Leftwich passes muster

2-22-03, 6:20 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

INDIANAPOLIS _ By the end of the day, you believed Byron Leftwich is one of the most unbelievable gamers in college football history. But unlike Carson Palmer, it was also easy to believe the Marshall quarterback is wary about playing for the Bengals after the dust cleared from Friday's interview sessions here at the NFL scouting combine.

Asked which quarterback the Bengals should take April 26 with the first pick in the NFL Draft, Leftwich chuckled. Then he leaned over the podium to make sure he made eye contact with assistant public relations director P.J. Combs in his Bengals' garb before bobbing his head, and said, "I don't have to answer that question. It's out of my control. It's not what I think, it's what the Bengals think."

Leftwich may have already said what he thought last season when he reportedly said on a radio show that his nightmare was NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue saying the Bengals would call him No. 1.

On Friday, he denied he said it. Or, that it was even him on the radio.

"I never said that. It wasn't me," Leftwich said. "I would love to go to Cincinnati with the No. 1 pick. . .You can't listen to what everybody says. That's all you're going to hear is bad things about the Bengals. You can't listen to that. What you have to do is look at and respect all 32 teams. What you've got is 32 teams with the best football players in the world. It's not always bad as you guys say sometimes. I've watched them play. I think they've got a pretty decent team."

What can be believed is Leftwich has a terrific arm, and he got good news Saturday from the combine people about his injured left leg. One club official said Leftwich was cleared by all 32 doctors, and, the always cautious Bengals are reportedly satisfied that he is healthy enough to consider taking No. 1 after his two injuries were exhaustively examined.

But can any team risk such a high pick with his medical history? You get different answers from different teams. Yet the facts are he had a rod put in his left tibia to help heal a hairline fracture as a junior. Then in an extraordinary session here Friday, Leftwich revealed he played in Marshall's bowl game this year on a stress fracture just above his left foot that he suffered Nov. 2 against Akron. He admitted the uncommon unselfishness may have cost him going No. 1.

"I told my teammates no matter what, we were going to win the championship," Leftwich said. "For the last three years these guys were used to me being in the huddle. They're like my family. I couldn't let those guys go out there and play without me. If I thought I hurt the team, I wouldn't go out there."

But he hurt his No. 1 chances. Because he played in the bowl game, he missed the Senior Bowl and barely got cleared in time to attend the combine's physical. He can't work out here, and can't put on a tryout for teams until April 7, although he has been doing quarterback drills for the past two weeks or so.

"I was playing college football at the time and I didn't want to hear about the NFL," Leftwich said. "I was just worried about being the Marshall quarterback. If anybody wanted to talk to me about the NFL and whether it was going to hurt me in the future, I didn't want to talk to them. I was worried about the present and being the Marshall quarterback."

But Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis still has high regard for the 6-5, 241-pound Leftwich after a dramatic senior season. He has the grit Lewis looking to use to re-make the Bengals.

"Great stature. He's a guy who has been on offenses throwing the football quite a bit," Lewis said. "He's been in a successful program. Played through a very difficult injury and stayed in there and played when he couldn't even move. Gave his team a chance. So he's done a lot of great things."

One of them was maybe the most memorable moment in all of sports last year when his linemen picked him up and carried him down field to the line of scrimmage after he completed a long pass late in the game. Leftwich said the NFL knew of his injury, but he didn't want to let it out during the season to prevent the opposition from trying to take out his left leg.

"I actually got better as a whole as a quarterback," Leftwich said. "I had to think. Teams still weren't blitzing that much, but the amazing thing was to get the ball out of my hand as quickly as I can. Just things I had to do."

He missed a game, the team had a bye, and he was back playing on the broken leg two weeks later. It wasn't lost on him that he broke it the day before Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb finished a game with a broken leg.

"I saw it (on TV) and when I saw him walk, I knew he broke it because that's how I was walking," Leftwich said.

He is more outgoing and engaging than the low-key Palmer. Told that one of the quarterbacks said he could throw a football 50 yards on his knees, Leftwich said he could throw it 55. He knows the major knock against him is his mobility, but he said, "We'll see. I'll run a good time. I've got some mobility. I didn't have to use it because I had such a great offensive line. Put the ball in the hands of the guys who do the running."

Leftwich is confident he can overcome the injuries and says teams have to do the same. Two separate injuries, he said. He says it's like when he had chicken pox twice. He got over it.

"If you hurt the leg twice even if it's in different spots, somehow you have a leg problems," Leftwich said. "But you've got to get past that. It's like hurting two different fingers and somehow you've got finger problems. It's just something you've got to go through."

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