Former Minnesota Viking Ben Leber transitions to life after the NFL.
Retired NFL player and Minnesota Viking Ben Leber is tackling a growing career—he works in broadcasting, speaks locally about youth athletics and enjoys family life at home in Edina. Leber makes his home in Edina because it is a vibrant and conveniently located community that’s also central to extended family for the Midwest-born and -raised Leber and his wife, Abby. The couple have three children ages 6, 3 and 5 months, and are happy to create a post-professional football life together in Minnesota.
Leber grew up in South Dakota and didn’t start playing football until seventh grade. “I didn’t know right away that’s what I wanted to do,” Leber says. “My two older brothers played football. So I started playing. I enjoyed it but didn’t believe it would get me anywhere.” But Leber’s skill led to awards for his high school athletic and academic accomplishments. And when his oldest brother, Jason, was awarded a football scholarship to the University of South Dakota, hanging around Jason’s college football buddies began to influence Leber’s decision making. “I thought I wanted to be an astronaut or join the Air Force Academy,” says Leber.
But after deciding military life ultimately wasn’t a good fit, Leber began looking at traditional colleges. “I had football scholarship offers to Division II schools,” Leber says. “But I didn’t want to take that path. I wanted to hold out for a Division I offer.” Leber asked his parents to fund a trip for him to attend a college football training camp. “My parents have always been huge supporters,” Leber says. “At least one parent made it to every high school game. They traveled to away games, and for years my mom had a video camera strapped to her shoulder videotaping every play.”
Football camp options came down to Colorado and Kansas State. Leber says, “I wanted to go to Colorado but it was twice the price. So I went to Kansas with a buddy and they must have liked what they saw because I received a scholarship offer soon afterward.” Leber was later drafted by the San Diego Chargers in 2002 and signed on with the Minnesota Vikings in 2006. After 10 years in the league, Leber decided to retire from professional football in 2012 and create a new career for himself in broadcasting.
Unlike some in the spotlight, Leber has always been comfortable with local media. “I assumed it would be more difficult for journalists to write bad stories about me if I’m friendly,” he quips. “Plus, I knew during my last two years in the league that I wanted to pursue a future career in media.” Leber also knew he would have to make some sacrifices to learn the ropes in a different field. “I did a lot for free in the beginning,” Leber says. “Fox 9, WCCO and KFAN were all great to offer me air time, and it’s come around now to a place where I’m compensated for my work.” Leber now has a broadcast agent and has landed some regular gigs with KFAN and Fox Sports Network.
“I feel lucky,” says Leber. “For many athletes, the transition to life after football is difficult.” Not to say Leber’s venture into broadcasting has been easy. He recalls his first time in the broadcast booth and how nervous he was. The network suggested he call other professionals beforehand for advice. “They all said the same thing. They told me to be myself,” says Leber. “I remember thinking that was terrible advice and I struggled to understand how to have my own voice, how not to compete with the play-by-play guy or to channel the style of others I admire.” He says he spent too much time thinking about how he should be and felt a bit lost his first year as a broadcaster. But Leber has gotten comfortable in the broadcast booth and says he doesn’t miss life as a professional football player.
According to Leber, professional football takes its toll both physically and psychologically. “You’re just emotionally wrung out after games, and the job carries a stress level that many don’t realize,” Leber says. In addition to the punishing physicality of the sport, players often worry about job security and struggle to block out public scrutiny. The often dangerous nature of football is also a reason Leber doesn’t recommend that children play football at a young age. “Unlike some sports, kids don’t need to play football when they’re little in order to compete when they’re older,” says Leber.
Leber also parlays his experiences on the football field and in the broadcast booth to help youth discover their own paths. As keynote speaker at the 2014 Connecting With Kids Leadership Breakfast, Leber shared what he’s learned over the years from varying leadership styles. He was honest about how it took him a while to figure out his own leadership style and he wants kids to know it’s OK not to act like you’ve got it all figured out. He says, “Kids may have a harder time picking out the phonies. But in the NFL, you quickly learn who’s the real deal and who’s not.”
When it comes to the 2014 Minnesota Vikings, Leber thinks coach Mike Zimmer is the real deal. “Zimmer’s reputation, demeanor and leadership style is going to get players to buy in,” says Leber. “I believe this new coaching staff can make the Vikings into a winning football team.”
Married since 2003, Ben and Abby Leber waited to have children. “We wanted to be married and get to know each other first,” says Leber. The couple spent their first four years of married life in San Diego while Leber focused on his career with the Chargers and Abby learned to navigate her husband’s schedule. “She’s been awesome,” Leber says. “For many professional athletes, the job can become a very selfish situation. But if I’ve ever needed to put in more hours, she’s always been understanding.”
Now with three children, Leber says he and Abby loved their time in San Diego, and like many Minnesotans, each winter they consider relocating to a warmer climate. “But this is such a great place to be with our kids,” says Leber. “Edina has great schools and it’s close to family. Living here just makes sense.”
Catch Ben Leber on FM 100.3 KFAN’s Power Trip on Monday and Friday mornings and on Wednesdays with Paul Allen. Leber also covers Conference USA and Big 12 college football for the Fox Sports Network.