Three days into his college career, he agreed to switch to defensive back. It was a choice that would prove to be the first step on a path to the NFL.
McFadden started six games as a freshman for the Aztecs, intercepted one pass, registered a sack, and blocked a pair of extra-point kicks. He finished his career with a 61-tackle, three-interception season in 2012. As a senior, McFadden returned two interceptions for touchdowns and earned first-team All-Mountain West Conference honors.
“He’s a total team guy,” said Rocky Long, San Diego State’s head coach. “His ability presented itself and we needed him at that position more than the other position. He was willing to do that, which means he’s unselfish, and most team guys are unselfish that try to do what it takes to win games. We have a lot of guys like that, but Leon was one of the first that did it.
“We’re proud of everybody on our team that gets a chance to move to the next level. I think Leon’s a little special because he was in our first recruiting class when we tried to rebuild this program, and he made a special sacrifice because he wanted to play wide receiver, but we thought he could start as a true freshman at corner. He moved over to corner and was our starter for four years and was at least partially all-conference three of the four.”
Initially choosing San Diego State for the chance to play wide receiver when other colleges exclusively wanted him as a defensive back, McFadden found himself behind DeMarco Sampson and Vincent Brown on the depth chart. Sampson was later drafted by the Arizona Cardinals, and Brown, the San Diego Chargers.
Despite his player’s desire to be on offense, Long was confident in McFadden’s overall athleticism.
“We made the switch because of his athletic ability, and the weakness we had at that spot, we thought he could fill it,” Long said. “We had two receivers that both got drafted to the NFL, so he wasn’t going to play much as a freshman. He moved over there, and I think we were hoping that he would turn into a pretty good corner, but he got better than we thought he was going to be, and did it early in his career.
“Leon was a two-way player in high school. He played wide receiver, could adjust to the ball, catch the ball, ran well, showed great agility. When he played defensive back, he showed all the same physical traits that we saw at receiver. You look at academics, and he went to a private, Catholic school, did really well, was prepared academically, and you’d like your whole team to be prepared like him.”
St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, Calif., may have prepared McFadden well academically, but the school is far from a football factory. Although it competes against some of California’s best teams, including Mater Dei and Servite high schools, St. John Bosco has had only a handful of players make it to the NFL.
When McFadden’s name was called on the second day of the 2013 NFL Draft, his alma mater was full of pride.
“It means a lot to our school community,” said Monty McDermott, athletic director at St. John Bosco. “Leon was our athlete of the year at St. John Bosco when he graduated in 2009, because he played multiple sports. He ran track; he played baseball; he played basketball, and he played football, which was his biggest sport. He was just an outstanding young man, good player, great kid, just everything that we look for.
“Leon was always a team guy, always wanted to do what was best for the team, and at the same time, excel personally. The main thing about Leon that I really enjoyed when he was here was he was always down-to-earth. He was never, ‘I’m better than everyone on the field,’ even though he probably was in most cases. He would talk to the little man on the team, but also the team captain. He was a great young man, and I’m not surprised with him making it to the NFL. I’m very happy for him, but not surprised.”
McDermott said students at St. John Bosco are starting to pay attention to the Browns because of McFadden.
“Kids knew who Leon was, but it has still been four years since he was here, so you have a group of kids who don’t know him,” McDermott said. “Now, you get kids coming to me saying, ‘Hey, Leon McFadden played at Bosco. That’s really cool. I heard he got drafted by the Cleveland Browns.’
“His character, above all, has always been the same. He’s come back to our campus a few times this year to work out, say hi to teachers, coaches. That’s the kind of kid he is. I’m so proud of him, and we’re so happy for him. I think he’s definitely good enough, and a good-enough character guy that I could see him playing in the league for a long time.”
JOINING EXCLUSIVE CLUB
When McFadden was drafted by Cleveland, he became the eighth former Aztec chosen by the Browns.
McFadden joined a team that the San Diego State’s quarterbacks coach is very familiar with. Aztecs quarterbacks coach Brian Sipe won the 1980 NFL MVP award, and spent nine seasons with the Browns, where he set numerous team records.
“I’m a real Leon McFadden fan,” Sipe said. “I just appreciate everything about that kid, not just how well he performed on the field. He’s a high-character, high-integrity guy who was just great for our team in so many ways.
“I was excited for him, but going to the Browns was exciting because I know I’ll be able to follow his career, have an interest in his career, and I knew he’d be around good people. I made a point to call him right after the draft and we visited for a while. I think it’s a great fit for everybody.”
Following the third round selection, Sipe told McFadden what to expect from playing football in Cleveland.
“I told him that the fans are passionate about their football team, and that he would really appreciate that and enjoy that during his time there,” Sipe said. “Leon’s a little bit like me. He’s a southern California guy, and going back to Ohio is a big change of scenery, but it also has a wonderful football climate. It’s just a great place to play football. I just knew that he would enjoy that because of his focus and love for the game, that he would be appreciated in Cleveland and have a chance to play football at a level that I know he’ll be successful at.”
MAKING OTHERS BETTER
According to Sipe, the Aztecs run an aggressive 3-5-3 defense where the quarterbacks are constantly being pressured. However, with the added defender rushing the passer, that leaves just three players in the secondary, where McFadden was often in man-to-man coverage.
While he enjoyed many conversations with McFadden, Sipe said the Aztecs’ star cornerback was hard to game plan for, even during a practice.
“I just appreciated him so much,” Sipe said. “What he brought to the team made us a better football team, a better offensive team for having to deal with him. Our quarterbacks had to be constantly tempted to throw into Leon’s area because it looked like he would be out of position for a particular throw, but he was just so quick and he read receivers so well that more times than not, it was a bad decision to go into his area.
“Something that we look for in players is a commitment to excellence, and it was obvious to us that Leon was one of those guys from the very first day he arrived on campus. He was always prepared. He always worked hard and gave 100 percent at all times. Coupled with his athleticism, he was formidable from day one. This year, I had the pleasure of introducing him as the team’s Most Valuable Player in his senior season. That’s a rare accomplishment for a defensive back.”
COMPETING AT THE HIGHEST LEVEL
Having seen and developed McFadden from a two-way high school star to a three-time all-conference player at the collegiate level, Long said he feels his former charge could be an impact player in the NFL.
“I think he’s a great competitor, and at that level, I think you’ve got to believe in yourself, which he does, and you’ve got to be able to compete at the highest level,” Long said. “He has all of the athletic ability. For a cornerback, he’ll hit you; he’ll tackle you. He’s aggressive, and he’s got all the right ingredients.”