Nov. 15, 2007
By Jason Krump
On the desk of Cougar defensive line coach Mike Walker is a stein that serves as a representation of a memory . . . a memory of a player Walker coached 10 years earlier.
On one side the player's name is etched. It is a name of an individual who served as the lynchpin for the Cougar defense during their Rose Bowl run; a name of a man who was a husband and father; a name of a person who was kicked off the team because of academics, but overcame these issues to earn a spot back on the team; a name of a player who, although his life ended suddenly and much too soon, left a lasting impact on the lives he touched.
The name is that of Leon Bender, senior defensive tackle on the 1997 Cougar football team.
"We had a banquet and for some reason I received his mug," said Walker, defensive line coach on the 1997 coaching staff. "Leon started working out for scouts, and I never saw him.
"Leon was a great, great guy. He was a selfless type of guy who would give you the shirt off your back if you asked for it. His ability was just tremendous. The most ability I have ever seen out of a big guy."
- Duane Stewart
"I never had the chance to give it to him," Walker added. "It's the only thing I kept from Leon; that's my memento of him."
Mention Leon Bender's name to those who knew the man, and the memories are sure to come rushing through.
"Leon was a great, great guy," Duane Stewart said. "He was a selfless type of guy who would give you the shirt off your back if you asked for it. His ability was just tremendous. The most ability I have ever seen out of a big guy."
"We were playing Illinois, and we were behind early," linebacker Steve Gleason remembers. "We came off the sidelines, and I was kind of in shock about what was happening. Our defense wasn't playing very well.
"Leon stood up and gave the defensive unit basically a slap in the face," Gleason added. "He said, `Hey, wake yourself up, get yourself together. We are going to go out and win this game. Quit sitting here like you don't know what is going on. Figure it out and let's go out and win this game.' From that point on he was especially significant as a leader."
Just nine months earlier to the day of his passing, it was Bender who made the key play on the Cougars' goal-line stand against UCLA and provided a quote after the game that may have been even more memorable.
When the Bruins' Skip Hicks sat out the deciding fourth down play citing exhaustion, Bender called him "soft" and added: "That's how they do it at UCLA with their All-Americans."
That was not the only unforgettable line from Bender during the first month of the season. He called USC coach John Robinson a "punk" for refusing to shake his hand after the game, and after the 58-0 win over Boise State, Bender said, "The only reason I sweated was because I had my pads on."
"Leon had a way of pushing my hot button," Mike Price said. "He was in the doghouse more than out of it with me."
"Leon had a mouth that ran faster than Kevin McKenzie could run," Ryan McShane said. "He would beat us in practice, yell about it and really get under our skin."
In particular, McShane remembers one story from practice during August fall camp.
"We were in a one vs. one's scrimmage at the end of practice," McShane recalls. "Coach Price called a reverse that we actually ran in the Rose Bowl, and as the right tackle I get a kill shot on a number of defenders that were caught in the misdirection. I saw Leon running left and I decided to chase him.
"Leon was the ultimate defensive tackle. He had the size and speed; he was physical and was aggressive. He had all the tools. He would have been All-Pro."
"As soon as the back handed the ball to Shawn Tims, Leon turned and I ran into him full speed and knocked him into next week," continued McShane. "I stood over him and told him `that ought to shut you up.' Leon then switched with Shane Doyle to play end rather than tackle and for the rest of the scrimmage he would go full speed and just kicked my butt play after play. At the end of practice we hugged each other and called each other an inappropriate expletive."
It was Bender's performance in practice that served the offensive line well during the course of the season.
"I was talking to (offensive tackle) Lee Harrison about how our defensive line prepared them to play against other teams," Stewart said. "He was saying I used to think it was going to be hard out there, but going against Leon and those guys every day at practice made those games easy."
Easy was not a word opposing offensives would used to describe going against Bender. Distress may be more appropriate.
"Leon was the ultimate defensive tackle," Walker said. "He had the size and speed; he was physical and was aggressive. He had all the tools. He would have been All-Pro."
But it was academic difficulties, which plagued Bender during the early stages of his collegiate career, that had to be overcome if he had any hopes of displaying his on the field talents.
He sat out the 1993 season due to Proposition 48 requirements and once again became academically ineligible for the 1995 season. While his teammates were playing football in the fall of 1995, Bender was attending classes at Walla Walla Community College on the school's Clarkston campus to work on attaining his eligibility once again.
He earned his eligibility back and rejoined the Cougars for the 1996-97 season, where he had a team-high 13.5 tackles for a loss and earned Pac-10 honorable mention status.
Bender carried over his success from that year to the following season. He started 11 games and appeared in all 12. His only non-start came against UCLA, when Price sat him as penance for his postgame actions directed at an official after the 1996 Apple Cup. He recorded 53 tackles, including 10 for a loss. He also had three sacks and eight pass deflections, including two in the Rose Bowl.
Those numbers earned Bender a Pac-10 first team selection in addition to being named third-team All-American by the Associated Press.
Bender's post-WSU future seemed to carry endless possibilities, especially when the Oakland Raiders made him the 31st overall pick, the first pick of the second round, in the NFL Draft. He was ready to embark on his NFL career having signed a five-year, $3.45 million contract.
But on May 30, 1998, just five weeks after the NFL Draft, Bender passed away from complications stemming from an epileptic seizure suffered while in Georgia preparing for the Raiders' mini-camp.
And just like that, a key member of the Cougars' historic Rose Bowl team was gone.
"When this happened to Leon I said, `I can't believe this is happening,'" Walker said.
"Leon was a great kid; he had a smile and a personality," Bill Doba said. "I went to his memorial service in Pullman. It was supposed to be 15 minutes and after two hours they had to cut it off."
Bender was survived by his wife, Liza, and their two-year-old daughter, Imani. In addition, his memory was survived by all of those who played or coached with him on the 1997 Cougar football team.
"I knew him since a young man and went through the trials and tribulations: illness, marriage and academics," Price said. "He was involved in my life in so many ways. I still have a picture in my home of us hugging after the Apple Cup."
"Leon was larger than life on and off the field," McShane said. "I have nothing but fond memories of Leon. He was a tremendous player, but even a better father.
"I loved that guy."
Relive the Roses
- Chapter 1: Motivation
- Chapter 2: Fourth and Roses to Go
- Chapter 3: The Catch. The Block. Vanquishing History.
- Chapter 4: The Nation Begins to Take Notice
- Chapter 5: Fabulous!
- Chapter 6: Getting Defensive
- Chapter 7: 63 and 6-0
- Chapter 8: In Elite Company
- Chapter 9: Fumble, Then a Recovery
- Chapter 10: Stepping Up to the Challenge
- Chapter 11: Memories of a Memorable Man
- Chapter 12: Confidence
- Chapter 13: A Storybook Championship
- Chapter 14: Leading up to New Year's Day
- Chapter 15: A Block that Lent a Great Assist
- Chapter 16: A Game 67 Years in the Making
- Chapter 17: Playing No. 1 to a Deadlock
- Chapter 18: To the Final Snap