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Carlson: How Spencer Tillman's injured hamstring turned Rich Leitka into an OU football behind-the-scenes pillar

As a junior running back at OU, Spencer Tillman, left, here with wife, Rita, became lifelong friends with Rich Leitka. Leitka spent more than 30 years as a volunteer trainer for the Sooners. [PHOTO PROVIDED]
As a junior running back at OU, Spencer Tillman, left, here with wife, Rita, became lifelong friends with Rich Leitka. Leitka spent more than 30 years as a volunteer trainer for the Sooners. [PHOTO PROVIDED]

Sitting inside his nice, big house the other day, Spencer Tillman thought about the nice, big houses his daughters have been able to buy as young adults. He thought, too, about how he and his wife have been able to help the girls get to this point in their lives without the debt of college and the burden many twentysomethings face.

Then, Tillman thought of Rich Leitka.

“I would not have any of that,” Tillman said, “without him.”

A little over two weeks ago, Richmond Lewis Leitka died at the age of 75. He was a husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather. A systems analyst for an insurance firm. A Muscogee (Creek) citizen. A softball player and a track-and-field starter.

And for more than three decades, he was a behind-the-scenes pillar of OU football.

News of his passing brought tributes via social media from Sooners of many eras.

Cale Gundy, 1990-93: “Will be missed by many.”

Calvin Thibodeaux, 2003-06: “Chief had a great spirit. He made everyone feel like a million bucks.”

JaMarkus McFarland, 2009-12: “Game day wasn’t game day until we had our one-on-one talks while you taped me up.”

Ty Darlington, 2012-15: “It’s people like Chief that make being a Sooner so special. He made you feel valued.”

Leitka was officially a volunteer trainer, taping ankles and readying bodies for play. But he was unofficially a life coach, always willing to offer an ear to players, a bit of advice where needed and a kick in the pants when necessary.

But none of it would’ve happened had Spencer Tillman not hurt his hamstring.

Despite rushing for over a thousand yards and breaking the OU record by a Sooner freshman in 1983, Tillman missed a game that season with a hamstring injury. The next year, it got worse; he missed several games.

But going into his junior season in 1985, he was hopeful. He felt healthy. He felt good.

Then in the opener at Minnesota, he re-injured his hamstring.

“That was when my trouble started,” Tillman said.

Seeking answers — and maybe a little bit of solace — Tillman ventured across the street one day to the track. He wanted to get away from the football stadium, and he hoped he might be able to stretch out his hamstring.

Leitka happened to be there, working with his two sons, who were middle-distance runners, and when he saw Tillman stretching, Leitka didn’t know who he was. But Tillman’s body language told of frustration.

Leitka approached Tillman and struck up a conversation.

“I’d be more than happy to work with you,” Leitka said.

He didn’t talk football with Tillman.

“Look,” Tillman remembers Leitka saying that day, “there are four things you need to think about: rest and recovery, nutrition, hydration and resistance training. That’s going to get you back.”

Tillman bought in, and when he started showing improvement, Sooner coach Barry Switzer noticed.

“Rich was the one that nurtured me back,” Tillman said.

“Well, Spencer, if he’s getting you back to where you need to go,” Switzer said, “he’s gonna be with us.”

Leitka was there when the Sooners won the national championship in 1985.

He was there, too, when Tillman had a resurgent senior season in 1986, only carrying the ball 87 times but averaging more than 7 yards a carry. He punctuated the season with a 109-yard performance in the Orange Bowl, scoring two touchdowns and averaging 15.6 yards a carry. That helped to convince the Houston Oilers to select Tillman in the fifth round of the 1987 NFL Draft.

An eight-year NFL career followed.

Leitka was such a friend — Tillman calls him a confidant — that Tillman would fly him in before NFL games. They would work and stretch and talk.

And Tillman’s fellow running backs got to know and love Leitka, too. Alonzo Highsmith and Lorenzo White developed friendships with him, and even when they were no longer teammates with Tillman, they still worked with Leitka.

All the while, Leitka was working with the Sooners. He stayed with Switzer, then remained with the team through the years with Gary Gibbs, Howard Schnellenberger, John Blake and Bob Stoops as head coaches.

“That guy was still there helping people,” Tillman said of Leitka. “What he did off the field is as significant as what he did stretching on Saturdays and things of that nature.”

Tillman is sure of that because of the outpouring of emotions after Leitka died. Other past players were crushed, too. They mattered to him, and he mattered to them.

But for Tillman, he believes much of his success ties directly to Leitka. Getting to the NFL. Staying in the league for almost a decade. Parlaying his football playing career into a football broadcasting career.

There were others in Tillman’s life who were significant in his successes, but Leitka has a special place.

“He is at the inflection point for a lot of things,” Tillman said.

Rich Leitka changed his life.

And Spencer Tillman wasn’t the only one.

“He did it for a lot of people.”

Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or Like her at or follow her at

Jenni Carlson

Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football... Read more ›