesday, June 30, at approximately 1:40 in the pm and my name is Donald Y. Leggett, and I'm a 50 year employee of East Carolina University and currently working out of the Chancellor's division on a part time basis, doing special assignments. I retired in 1997 from full time service as Associate Vice Chancellor for Alumni Relations. Today I'm here in my home in Greenville, North Carolina conducting an oral history interview with Vonta T. Leach, an East Carolina University graduate and retired National Football League football player. We are doing this by way of WebEx of the WebEx system as a part of a project entitled The rise of Alpha Dog. Mr. Leach, so as to put this all in perspective, why don't we begin by asking you to give us a brief biographical outline, such as where you were born, where you've lived, jobs you've held and actually what you're doing now? Yeah. (01:37)

Vonta Leach:
My name is Terzell Vonta Leach. (audio goes out for a brief second) I was born in 1982, in a little small town called Roland, North Carolina. A small Town one stoplight. So I am I am ECU graduate. I graduated and my last year was 2004 but I finished my degree in [unclear]. After ECU you know I played professional football for 10 years in the National Football League. I played for the Green Bay Packers, I played for the Houston Texans and I won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens. I played 10 years and during my 10 year time I was a 3 time All Pro three, a time Pro Bowler, and 3 times in the top 50 players and top 100 players in NFL and every thing. Today, you know I'm currently a member of the Robeson County School Board. I just got voted in this past March and I'm actually taking office tomorrow. Tomorrow is their new calendar year, so I actually start my school board here at the local school board for as an advocate for for low income and low funded schools in Robeson County so I am on the local school board here. What else I've done I've had my own foundation, the Vonta Leach Foundation, where we focus on focus on kids in low low areas to provide them with educational and recreational opportunities out here. I am also involved with ECU on a couple of boards. I'm also involved here locally on a couple boards and do things in the community, community outreach programs. I also did sponsor kids from football camps, I've hosted football camps for 10 years in a row here in my hometown. I have done everything to give out scholarships to sponsor different teams at different events and stuff. So that's it. (03:48)

Donald Leggett:
Vonta seems like you're becoming a politician down that way not that you've got elected to the board and I know the people they're glad you are and [unclear] you are doing and have done wonderful things. I know the people in that area feel very fortunate that your with them and supporting things that they are attempting to do in that area. I was aware of the Roland area back as a as a kid. I think, and then I might be wrong that we had a football player at Campbell, I grew up in Buies Creek, and an outstanding football player from I think from the Roland area that played for Campbell. Did Archie Brigman. Are you familiar with that name? (04:38)

Vonta Leach:
I'm not familiar with that name, not that he didn't. I'm not familiar with that name.

Donald Leggett:
And I might be wrong, but I was thinking that Archie was from the Roland area but I have known about Roland for a long, long time, so it's something that I'm not totally unaware of. Well Vonta I know you came here to play football and of course to get your education. When were you first aware of East Carolina, when was the first time that you were faced with the fact that there's a university there called East Carolina and what would be like? You know, when would you first become familiar with it? (05:27)

Vonta Leach:
I first exposed to East Carolina in my ninth grade year in high school. Actually a couple of my coaches actually attended East Carolina, Mike Brill, Willie George, and they used to tell me about East Carolina and I never knew nothing about Greenville never knew nothing about ECU until you know, I actually went to a football game or actually I went to a football camp, and that was my ninth grade year in high school. (05:51)

Donald Leggett:
Mm hmm. Well after hearing about it and then eventually visiting the campus and actually seeing it, as time went along, what was your first impression of East Carolina once you began to get familiar with it?

Vonta Leach:
Well, my first impression of East Carolina was family. You know, when I was on campus when I was around the guys, the former athletes and the coaches, it felt like a family, you know, and East Carolina actually was the first school I was highly recruited coming out of high school. But East Carolina was the first school that actually offered me a scholarship. That was my ninth grade year going into my 10th grade year, East Carolina, with the first person to offer me scholarship and I always kept that in the back of my head. They were the first guys before the big dogs came after me. East Carolina offered me first. (06:46)

Donald Leggett:
So you had to keep that under your hat for what three years? Yeah. I know I got a place to go right. Well, as time has gone along has that family impression and other things that you just pointed out, has it changed any or do you think is grown stronger? (07:11)

Vonta Leach:
I think it has grown stronger. campus has grown, but I think the family aspect has grown stronger. You go back you look at what goes on at homecoming. You look at all the diversity programs that ECU have, I'm thinking have made it East Carolina a whole lot stronger. (07:30)

Donald Leggett:
I see. Um, you pointed out that you knew about East Carolina as a what a freshman and sophomore in high school. But along the way, I'm assuming that you heard from other institutions, and there were others who were interested in having you come to their campus. So why did you ultimately choose ECU over the others? (08:01)

Vonta Leach:
A couple of reasons why. Number 1 was the family aspect. Number 2, at the time, East Carolina was the best team in the state. You know, there was best college team in the state. I mean East Carolina would beat the Miami's East Carolina would beat down the NC States, they would beat down [unclear]. East Carolina was the place, the Virginia Techs, East Carolina would beat them down. So I didn't want to leave the state, I was, like I said good old just a downright country boy. I didn't feel right, I didn't feel right, you know, leaving the state of North Carolina and my mom didn't want me to leave the state, my mom and my grandparents so that was the reason why I chose ECU. (08:39)

Donald Leggett:
I see and I surely understand where you're coming from because I'm an old country boy myself. For now, looking back on all of it and things that happened during that period of time and let me is just pause right here for a little bit and say, I'm kind of breaking this interview down into three parts, we're going to talk about as we are now your early years and,(09:05)

Vonta Leach:
Okay

Donald Leggett:
then we are going to move on into talking about maybe this underdog attitude that we're beginning to get into a little bit anyway in our conversation when you were talking about beating the Miami's and all of that, and the giant killer image that we had and the fact that we would go into some of these games as feeling somewhat as an underdog probably and then coming out of it as giant killers. But looking back on all this, are you glad now that you attended ECU and what about ECU are you most proud? (09:44)

Vonta Leach:
You know, you know, I wouldn't change, looking back at my college experience, looking back at my pro career, I wouldn't never change, nothing about going to ECU. You know, I went there, I was there through a lot of the transition phase. You know, we went through two coaches, we fired Steve Logan, played up under John Thompson, you know, we had bad we had bad teams and two out of my four years, we had some terrible terrible teams, but through it all, you know, through the adversity, and through the lifelong friendships that have I made from coaches, players, and ECU have gave me and my family you know, opportunity to make, to make a living, you know, to, for me to provide for my family, so I wouldn't change nothing. (10:31)

Donald Leggett:
I understand, and I remember very well going to those football games you were talking about and one of the bright spots in all that you were referring to was when I see Vonta Leach coming in and we were down on that 1 yard lines. Okay, here comes Vonta, and I knew we will score. I knew we were going to get over that goal line. If, let me go and back start again. Have you now as we've come through all of this that we're talking about and and as you arrived here and began your quest for an education, did you have the feeling that there was some part of a of an underdog attitude, not just with athletics, but maybe throughout the whole university that, that maybe we were kind of looked down upon or had a little bit of inferiority not necessarily complex, but we felt a little bit inferior maybe in some ways. Did you get that impression that there was some of that around? (11:46)

Vonta Leach:
Yes, I did get that not only, like you said, not only from the football field, but when you when you talked the other students or stuff you know, some of your former colleagues when you talk to them You know, ECU some of them ECU wasn't their first choice. You know, ECU was not the first choice. Maybe they didn't get in to another school. But they want to show them we just as better as the Carolinas, the States, and the Wake Forests of the world, they put us off to Eastern North Carolina by ourselves, but I will put any of my former students, former colleagues and stuff up against anybody. We walked around like we had a chip on our shoulder and it showed. (12:26)

Donald Leggett:
Mm hmm. Well do you think that having that, oh for lack of a better term, that attitude is us in some way and advantage for for the university? As they go about the things that they are striving to do. (12:45)

Vonta Leach:
Yeah, well, yeah. Having that chip on your shoulder, I think it provides an edge and an advantage. Like, listen, you know, that's what make you a Pirate. You know, you have to fight, have to fight for everything. Have a chip on your shoulder gone about you're gonna get knocked down but it's not about how many times you get knocked down it's how many times you're willing to get back up you know [unclear] showed you life. (13:10)

Donald Leggett:
That that's for sure and now let's narrow down a little bit from there. You responded to the the whole university as to whether has some advantage How about athletics itself how does it affect athletic teams to to have that underdog attitude? (13:31)

Vonta Leach:
Of course, was we was always called the giant killers we the bigger the team was, the bigger the spotlight was, the better our teams usually performed and you know what it used to be East Carolina was not on TV, so when we got a chance to get on TV we usually showed out you know, we showed up and showed out. (13:50)

Donald Leggett:
So, after all is said and done is, does it really make a difference whether we're an underdog or an alpha dog? How does it affect anything?

Vonta Leach:
Well, I don't think it makes a difference but this is what I would say. The underdog makes ECU, ECU.

Donald Leggett:
Mm hmm.

Vonta Leach:
I don't think that being the alpha dog make it better. I think being the underdog makes it always better you know because everybody, everybody's pulling for the underdog. Nobody's never pulling for the alpha dog. (14:34)

Donald Leggett:
You know Vonta, in my, in my other life, I call it, I coached in the in the high schools and coached basketball primarily and I coached some teams that back in my hometown as a matter of fact, and I don't remember I ever winning a county championship. But we played hard because we every time we went on that floor, we were the underdog.(15:02)

Vonta Leach:
Oh yeah.

Donald Leggett:
We we left a lot of skin a lot blood out, they on that court. Just primarily because we were just there to, of course to enjoy playing, but to show them that we were as good as anybody else and that we could win. Then on the other hand, left there and went to a school that was very accustomed to winning championships, they about every year they were sort of expected to win a championship. And, of course, I called them frontrunners. And that it's, it's not necessarily harder or easier to motivate people in one or the other, but it's different. I mean, you have different motivation if you are underdog as compared to if you're a front runner. (15:48)

Vonta Leach:
Yes.

Donald Leggett:
Then like I said, it makes a difference. Now whether good, bad, or indifferent, it is a different motivational scheme and it's kind of hard sometimes to motivate those kids that are accustomed to winning mainly all the time.

Vonta Leach:
You're right, it is it's just like [unclear]

Donald Leggett:
Now let's move to the third part Vonta, of that we talked about the early years, we talked about the underdog attitude. Now let's shift to the alpha dog concept now for a little bit. Do you think it's time to shift to shift our focus to to alpha dog and sort of let the the underdog thing wear itself out? Is is the time now to sit up and say, we're as good as anybody else and we deserve to be here, we're accustomed to winning, and we expect to win. Is, you know, go ahead respond to that if you would like. (16:48)

Vonta Leach:
Yes, but in order, but in order for us to shift to that, we have to get everybody on the same page, from our Chancellor to our Athletic Director, to the whole program as a whole, we have to get everybody on the same page and switch that momentum to shift that momentum. You know, in the last in the last in the last five, six years, we have not had that. I mean, we can go all different scenarios why we didn't have that, but in order for us to get to that mindset and stuff, everybody has to be on the same page beat to the same sheet of music. (17:22)

Donald Leggett:
Do you feel then Vonta that there's some reluctance, and we'll maybe talk a little bit of where that reluctance comes from, but there's some reluctance to shift from the underdog role? Are we to comfortable with the the underdog role to want to shift to the to the alpha dog role, are we in that situation like I describe it by having an old pair of shoes that are worn out but I don't get rid of them because they feel so good although I know I should get some new ones. (17:55)

Vonta Leach:
Well hey, you're right, I never looked at it like that, but we may be just be comfortable in the underdog role and don't want to shift. But, there's got there's got to be a shift in the movement sometimes. Yeah and there's got to be a shift in the movement sometimes whether it's [unclear] whether the movement is one year from now three years from now five years from now they got to be a shift. (18:19)

Donald Leggett:
I think just what you're saying is is sort of the the gist of the of the premise that I sent to you in my little narrative, two or three page, thing that's basically what what was said there wasn't it? (18:35)

Vonta Leach:
Basically what we said.

Donald Leggett:
and I'm glad to see that you agree with with that and even though it's not my role here to try to influence opinion, but you know, you've got from from that item, sort of where my thinking was, but that shouldn't influence yours at all, but it's good to hear that come back? (19:01)

Vonta Leach:
Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

Donald Leggett:
But you know, as we how our have come accustomed to this role, which I reckon we've been at it almost since I've been over campus Vonta and that's been 50 years. And then to see our university, as it has become and [unclear] have been some differences over that period of time, some changes. So what do you think, take, going back to our term the alpha dog. What do you think an alpha dog university, or our alpha dog university would look like? What the, how do you see it? (19:46)

Vonta Leach:
What, what, this is the thing I look at, I look at stuff through athletics always I always

Donald Leggett:
And I understand that

Vonta Leach:
So if our football, our athletics are good, thriving, are doing good. It's gonna bring more students and revenue to our university because that's what a kid, what a kid, a student want to come to your school, because they're exposed to your university and the biggest exposure we have is our sports team and stuff. People might not want to realize that, but that's going to be the biggest [unclear]. That's why kids look at me or look at anybody else, Vonta Leach went to East Carolina I want to go there, not because I want to play football, because I know he went East Carolina, East Carolina, always do good stuff. (20:37)

Donald Leggett:
And, you know, I can't remember who this is credited to but somebody in last few years made the statement that athletics is your front porch of the university and we get people in through the front porch, and then they learn about all the rest of the stuff. But yeah, that sort of serves as a as a as an attraction, a front porch and lots of good things come out of it, there's no doubt about that nd I surely have enjoyed athletics through the years and it's surely a necessary part of of a good, fine institution like we are. Right. For change to take place Vonta in moving from the underdog to the alpha dog, and I've been, well you have already actually answered this as to what would have to take place for that to occur. So I don't know if you want to expand on that any at all, but in answering one of the other questions I referred to well, for this to occur, this has got to happen. So. (21:51)

Vonta Leach:
Yes.

Donald Leggett:
I think you have pretty much gone through that. You know one thing Vonta I think that has been a constant through so far the entire history of the university, and when I stopped to think I've seen a big part of that, in that the university was was established in 1907 and I arrived here in 1950 to go to school. So I've seen a big portion of all that history and the one thing that I think I'm proudest of and also seems to be a thread that runs through the whole thing and as I have described it from time to time to sort of the glue that holds everything together, through the the trying times the good times and whatever is our motto to serve. We have held on to that, that started back when the university was was established. It's still in the forefront out there. It's on our seal, it's on our motto and so I think that's something that is, like I said, sort of been the glue that holds it all together. And so as we go forward, where does that attitude of serve, where does it take its place? And so the question I'm getting to actually y rambling around through this, is it possible for us to attain the the academic status as one of the most respected institutions in the nations in the nation academically, and at the same time, serve our region, our section of the state? Because as you know, there are some areas in the eastern part of the state that are the most impoverished or economically and culturally deprived as anywhere in the state. So can we serve that area and at the same time, do everything that's expected as an academic institution nationally? (24:02)

Vonta Leach:
Well the [unclear] say that we have to.

Donald Leggett:
Mm hmm.

Vonta Leach:
We cannot expect to move forward or we cannot expect to be an alpha dog if we is not serving them underprivileged population and what makes East Carolina is eastern North Carolina. That's what makes eastern North Carolina you have a lot of different pockets and stuff. And if we are not serving if we not serving the different areas and stuff of our pockets of our school because we have a lot of people from Robeson County that go to East Carolina. We have a lot of people come to the county. And I can go on [unclear] all these pockets of eastern North Carolina. We're not serving them, we're doing ourselves a disjustice. (24:42)

Donald Leggett:
Yeah, you know, throughout my lifetime, and in in raising my young son, I go back to this thing about whatever you charge to do, to do it well.

Vonta Leach:
Yes.

Donald Leggett:
And and as you move up the ladder, that if you do every bit as you hit each of the steps if you accomplish everything well and make a record for yourself, you'll move to the next one. (25:13)

Vonta Leach:
Yep.

Donald Leggett:
So I think that applies to a university as well. If we do what our charges and do it well, then you'll have the respect that will cause you to move to where eventually you wanna be. But you can't skip those steps. You got to step on everyone of them (25:29)

Vonta Leach:
Yep. Just like you said, I wanna piggyback [unclear], as you step as you step up those steps and you clamp up on them steps, you have to reach back and grab someone and grab something else. (25:39)

Donald Leggett:
Pull them up with you. You know, I am going to add that to my little analogy because I hadn't thought about pulling the man behind me up, but.

Vonta Leach:
You got to.

Donald Leggett:
Sometimes he might jerk you back down, [unclear].Might have to kind of climb it together, but I do know what happens when you miss some of those steps? So anyway, that I think we surely have the same school of thought with that, that whatever you're charged with doing, do it well and good things will happen, hopefully and supposedly. I think we hit on Vonta the role that athletics plays in determining how we are perceived as a university. And I think there are those that probably the how the whole university is perceived, in their minds depends on how athletics is perceived. If we have a good athletic team, we must be a good university. You think that's kind of the way it is? (26:55)

Vonta Leach:
[unclear] I don't necessarily say that's the way it is because you look at some of our athletes have not been as good but our university has been doing well what it did to the, to the to our new facilities and stuff we have been doing well, but at the same time. Athletics go our school gonna go so you know, so I think we need we get our athletes, right, you're gonna see more improvement of our school and all the different schools around our schools. (27:23)

Donald Leggett:
And it's all sort of part of a of an attitude or reckon is Vonta that if everything is if one thing is doing well, it carries over to something else and yep, so all becomes contagious and everything benefits from it. I think you're exactly right.(27:43)

Vonta Leach:
Yeah, winning is contagious. Yeah.

Donald Leggett:
It's sure nice when you catch it isn't? Do you think that we should then consciously promote the change in attitudes from underdog to alpha dog and if so, how can we do that?

Vonta Leach:
Well yes what we need to do first you need to start highlight and you know, some of the stuff that that that we are number one in. You start highlighting that stuff you know, I think we at one time we was the most diverse university in UNC system. I mean we got an award for that. You got got to stop promoting what you never won at and start piggyback off that to everything else. (28:31)

Donald Leggett:
You know, thinking back to the time when I first arrived here, and and I was seeing the things that were being strived for. I know, just before I came back here, we think we got the school of nursing installed and going and that was a major hurdle you know at the time. (28:59)

Vonta Leach:
Yes.

Donald Leggett:
And shortly thereafter, I think it was thereafter maybe my time elements a little off. But anyway, somewhere during that same period of time, then we attempted to reach university status and I remember our chancellor at the time think I'm quoting him pretty close to accurate, anyway, it says we are university in fact, so let's proclaim it so (29:30)

Vonta Leach:
Oh, yeah.

Donald Leggett:
So he was able then to, to to get the state to whoever the people are making those decisions to, to declare us a university. So we went then to the medical school, and that was a struggle as you know, to get through all of these things. I was thinking, when are we going to really arrive? You know, we keep striving into this thing, that thing, the next thing and, of course athletics is involved in all that. We want to be in the best conferences, one of the best conferences in the country. And so when are we going to arrive. Then in later years, maybe even this year, I've started the think, you don't ever arrive. (30:20)

Vonta Leach:
Nope.

Donald Leggett:
What do you think about all that? [unclear]

Vonta Leach:
You will never arrive. You will never arrive but I will tell you something. The time is now. You will never arrive, you always striving to be better. You're always working to be that be at the top, you know, I always said, the glass is either half empty or half full. So we always trying to get our glass to overflow. (30:46)

Donald Leggett:
That's the That's right. And so I think I might have to shift my aspirations a little bit, be a little more patient. Know that as long as we keep doing the things like we've been doing them and being successful, wherever we are, are in charge whatever we're charged to do, that we're going to arrive but we may not know it when we get there. But we will we will arrive and and so I think maybe I can rest a little bit about that. Once you arrive why you probably start going backwards if you really if you think you've arrived. (31:28)

Vonta Leach:
You're right about that.

Donald Leggett:
It goes one way [unclear]

Vonta Leach:
Yes, sir.

Donald Leggett:
Vonta, I wouldn't take anything for this session that we've had here today. And I want to give you the opportunity to expand on anything or expound on anything that we didn't cover. I know as we go through it, there might be things that, well I wish you asked me this, I wish you asked me that and give me a chance to talk about it. So now's the time to talk about those things you want to talk about, I didn't give you a chance to. (32:01)

Vonta Leach:
Oh, no, I think we've covered it covered everything. I want to say Mr. Don, thank you for you know, for interviewing me for your for your project for this viral project. I want to thank you. You know, that's it. I think we covered a lot of stuff and a lot of great information. (32:17)

Donald Leggett:
We've surely covered the waterfront, I think and Vonta, thank you for all the things that you do in East Carolina University and for your part of the world of down in what's Robeson County. (32:31)

Vonta Leach:
Yes, sir.

Donald Leggett:
Primarily the Robeson County anyway, and some people would call it Robeson. We know as Robeson, don't we?

Vonta Leach:
Yes sir.

Donald Leggett:
Those people are awfully proud of you. We are proud of you here and that is I just look forward to our relationship as time goes along. Thank you for taking the time to do this.

Vonta Leach:
Thank you, sir.


Title
Vonta Leach Oral History Interview
Description
Sound recording of Vonta Leach's interview for the "The Rise of Alpha Dog" oral history project conducted by Don Leggett. The project explores perceptions of East Carolina as an "underdog" or "alpha dog".
Date
June 30, 2020
Extent
Local Identifier
UA95.18.10
Location of Original
University Archives

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