By Jordan Kroeger, SunCoast Sprots
PORT CHARLOTTE — Port Charlotte’s football family went to bed Wednesday night with an enormous cloud of uncertainty hanging over the program.
Defensive tackle Devin Leacock was on the verge of being ruled ineligible for his senior season due to an FHSAA age rule. Leacock turns 19 on Aug. 27, but the state only allows a player to play at that age if he is born on Sept. 1 or after of his senior year.
With Leacock missing the deadline by less than a week, he and the Pirates were forced to appeal the rule Thursday morning in Bradenton. Port Charlotte coach Jordan Ingman had been planning for the possibility of not having Leacock for the upcoming season, but believed his star defensive tackle had very valid reason to play in 2017.
Leacock was born with a speech impediment that caused him to be held back a year in elementary school. Ingman, along with his coaching staff, Port Charlotte athletic director Bob Bruglio, and Leacock’s family, argued that a disability should not prevent Leacock from playing in his final season like the rest of his peers.
The FHSAA saw it that way as well, ruling in Leacock’s favor in a unanimous 5-0 decision.
“There were a lot of tears and a lot of excitement,” Ingman said. “We kind of prepared ourselves mentally to not have him so if it happened we wouldn’t be completely shattered, but to have him back is just a phenomenal feeling. The bottom line is, the young man deserves it. The court heard all the facts and all the evidence.
“He’s had zero disciplinary action his whole career and that struck a core with them because not only has he been disabled but as he’s been bullied in his elementary and middle school years, he didn’t fight back and never created discipline problems.”
Leacock was at practice Thursday afternoon and was nearly at a loss for words. He admitted he was afraid the appeal wouldn’t go in his favor.
“I didn’t want to get my hopes up but they said everything was looking pretty good and all that but I just wanted to stay in control (of myself) and stay on the same level. I didn’t want to get too high and then come down,” he said.
Instead, Leacock will be riding on a high heading into his final year at Port Charlotte. It was already an eventful week for Leacock before Thursday’s ruling as he verbally committed to the University of South Florida on July 28.
Leacock said he chose South Florida over a bevy of other offers that included Purdue, Southern Miss, Marshall, Massachusetts, Eastern Michigan, Appalachian State, South Dakota and McNeese State.
Ingman said Florida and Ohio State had also expressed interest in Leacock. But being close to home played a big role in Leacock’s decision. Leacock is very close to his 29-year-old sister Tyana, who is paraplegic. The two hold a special bond, evident during last season’s game against Charlotte when Leacockcarried her wheelchair out into the stands to make sure she had a front-row seat to watch him play amongs a crowd of hundreds.
Leacock didn’t want to be more than a car ride away from Tyana, even if a bigger offer came about. That’s why he shut his recruitment down.
“We’re very close. It’s better for her because if I ended up out of state it would’ve been harder for her and I to see each other. It’ll be nice to be about an hour away from home as opposed to 15-20 hours away,” Leacock said.
South Florida’s coaching staff also felt like a family away from home for Leacock. Defensive tackles coach Sean Cronin recruited him hard and head coach Charlie Strong understood Leacock’s situation all the way down from his sister to the possibility of him not being able to play his senior season.
“He took that into consideration … he liked how I played and just wanted me to stay in shape if I wasn’t able play,” Leacock said.
Leacock’s commitment to South Florida brings his life full circle and serves as an ultimate victory in his lifelong battle with his speech impediment. He was told in elementary school he would never go to college, but now, he’s going on a full scholarship while getting to play the game he loves.
“I just worked really hard. They did say I couldn’t do it so I just worked really hard every day, twice a day just working, working, working and I’m here,” Leacock said.
When you speak to him today, you wouldn’t even know Leacock has battled with a disability in his life. Ingman even said he’s now one of the most talkative kids on the team.
Leacock has overcome a lot of the odds in his life but he’s shown that hard work pays off. He won the Class 2A state weightlifting title in the unlimited class back in March and was also named The Sun’s Boys Weightlifter of the Year as well as The Sun’s Defensive Player of the Year last football season.
“For him to become a full qualifier when you’re told that you’re never going to go to college, I think that’s a special accomplishment and it says a lot about his demeanor and his confidence,” Ingman said. “He’s a pretty tough kid so that’s not really surprising. That’s something that most kids wouldn’t be able to battle through so he’s just a special kid.”