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Leon earns starting role with Pirates
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Cruz Leon could have quit playing football a long time ago. Beset by knee injuries, the Ceres High grad refused to walk away.

“I love the game too much,” he said.

Leon is a member of the Modesto Junior College football team. A backup middle linebacker and key special teams player for the first five games, Pirates coach Sam Young penciled in Leon as a starter against Diablo Valley College on Oct. 15. He replaced Beyer grad Kenny Anderson, who was slowed by an ankle injury.

“Cruz was making the plays more than the other guy so we went with him,” Young said. “He essentially won the job.”

Leon was recognized for his outstanding play in just his second start. He earned Modesto JC Player of the Week honors following an 11-tackle performance against Chabot College on Oct. 22.

“He's a prototypical linebacker,” Young said. “He's big, strong and fearless. He's a sure tackler. He's willing to take on lead blockers. That's his strength.”

Leon didn't play for the Pirates in 2004. He took a year off to strengthen his left knee, which he injured late in the season while playing for the Ceres High varsity football team in 2003. Leon tore his medial collateral ligament. He had surgery and rehabbed for one month.

“I really pushed myself hard this offseason,” Leon said.

Leon made his collegiate debut against Delta College on Sept. 3. His former coach, Brett Johnson, watched from the stands. They talked after the game.

“I knew he would play again,” said Johnson, Ceres High's defensive coordinator. “He told me.”

Added Leon: “It was worth the wait. When I got in, I was hyped to play. And I tried my hardest.”

Leon had a stellar senior campaign at Ceres High. The Central California Conference's top linebacker and first-team, all-league section made 97 tackles, had one sack and recovered a fumble en route to leading the Bulldogs to a third-place finish in league (7-2) and into the Division I playoffs for the first time in school history.

Leon missed the final regular season game and played sparingly in the playoffs because he was hurt. He injured his knee in the fourth quarter against Johansen. Leon tallied a team-high 11 tackles.

Leon was sidelined for more than 15 games in high school thanks in part to four knee injuries.

He suited up for just three games during the 2002 varsity season. Leon played against Manteca, Davis and Modesto High. He registered 15 tackles and two sacks against the Spartans. The following week , he damaged ligaments in his left knee while carrying the ball on offense against the Panthers. Leon missed the final seven games and rehabbed for two months.

Leon injured his right knee twice during the 2001 JV season. The first injury occurred at a scrimmage. After six weeks of rehabilitation, Leon's doctor signed off and he returned to the practice field. He tore his right anterior cruciate ligament and was sidelined for the remainder of the year. He rehabbed for six months.

Leon knows he's taking a big risk each time he steps on the field to compete. But so is everyone else. Injuries are a part of the game.

“When game time comes, you really don't think about it,” he said. Leon wears a black brace on his left knee for protection.

As far as playing at the next level, Young believes Leon will as long as he works just as hard in the classroom.

“If he continues to improve, he can be a solid player at a four-year college,” Young said. - By DALE BUTLER / Staff reporter of the Ceres (Calif.) Courier