By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published July 22, 2010
Anderson Park is tucked away in southwest Atlanta. On the edge of the unlined grass field, a white tent is the only shade, with a large fan providing a little relief in the sweltering heat. Young men in white T-shirts are running from the defensive linemen station to the wide receiver station at this football camp. Otherwise they have to muscle through 10 push-ups.
The man behind the camp is Leigh Torrence, a five-year NFL veteran who grew up in Catholic schools here.
Indeed, St. Anthony of Padua Church, in Atlanta’s West End neighborhood, was such a part of his life growing up that he laughs at the memory of being “the captain” of its altar servers.
From the blacktop playground of the now-closed St. Anthony School to the high school gridiron of Marist and now the artificial turf of the New Orleans Superdome, Torrence has made his mark.
This 28-year-old who attended Catholic school up to college has a gleaming, 44-diamond Super Bowl ring to show for his persistence.
“As long as I live, it’s going to be a special year,” he said of the Saints’ winning season in 2009-2010.
Before the June football camp, which is in its fifth year, Torrence spoke about his time in Catholic schools, his faith and what inspired him to open this free camp, which costs close to $18,000 a year to host.
He wants to shape young people. Torrence and his foundation, South West Atlanta Youth Foundation, puts on the free “4th Down Fundamentals Football Camp” that attracts a few hundred boys and girls. Part football and cheerleading instruction, it is also an effort to tell the youngsters about the value of good decision-making.
“Academics and character go hand in hand. You can’t make it without school,” he said.
Torrence attended the parish school for his elementary years. In the struggling neighborhood, Torrence says the school, which closed in 2001, was a haven.
“I think it was rigorous. Even more, we had a safe environment to learn and grow. I definitely value those times,” he said.
Indeed, a group of alumni formed a Facebook page to keep in touch with each other.
“It is something we hold in our hearts with endearment,” he said.
He later attended Christ the King School and then Marist School for high school.
“I have a lot of lifelong friends from high school,” he said, including other NFL players and business leaders.
His high school career on the field included playing as both a cornerback and running back with 49 tackles, 12 pass break-ups and two interceptions as a senior. He was named to the All-Dixie Team by SuperPrep. He also ran track.
The Marist football team his senior year held the top spot in the high school rankings. It lost in the quarterfinals of the state championship. Torrence remembers the game down to the final play, a last-minute field goal ending the game 10-7.
He also did so well in the classroom he was named a National Merit semifinalist. He attended Stanford University on both an academic and sports scholarship. He earned a degree in political science.
Danny Healy, 42, coached Torrence on the Marist football team. The two crossed paths first when Healy taught physical education at Christ the King School. Healy said he convinced Torrence to focus on football instead of his tennis game.
“He is very intense. He is hard on himself. He wants to succeed,” he said.
On the Marist football team, with its wishbone offense, Torrence played “second fiddle” to the other halfback, but always motivated himself to work hard, Healy said.
“You say, ‘Oh wow!’ anytime a kid makes the NFL. But I understand why he made the NFL—the hard work, inside he always strived to be the best,” said Healy, who teaches at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School and coaches football and baseball.
In the NFL, Torrence recently signed a one-year contract with the New Orleans Saints where he has played since 2008. Last year, the cornerback was active for five games before a shoulder injury. He has also played previously for the Atlanta Falcons and the Washington Redskins.
Marist taught him a lot from deepening his faith on retreats to decision-making.
“I feel pretty strong in my walk,” said Torrence, who now attends a non-denominational church in New Orleans.
A Marist tradition that he says made a deep impression was time spent as a team in the school chapel.
“We always realized we were playing a sport. Winning and losing was important, but ultimately God was in control of every situation. If we were able to play in a way that was pleasing to him, in the end, we’d be successful.”
“It helped keep perspective of what we were doing and why we were doing it,” he said. “It prepares you for life.”
Torrence says it’s a lesson he wants to pass on to young people.
“You want to surround a young person (with mentors) so they don’t have an option but to succeed,” he said.
Girls and boys overcome hurdles when they are inspired and encouraged. Many won’t make it into the professional sports level, but they can succeed in other ways with the right mindset, he said.
“I was never the first person picked,” Torrence said. “I always had to work hard.”