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In Play with Craig Mattick: Jason Leber

Argus Leader

He was a three-time recipient of the Joe Robbie MVP award. Jason Leber, considered to be one of the best prep football players in state history, also went on to have a successful college career at the University of South Dakota. He's probably played more football games inside the Dakota Dome than any other athlete in history.


Craig Mattick: Welcome to another edition of In Play. I am Craig Mattick. Today's guest at one time had a bunch of 11-man football records in South Dakota, 5,300 yards career rushing and that was in three years. The most 100-yard rushing games in a career with 25. The most 100-yard rushing games in the season with 10. Most career rushing touchdowns was 61. Again, that was in three years. And most career touchdowns was 65. Those 11-man football records lasted for well over 25 years. That was until Sioux Falls Washington's Tupak Kpeayeh back in 2018 broke those records.

But our guest today, the first South Dakota high school football player to win three MVP awards for three state football championships. Our guest played college football for the University of South Dakota. He didn't have to travel very far. He's number 22, Jason Leber of Vermillion. Jason joins us from his home in Pennsylvania. Jason, welcome to In Play.

Jason Leber: Well, thank you for having me, Craig. I appreciate it.

Craig Mattick: It is hard to believe it's been what, 30 years since you played football for the Vermillion Tanagers. But you know it was August of 1990, your family moved to Vermillion as your dad became the Vermillion principal. So you're a sophomore at the time. What was going on with your life at that time?

Jason Leber: It just got upheavaled. My dad over the years had tinkered with relocating. We grew up in southern Iowa and I knew the possibility for four or five years prior to that he had interviewed for jobs. Not to tease Brandon Valley, but he almost took the Brandon Valley job in the late '80s, maybe two or three years prior to us moving to Vermillion. But yeah, I think we relocated to South Dakota maybe two or three weeks prior to two a days starting my sophomore year. Moved in, started practice and knew no one. Just came in fresh.

Craig Mattick: What was the Iowa town that you moved from?

Jason Leber: We grew up in a town called Albia, Iowa. It's in southern Iowa, just about an hour south of Des Moines, maybe 30, 40 minutes north of Missouri.

Craig Mattick: Did you play football there?

Jason Leber: I did, yeah. So I had started playing football in seventh grade and then my freshman year of high school they let me, I think suit up and do some kick returns and some couple plays here and there in the games and didn't get to starter play a ton, but certainly they gave me a taste at that time as a freshman. But yeah, and then I moved into South Dakota as a sophomore. I had no idea. Nobody knew me, I didn't know any bit of plays and he gave me basically two weeks to get ready. So I came in fresh and not knowing or expecting really anything.

Craig Mattick: You've got quite the football family. Your dad and grandfather played college football. Where did they play?

Jason Leber: So my dad actually played at Sioux Falls College, was a linebacker at Sioux Falls College and also ran track. Was a triple jumper and I think he held the South Dakota State All College triple jump record for 20 or 30 years, maybe even longer. And then my grandfather went to Pitt and played there before he went to the war in World War II. And then I had my father's or my uncle, my dad's second brother was a running back at St. Albert and was All-American in high school. Then was a running back at University of Kansas.

Craig Mattick: Oh my goodness. Then of course your younger brother Ben played in the NFL with San Diego and of course the Minnesota Vikings and he's doing quite well right now in his afterlife of the NFL. But how close did you come, Jason, in getting a shot for the NFL?

Jason Leber: I don't think all that close. I did some combine work when I graduated and I had talked to the Green Bay Packers a little bit. I actually got an offer at the time at the Arena League, the Iowa Barnstormers offered me a contract and at that time the funny part was I go down to the tryout and they had about 200 people show up. They whittle us down, whittle us down through workouts and I make the final five. They bring in a quarterback and they said, "Okay, now you're going to run routes and we're going to see how you do with our guys." And at the time that was Kurt Warner. So at the time I had no idea who he was. So I'm running routes and pit catch and passes from Kurt Warner in our workout and at the time nobody really kind of made it to the NFL through the Arena League.

The contracts were small, there's no insurance, you're kind of out on your own. At the time that was my best offer. I got another offer from Albany as well and I kind of just weighed my options and said, "You know what, if this isn't going to work, I'm okay with giving up and moving on." And so I just wanted to go to graduate school and so I didn't pursue it. Looking back, I probably regret it now a little bit, just that maybe I should have given a try. But that's about as close as I got. I got a couple of Arena League offers over the next year or so people would call and say, "Hey, come over and play," while I was in graduate school, but I just didn't want to leave school at the time.

Craig Mattick: So you played football as a freshman in Iowa before you moved to Vermillion, you're a sophomore there, you moved there two weeks before the 1990 football season gets underway. Did you get a growing spurt? I mean, how big were you as a sophomore in high school?

Jason Leber: I wouldn't say huge. I guess I was taller than... I grew early, so I was probably about 5'11 by my sophomore year. I didn't weigh a ton. I think I was maybe 160 at most that sophomore season, but I could run. I think that's what kind of enticed Coach Culver. He didn't let me play much early on. I think I had to learn the offense and they had to see what I could do. So I don't think I played the first two or three games of that season until I think the fourth game they let me play against West Central. I don't think I started that game, but I think I got six or seven carries. I think I went for two touchdowns and 140 some yards. I think at that point coach was like, "Well, I guess I got to play you." And then I started from that point on.

Craig Mattick: Gary Culver was the coach. I was just going to say, how did he get you involved in the offense, because I'm assuming once they saw you run the ball that they thought, "Hey, this could be a pretty special player. We got to get him involved."

Jason Leber: Yeah, I don't know. I mean, I think that they probably saw in the two days in camp, but again, I'm getting my limited opportunities. I started over a senior at the time, so I'm sure the senior was expecting to play. So I'm sure looking in practice and a little taste in games, they kind of knew I had something there, but I don't know what... You have to talk to Culver about what he really thought at that moment. I'm sure it was coming as the high school principal's kid, I had this in Iowa where you kind of get judged a little bit. Are they planning him, because it's the new principal's kid?

Craig Mattick: Well, I'm sure Gary thought that you made him very smart by playing you.

Jason Leber: I hope so. I think it panned out well over time.

Craig Mattick: Yes, it did. The Dakota dome was just over 10 years old at the time. What was it like getting used to playing on the turf?

Jason Leber: It was great. In fact, that was one of my dad's selling points. When he was considering taking the job he had brought me up for one of his interviews and let me be a part of the process to kind of drive up and see the town. He actually took me to the dome and we walked in and my jaw just dropped and I'd never seen anything like that coming from town of 3000 people in southern Iowa. And he looked at me and said, "Hey, if I take this job, this is where you get to play." I remember looking at him and going, "All right, take the job. I'm ready to move, let's go." The minute I saw the dome, to play high school football here would be amazing. I think a week later, maybe two weeks later, they offered him the job. And so that did ease the pain of having to leave my friends and the school at that age, but the dome was quite the selling point.

Craig Mattick: Vermillion had made it to the 11A championship the very first year of the football playoffs. They lost a winner back in 1981, 31-21. But Tanagers did not get back to the dome until you arrived, Jason, in 1990. What was that season like as you went on, because you guys made it to the dome your first year in Vermillion?

Jason Leber: Yeah, I think for me as a sophomore, I didn't know South Dakota at all, so I didn't know the towns, I didn't know who Winner was or any traditions. So I think being a sophomore and kind of clueless at the time kind of benefited me. I just kind of go out and play and I wasn't intimidated by anybody. I wasn't worried about this coach or this player. I just kind of showed up and let's go. So I think that benefited me. And with my speed on the turf, I thought that probably gave me quite the advantage going into that season. But the seniors are great. They embraced me and I was nervous, didn't know anybody. So to be a new kid, principal's kid, and to be a starter going into the championship game, the seniors really made me feel comfortable and I think that helped me a ton that year.

Craig Mattick: Vermillion beats Winner 20-6 in that championship game. What do you remember most about that game?

Jason Leber: At the time, I was just kind of shellshocked. I never knew how many yards I rushed for that game and it wasn't a time, but enough that they gave me the MVP. But just being numb, being in front of a bigger crowd I've ever played for and to have a state title, to play for a state title. I kind of just remember being shocked and numb through the whole situation. When we won it was kind of just, wow. The time I played for in Iowa, we weren't very good. We barely won maybe one or two games a year. So to win a game was great for me, let alone a state title.

Craig Mattick: Well, 1991 you guys get back to the dome. Was that expected for the Tanagers?

Jason Leber: Yeah, so the tide had flipped. I mean, coming into that year we were loaded. That was probably easily our best team. I had the expectations now on my shoulders of everybody knew I'm coming back. And that year it was more of, okay, now you're the hunted and everybody knows you're loaded. So I think that was a challenge that year of just trying to prove our expectations, which as the season went on, we just got more and more powerful. And that team was fantastic offensively, defensively, we had everything in that season. So I don't think there was anybody really going to stand in our way that year. I think you saw the championship game. It wasn't much of a match. This team just was a team that could not be stopped.

Craig Mattick: Yeah, you beat lead 48-22. It's one of those where you go back to back and all of a sudden here we are, your senior year, you have a chance to go back to back to back your senior year. But boy, you guys had to work for it just to get to the dome that year.

Jason Leber: Yeah, that's a good way to put it. That's exactly what it was. We were not the top team that year. Now we graduated all these top players and were coming in with a bunch of new juniors and sophomores. So I think we were ranked like fourth or fifth all year. We gotten beat twice in the regular season. So we really had to grind it out and come from behind to knock off. I think we'd go up to Madison undefeated, they'd already beaten us once we had to play at their place and we beat them in a snowstorm like 9-3 I think. Now we got to go to Milbank who was undefeated, the number one team in the state and beat them in a miracle game. So this team just... I think that's where the tradition and the experience of having those two championships prior helped these younger kids. Look, you're going to have to fight with me and they came to age at the perfect time. But that year was a grind and a ton of pressure.

Craig Mattick: You called that number one meeting with the Milbank a miracle win. Why was it a miracle win?

Jason Leber: We're down, I think 12 points going into the fourth quarter. We really couldn't get anything moving and we go down and finally get just a grinding drive, three plates, five yards, six yards, eight yards, and we'd just plow it down, score. We need a turnover. I mean, we can't stop this offense. And that team had Kalen Deboer, I thought the best wide receiver in South Dakota at the time. We got to stop these guys. And of all people, my little brother Aaron as a sophomore, safety, forces a fumble with about five minutes left in the game that gives us the ball back. We drive down again and our quarterback hits a guy in the corner of the end zone on a diving play with I think 1:40 left to tie the game. We go to kick the field goal and our kicker makes the field goal by maybe five inches on the extra point. He just shanks it, but somehow it gets over to give us a 23-22, I think, lead. Now it comes down to me and Kalen, and that was probably the most enjoyable moment for me, because-

Craig Mattick: Because you're a safety on defense.

Jason Leber: I was a safety, but I switched a corner at that moment to cover Kalen and so they moved me over and said, "We know where the ball's going, so Kalen's it's you and me. Let's have at it."

Craig Mattick: Wow. Wow. Great.

Jason Leber: And so he gets a couple quick short passes, which I kind of feel like they were going to go short, short, long, and they did trying to get me deep and they missed. I thought maybe they'll go short one more time before they go long again. So I tell my linebackers and safeties, "Look, I'm going after this one. Cover me," and they did. They went short. I undercut it and picked it off and ran out of bounds to end the game. And that's how the game ended with was about 30 seconds left. That game was phenomenal. It was just back and forth and certainly we were not favored to win that game, but it got us back to the dome.

Craig Mattick: And to take on a winner in the championship in a high scoring matchup, 46-27, Vermillion wins its third championship in a row. What do you remember most about that high scoring game and the championship against Winner?

Jason Leber: That game was just a lot of pressure. Now I'm the senior that's supposed to finish the job and I just remember going into that week and that game just feeling like it's on me. They had a really good quick running back that we had to stop, so I knew it'd be kind of a track meet. And yeah, our guys played great that day and we held him in check relatively, and I just remember everything kind of clicked for us that game offensively and defensively and put 46 on the board. I think we probably could have put more if we wanted to.

Craig Mattick: You had some fun offensive numbers in high school, Jason, but let's talk about the defense that you had. I know you played Safety and Corner, but who were some of those guys on defense those years that played a big part for Vermillion?

Jason Leber: Well, Mark Iverson, our linebacker, was kind of our steadfast stud and he just kind of solidified that defense my senior year. And the junior year, oh my gosh, Marrigan, Christopherson, Barnett, you name a whole host of guys in the defense that could play. That junior year they were a nasty group. They played hard, they played mean. They wanted to shut you out. And that kind of gave us the mentality and attitude that year of a junior year. But yeah, we had Aaron Leash my senior year as a safety. Yeah, we just had some really good athletes that I got to play with.

Craig Mattick: You were named the Joe Robbie MVP each year of that championship, the only player to win it three times in a row. That is until Pierre Lincoln Kienholz did it last year. You won it for the third time in a row, but you guys are the only two that have won the Joe Robbie MVP three times in state championships. Did you have any serious injuries or nagging injuries in football during your high school career?

Jason Leber: I got lucky. No, I mean, playing on turf, I was fortunate. I never really had any major knee or ankle injuries, at least during high school. College a couple times I had a couple nagging knee injuries and ankle injuries getting rolled and this and that, but I was very fortunate. I think I got a couple of dislocated shoulders in college landing on that hard concrete turf, that wasn't fun, but nothing that fortunately kept me out too long. I think I missed maybe one or two games in college.

Craig Mattick: How did you get ready for the football season? What'd you do during the summer? Was there a lot of weights? Was there a lot of running? How'd you get ready?

Jason Leber: Well, sadly, I'll admit in high school, nothing. We just played all year long. I mean, you went from football to basketball to track to baseball. We just never stopped moving. Even in the summer when we're playing baseball, if we didn't have a baseball game that day, we had practice or the guys got together and we played pick up football games, left over games, baseball games on off days. Then having two younger brothers with Aaron and Ben and then just down the street we had Kevin Creehan and Casey Creehan of the same age, we just played all the time. We never stopped running. We never stopped playing.

So in high school, at the time, this is what early '90s, hate to say it, there just wasn't a lot of weightlifting and a lot of... We didn't have a gym, at least for the high school. College that changed. That completely flipped once I got to college and saw the intensity of it once we were in college. It's nonstop. I mean, you're never not running, you're never not lifting. You're always preparing for the next season. So two kind of completely different... I wish I would've known more at a younger age, but I guess it comes with wisdom.

Craig Mattick: What was the decision process for playing college football? I'm assuming you had a number of schools that you were looking for. In fact, you knew the head coach of the Coyotes, Dennis Creehan, of course, his sons were in the neighborhood. So what was that process like with USD right in your back door maybe to play college football?

Jason Leber: Yeah, I think that I had talked to a number of schools, South Dakota State, Wyoming, Minnesota, Iowa State, North Dakota State, Nebraska, and Iowa. Really for me it was Nebraska and Iowa. Up until, I think, probably around November or December, I was still talking to Iowa and Minnesota, excuse me, Nebraska. Nebraska just politely declined and says, "I think we've filled our class." Iowa kind of did the same thing near the end when they signed a kid named Tavian Banks out of Davenport. And so then it kind of came down to South Dakota and North Dakota State. I went to North Dakota State on my recruiting trip and it was about 25 below zero, and I went, "You got to be kidding me. I don't know if I want this."

Craig Mattick: They play indoors too, so that would help.

Jason Leber: Well, so at that time, no.

Craig Mattick: It wasn't all Fargo though. That's right.

Jason Leber: Yeah, they were in the construction of the Fargo dome. I actually got to see the Fargo dome in mid-construction. And it was set to be done, I think my freshman year. So I think I would've played in the indoors at that moment. But yeah, I got to see the construction of that in midway. If I recall, North Dakota State was going to basically move me to safety, and they felt like watching film my best position into the NCC and going further would've been safety. So I had to make a decision on do I stay at USD and be a running back or do I go to North Dakota State and be a safety? And at the time, I just felt like I was a running back is what I know.

Craig Mattick: Playing in the North Central Conference. It was D2 at the time and four years prior to you getting there, Jason, they did not have a 500 record. Things were tough down in Vermillion. So that freshman year, how much involvement did you have with the Coyotes?

Jason Leber: More than I expected. They didn't let me start the first game, but I got in and I think it went over 100-some yards against Northern that first game. And so I think, again, kind of like high school, they didn't let me start probably till about Mid-season, until I got my feet wet. I knew the offense that was the hard part is a much more complex offense. So by about the third or fourth, probably the fourth game, fifth game again, they kind of said, "Okay, it's your position now." And then I started from that point the rest of my career. I think we were five and six that year, I believe. So I think South Dakota had been one in nine or one in 10 for two previous seasons. So for us that was a huge momentum.

Craig Mattick: Yeah. You went five and six your sophomore year, then your junior year, the Coyotes went eight and three. What was the big turnaround your junior year?

Jason Leber: Well, those young kids that they let start, we were all seasoned at that point and we felt like we had a playoff type NCC championship team. I think we just missed, I think we lost to North Dakota state up at their place, like 14-7. One game one way or the other and I think we make the playoffs. I think if somebody else had lost, we were going to get in the playoffs and we felt like we had a good chance. We had a great team that year. Great Senior leadership. I think just kind of fell a little bit short in how the numbers played out.

Craig Mattick: And then your senior year, you go six and five overall. Overall, your college experience, what do you remember the most about it? Coyotes didn't make playoffs or anything, but you just keep going and playing football games. And Dennis Creehan of course, was your coach.

Jason Leber: Yeah, I mean, the reason I chose South Dakota was the losing record. I felt like I could go to North Dakota State and be a part of the progression and just be a key part of their continued success where I can try to turn this program around with Coach Creehan. And there was for me an allure of being the underdog and saying, "Look, I want it on myself. I want to be the guy to pull this thing out." So I wasn't afraid of the fact that we were that bad that early. And we did, I think we were ranked third or fourth in the country through my junior year, and we would've been my senior year except our starting quarterback broke his ankle in the third game against Morningside. So we go six and five, end up becoming our third string quarterback starting, because of other injuries.

So had our starting quarterback been healthy, Casey Miller, that six and five really could have been another eight and three, nine and two season, but that's just the way it goes. So I thought coming from one in nine, one in nine to getting to where we were nationally ranked, I think we rid the country in rushing two or three years when I was there. We felt like we did our job to a certain degree, didn't get to what we always wanted. We wanted the NTC title, but we kind of felt like we bred them back to respectability.

Craig Mattick: At the time you finished at USD sixth all time in all-purpose yards sixth, all time in rushing yards. Most touchdowns scored in school history with 38 and seventh all time in rushing touchdowns. So some pretty good stats there too, as playing college football for the Coyotes, all North Central Conference in two years as well. But I also hear that baseball was a big part for you at USD.

Jason Leber: Yeah. Had you given me my choice, I would've probably gone and played baseball instead of football. And that's still kind of more my favorite sport. So yeah, after got done playing football and the career didn't pan out afterwards, I had one more year of eligibility. So I actually played a season of baseball with the Yotes. Yeah, I played well. It was first team all conference. Had a really good season coming out, haven't played in four years, and really that's kind of where I wish I would've kind of pursued. But again, hindsight.

Craig Mattick: Right. Jason, you were inducted into the USD Sports Hall of Fame in 2012. What did that mean to you?

Jason Leber: It meant a lot. I mean, kind of going back to where I wanted to help bring USD back to some prominence, and we didn't get as high as we'd all hoped, but we certainly thought we did a good job and worked hard to get him back to where they were. To be recognized as somebody who stood out during that time, that's one of my best honors ever. It felt great.

Craig Mattick: And Jason, you and your brother Ben are inducted into the Vermillion Tanager Hall of Fame. Not many can say they got the brothers are in the Hall of Fame.

Jason Leber: They're pretty cool. That's pretty cool. It's fun to share something with Ben.

Craig Mattick: What was it like watching Ben play in the NFL?

Jason Leber: Awesome. Surreal at times. Nerve wracking watching your little brother go out there and do his deal. Then just, man, super proud. Just the kid worked so hard and sacrificed so much behind the scenes. I don't think people don't know that. He wasn't a highly recruited kid. He wasn't the fastest or always the biggest, but also I think the hardest worker. So to see him succeed, I couldn't be more proud.

Craig Mattick: You're a chiropractor now, and you own your own practice in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. How did you make it to the East Coast? What was the process like of determining that you wanted to be a chiropractor and how you got the practice started?

Jason Leber: Yeah. So when I was in school injuries here and there, and I had tried some PT for nagging injuries in the Coyote time. Every time I went to the chiropractor it made me feel better. I just felt like I healed quicker. And so I was in pre-med at USD, but this kind of enamored me and I always wanted to stay in sports in some way, and I thought that this would give me a chance to stay in sports. So yeah, I went to Northwestern Chiropractic School in Minneapolis. From there, I got an internship with Mary Collins down in Dallas, who is the Dallas Stars Hockey chiropractor. Then she had done some work with the Dallas Mavericks. That kind of got me into the sports world. And then that got me a job in Baltimore and I started working for the chiropractor for the Baltimore Ravens, Dr. Alan Sokoloff. He's still, 25 years now he's been a chiropractor for the Ravens.

So once I got there, he knew how much I loved baseball and we kind got some ins. So I started working with the Washington Nationals. I was a team chiropractor for the Washington Nationals for a couple years. I was a team chiropractor for the Bowie Baysox, which is AA affiliate for the Orioles. And then we did some work with the University of Maryland. So just being constantly in the sports world, it filled my void of missing the locker room. Then after doing that, I met my wife and she was living in Baltimore. I met my wife and she's originally from here in Pennsylvania. So I got tired of living in the metro city and the commute, so I bought a practice in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and I've been here since 2007, and I'm a chiropractor for the Lancaster Barnstormers, which is kind of like our Sioux City Explorers, St. Paul Saints.

Craig Mattick: Got it. Yes.

Jason Leber: So they're part of the Atlantic League. So I've been the chiropractor here for professional baseball team for 17 years.

Craig Mattick: You got three girls too?

Jason Leber: Two girls. Two girls and a boy.

Craig Mattick: Two girls and a boy. It's a big sports family. You guys are involved a lot, aren't you?

Jason Leber: Yeah, my oldest is a junior in high school and an Allstate volleyball player. My middle one's a field hockey player here in Pennsylvania and runs track. And my son's a big time baseball player.

Craig Mattick: Are you still coaching girls softball?

Jason Leber: My girls played softball. I coached all the way from about five years old up until they were about 14, and then COVID kind of hit and they decided to go different sports. So I switched over to baseball to coach my son, and I've been coaching baseball the last four or five years.

Craig Mattick: All right, got a couple more for you, Jason. Here's a record I'm supposed to be checking on. Do you have the record for most football games played in the Dakota Dome? Three years high school football with Vermillion, plus you've got three years of high school football playoff games, four years of college with USD. I kind of figured maybe what five or six high school games per year, that'd be about 18 games and then 23 games in college. That's about 41 high school football games. Is that a record?

Jason Leber: A dubious record, but that's still a record. Gosh, I never really thought about it. I guess someone had to look that up, but I guess, yeah, I can't think of someone who probably has more USD and Vermillion combined, I guess. Sure.

Craig Mattick: You got to have that irony, of course, being a three or four year starter in high school in Vermillion, and of course playing right away in college at USD. When you look back at the high school football career that you had in Vermillion with Coach Culver and the other names you mentioned earlier, what stands out in your mind when you start talking football in Vermillion?

Jason Leber: It was a great feeling, a unique feeling to play your home football games in a dome. Very few people, I think in the country can really say that. And so to be a 15, 16, 17 year old kid and play your games in that type of setting, and oftentimes with fairly good-sized crowds. Then to play the championship game on your home field, obviously a huge competitive advantage for us in Vermillion. But I just always thought, what a great experience. I couldn't pass that up. So like I said, when my dad said, "Hey, you want to move?" That was probably one of the biggest selling points.

Craig Mattick: In Play with Craig Mattick has made possible by Horton in Britton, where smiling at work happens all the time. Apply now at If you like what you're hearing, please give us a five star review wherever you get your podcast. It helps us gain new listeners. This has been In Play with me, Craig Mattick. This is a production of South Dakota Public Broadcasting.

Nate Wek is currently the sports content producer and sports and rec beat reporter for South Dakota Public Broadcasting. He is a graduate of South Dakota State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Journalism Broadcasting and a minor in Leadership. From 2010-2013 Nate was the Director of Gameday Media for the Sioux Falls Storm (Indoor Football League) football team. He also spent 2012 and 2013 as the News and Sports Director of KSDJ Radio in Brookings, SD. Nate, his wife Sarah, and two kids Braxan and Jordy, live in Canton, SD.