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Legacy is on line for Leak, but is that fair?

The coach who wooed him is long gone. So too are the expectations. The opportunities. The dreams that once seemed so real.

For Chris Leak, all that remains is this night. And a final chance to rescue some of the promise that has slowly, and yes, painfully drifted from his reach.

Sometime during tonight's Southeastern Conference championship game against Arkansas, Leak will replace Danny Wuerffel as the all-time leading passer in University of Florida history.

It will be a monumental achievement and yet, unless the Gators win, the moment will serve only to mock Leak's career rather than celebrate it.

This is where he finds himself tonight, four years, 10,000 yards and zero championships after arriving as UF's most celebrated quarterback recruit.

His career has actually been spectacular in almost every way except when measured against the outlandish hopes that followed him on campus.

"My goals in Gainesville are lofty, but honest," Leak wrote in a recruiting diary for ESPN.com in 2003. "Three to four national championships, and perhaps a Heisman Trophy."

It may have been cheeky at the time, but only a little grandiose. Leak had just led Independence High in Charlotte, N.C., to a third consecutive state title and stood second all time in prep passing yards. He was named Parade magazine's national player of the year, and became the first to choose the Gators since Emmitt Smith 16 years earlier.

So how has it come to pass, 50 games later, that Leak is just now playing for his first SEC title?

Oh, you could begin by blaming Ron Zook. It was Zook who convinced Leak to turn down USC, FSU, Texas and Tennessee in favor of Florida. And it was Zook who so mismanaged the program that Leak's first two seasons were essentially wasted.

You could also blame Urban Meyer. Though Meyer has resurrected much of UF's prestige the past two seasons, his spread-option offense is not designed for a classic dropback quarterback such as Leak.

And you could certainly blame Leak. Though not for lack of trying, Leak simply isn't a special athlete. He lacks size, he isn't very mobile and his arm is average. Devotion to the game made him a superstar in high school, but it wasn't enough against bigger, stronger, faster players in college.

And so he is here today, hoping this single victory does more for his legacy than the dozens that preceded it.

"I hate to say he is going to be judged only on the ability to win the SEC championship," Meyer said Friday. "Unfortunately, he is at a school where the last three or four quarterbacks have. That seems to be the benchmark.

"There are a lot of people pulling for Chris Leak, and one of them is me."

For two years, Meyer has been the one pushing the idea that Leak had to win a conference title to be considered a great quarterback. In retrospect, it was probably just another way for a coach to motivate a player. But, now that the moment has arrived, Meyer seems to sense the injustice in it all.

One game should not change who Leak is. A victory should not make up for all the disappointments along the way, and a loss should not erase the poise and humility Leak has demonstrated for four years.

Just imagine a quarterback going through three offensive coordinators in three seasons. A quarterback hearing 90,000 people cheering whenever he is replaced for a down or two by Tim Tebow. A quarterback never once complaining as his goals slowly disappear from his sight.

"I respect Chris Leak as much as I respect any football player," Meyer said. "It has been well-documented what he has been through."

Only lately have people come to appreciate Leak's greatest talents on a field. He is not a playmaker as much as a caretaker of the offense. He may not improvise well, but he can pick a defense apart when given adequate help.

And so it is, as a senior, that Leak is finally being portrayed more as a winner than a passer. He has actually thrown more interceptions than a year ago, and for fewer yards than he did as a sophomore. But the numbers are no longer important. Instead, it is the memories.

The images taken from late comebacks against Tennessee and South Carolina. The clutch moments against Florida State a week ago.

Yes, Leak is 33-12 as a starter at UF and that should be legacy enough. Unfortunately, there is still more to do. One more game to win. One more point to prove.

He will not be remembered as the greatest quarterback in Florida history but, no matter what happens tonight, Chris Leak should be remembered.

John Romano can be reached at (727) 893-8811.

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