When John Harbaugh was hired as head coach of the Baltimore Ravens in 2008, he immediately implemented a philosophy that has served as the team's core principle over the past several seasons. "At the heart of football are three foundations. First is the team, second is the team, and third is the team. We'll stick with that from beginning to end."
Two-time Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach seamlessly took over as Ray Rice's lead blocker in his first season in Baltimore last year. The pair enjoyed a record-setting season together, with Leach leading the way for Rice's franchise-record 15 touchdowns (12 rushing, three receiving) and league-leading 2,068 yards from scrimmage. In 2011, Leach was ranked by his peers as the league's No. 1 fullback in the NFL Network Top 100 players' poll.
What's the best TEAM that you have ever been on?
"The best team that I've ever been on? I'd have to say my 1997 [South Robeson – Rowland, NC] high school football team. We had a lot of good players on that team. Fortunately, we got one game from the state championship. We were a talented team; we beat a lot of the top teams, and we were a small school and [we] played a lot of big schools across the state of North Carolina, so I would say them."
So, you think it was the best TEAM, not necessarily because you won, but because of the way you worked together?
"The way we worked together and stuff. The way we worked together and the way that we believed in each other."
What do you think the strengths are of this TEAM, the 2012 Ravens?
"We have a lot of different personalities, a veteran team. Also, we have a team that played a lot of ball together. You have a lot of guys on both sides of the ball, a lot of good players on both sides of the ball, but you have a lot of people that have played a lot of ball together, which really lends to a great chemistry."
What's the best TEAM that you've ever seen play in any sport?
"1992 Olympic basketball team, the Dream Team. I remember having that poster on the wall, seeing those guys play, representing their country. Eleven out of 12 of them are in the Hall of Fame, so that's the best team I have ever seen play."
How do all of those individual matchups help the TEAM to win?
"Well, you know a lot of times I'm blocking the quarterback of the defense, which is the mike linebacker and things like that, so very important blocks. Sometimes you're blocking the edge; take the pressure off Joe [Flacco], sometimes helping the offensive line. You have a lot of different matchups that I have, not necessarily one matchup in a game. I'm matched up with the weak-side linebacker, strong-side linebacker depending on what side the player calls [to]. Usually, I'm at a point-of-attack of the play most of the time."
You have 11 guys on the field, is it one of those things where if one of the 11 break down, it affects the whole play?
"Yes, offense is not like defense. Somebody can do a wrong thing and make a play on offense. One single play that works right, all 11 guys have to work together, have to be interchangeable, have to work together. I have to know what the offensive line is doing; the offensive line has to know what I'm doing for all of us to be on the same page."
What are the three words that describe this Ravens TEAM?
"Physical, talented, and destined."
What's the best advice you've ever received from a teammate?
"The best advice I've ever received from one of my teammates was probably one of my first years in the league. I was riding home with William Henderson, and we just talked, and the words that stuck with me, 'If you could play in this league, if you can play, they will find a place for you.' I always stuck by that; always believe in yourself and stuff like that. If you ever lose faith in yourself, you'll lose everything. So, I always keep that confidence and keep faith in yourself that you can achieve your goals."
You've played on four professional teams. You've been around in different locker rooms. Is there anything specific that makes a TEAM great?
"After all is said and done just the guys … Every team is going to say they outwork another team; every team is going to say that. Every team is going to have X's and O's, but what really matters is how the guys stick together through the good times and the bad times, how the guys come together, rally around one another. I think that's what makes a great team."
How does Vonta make you better and make the team better?
"One thing about him is what you see is what you get. He's a hard-nosed player, and what he brings to our team is tough mentality, and he's going to carry it from the practice field to the game. Obviously, the offensive system that we run, he's been in it. He kind of teaches along the way of running plays as well."
What's the best play you have ever seen him make?
"The best play I've seen him make was that hit on Patrick Willis [Thanksgiving night, 2011]. That's going down in history."
Running behind him, what did you see?
"It's not what I saw, it's the collision. If you have ever heard thunder … I'm sure that echoed throughout the whole stadium. Usually a hit like that is coming from a defender, but that hit came from Vonta Leach hitting Patrick Willis."
What is Vonta's best personality trait?
"His best trait is he's straightforward; he's an honest guy. You can trust him with anything. I don't say this because he's my teammate, but I have a great blocker, I have a great football player, but I have an even better person. He'll give you the shirt off his back; he's giving. As tough as he is, he has a side to him that wants to give back and wants to do the right thing in the community, and that's the side of him that people get to know, and that's why he's a fan favorite."
On why Vonta is a good teammate:
"One is that he comes to work every day. He is prepared at his craft. Vonta is a different kind of leader, but he is good. He is good for the team because he comes out and leads by example. He comes out and works hard every day."
On how having Vonta, the best fullback in the NFL, benefits the team:
"The thing about it is you measure yourself and you measure your game in trying to be the best. Going back to Vonta, the reason why he is the best is because he has great work habits, a great work ethic, and he brings it to work every day. The only way to get to the top of the mountain and hold onto it, you do what you do. He does what he does: prepare himself for the game, block well and go out there and execute the way we want him to."
On how the fullback position is so important and vital to the team:
"There are 11 battles out on the field, and at any given time or any given snap, you have to win your individual battle. On the offense, if one person breaks down, the whole continuity of the play breaks down. Here is the thing: Those individual battles are personal, and you have to take them personal. Therefore, I think, on the offensive side, Vonta Leach, all the way through the rest of the guys, they all take pride in winning every battle they are in. If we have 65 snaps, they want to win those 65 snaps. We always say, 'Win more than you lose.'"
On what makes Vonta a great teammate:
"I think the biggest thing with Vonta is that he has the type of mentality that he is going to speak out and give his opinion whether you want it or not, which is part of being a leader. He is going to go out there and give you 100 percent on the field, but also give you 100 percent in the meeting room, the locker room and in the community. Vonta is cut-and-dry. With him, you have a guy that is going to come in here and give it all he has, no matter what."
On why he has flourished in Baltimore:
"I think, with the mentality that this division has, run the ball, grind it out, do whatever you have to do. Vonta is that type of a player. You run behind him, he is going to hit whoever is in front of him. When he catches the ball, he is going to make you pay for trying to tackle him. Vonta is a humongous fullback that has the heart of a lion. He is going to give it all he has. For me, coming from Houston here with him, it was just truly a blessing to be with him and his locker to be by mine. But, to see him block for Ray Rice and just to see the accomplishments that he got last year, it's just exciting to be able to see that."
On what Vonta's best personality trait is:
"Whatever comes to his mind, he is going to say. I don't think he can help it. That's the great thing about him. He doesn't have anything bad to say about anybody. Vonta is just one of those guys that is going to speak his mind, whether you like it or not. But, it's just going to be him trying to have fun or him trying to say to you, 'Hey, this is what I think is going on. Let's fix it.' Like I said, he is a great teammate. Nobody gets into it with him because he plays hard, and he respects everybody around him. You want that in a teammate."