ROWLAND, N.C. -- Shanita Wooten, the principal at Rowland Middle School, gave purple and gold cupcakes to 200 students and faculty on Friday.
She sold 150 commemorative T-shirts in a day and had to stop taking requests for more.
And Sunday, she’ll open the school so students and the public can gather to watch the Super Bowl.
After all, Vonta Leach, the pride of Rowland and a fullback for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, could win a Super Bowl ring when the Ravens play the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday night.
The “Town of 1,000 Friends” will be watching at the middle school, or at the railroad depot on Main Street that promises a tailgate-like atmosphere, or just at home.
They’ll watch Leach, 31, because in Rowland, it’s not, “Do you know Vonta?” but, “How do you know Vonta?”
Maybe they knew him growing up. Or because he helped build onto their church. Or because he gave a scholarship to a young relative, or bought a bike for their child for Christmas.
They know Rowland has needed someone like Leach.
Rowland is in Robeson County, which has North Carolina’s highest percentage of residents living below the poverty line. The county’s unemployment rate is 12.8 percent, above December’s state average of 9.2 percent.
A town of small businesses without a major industry, Rowland is 110 miles southeast of Charlotte on U.S. 301/501, surrounded by coastal plain farmland. There’s only one stoplight, at an intersection where two gas stations give visitors going to and from vacations in Myrtle Beach – an average of 8,000 cars per day – a reason to stop.
It’s a place that could always use more of everything – from school supplies to better football equipment to a community center.
Leach has heard the cries and answered many, enough to earn a national award for community service.
“Ain’t nothing that says when you sign a contract you have to come back and do this and that,” said Tyrone Bowens, a barber in Rowland. “You don’t have to do that. It’s appreciated what (Leach) has been doing, and you never know what he’s going to do.”
The hard road
Raised by his mother, Jackie Leach, and grandmother in Rowland, Leach is remembered as a humble kid who had the focus to achieve his goals.
He was also known for his physical gifts.
Connie Baker, who owns C&M Unisex Salon on Main Street, remembers her husband, Mark, would come home from playing basketball with Leach, then a young teen. He’d honk the horn when he pulled in the driveway.
“I’d come out and say, ‘What?’ ” she said. “And he’d say, ‘Come out and get me. I’ve been playing with that man-child.’ ”
Leach grew into a heavily recruited football player and went to East Carolina on a football scholarship in 2000. He played linebacker as a freshman and sophomore before switching to fullback, his high school position. He ran for 290 yards and five touchdowns for a 1-11 team as a senior.
That wasn’t enough for the NFL to draft him in 2004, but he was signed by the Green Bay Packers as a free agent. He bounced from the practice squad to the 53-man roster for more than a year before signing with Houston in 2006.
He was with the Texans for four seasons, and in the final year of his contract blocked for Arian Foster, who led the league in rushing with 1,616 yards in 2010.
That earned Leach a spot in the Pro Bowl and a three-year, $11 million free-agent contract with the Ravens, who made him the highest-paid fullback in NFL history.
As Leach climbed, Rowland fell. The unemployment rate more than doubled. Businesses left, houses foreclosed and the town that didn’t have much had less.
Data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau for 2007-11 showed 253 families in Rowland with an average income of $44,812. The average family household income for North Carolina was $63,298.
“It has really hit hard,” Baker said. “I don’t understand what happened because at one time this business was thriving. Wall-to-wall people and the register always running. But it’s gone as bad as I’ve seen.”
Message of hope
Leach’s younger brother, Johta, has a speech by Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis downloaded to his phone.
The emotional message, delivered after last year’s playoff loss to New England, is about staying optimistic in defeat.
“Let’s understand who we are as men,” Lewis said, “and let’s make somebody smile when we walk out of here.”
Vonta Leach has long tried to do that in Rowland.
“I come from not a whole lot, but my mom and my grandma always made sure we had everything that we needed,” Leach said last week in New Orleans. “So when I got the chance to help other people, that’s what I wanted to do.”
Wooten, the principal at Rowland Middle, said she recently talked to Leach about a machine to make identification cards for the school, to increase safety after recent school shootings.
Leach wrote her a check.
“He doesn’t want the recognition, that’s not what he wants at all,” Wooten said. “He came and talked to me and gave a donation to the school, but I didn’t go back and tell the teachers and students. I know what he did, but I’m one person as opposed to the 160 kids and 40 faculty and staff that don’t know.”
A source close to Leach estimated he has given as much as $400,000 to Rowland in the past three years. Among other things, Leach has:
• Held a free summer football camp since 2006, earning him a letter of thanks from the Congressional Youth Sports Caucus. The camp had more than 600 participants last year.
• Paid off a mortgage of more than $200,000 for New Hope United Methodist Church, his home church.
• Given $100 gift cards to nearly 400 kids since 2007 for an annual holiday shopping spree at the Walmart in Lumberton, where he has a home; the biggest spree, for 120 kids, was in 2012.
• Provided scholarships, totaling thousands of dollars, to high school students.
• Renovated his high school weight room and bought the middle school football team new helmets, pads and jerseys, at a cost of about $15,000.
“I’ve heard of programs that he supports and little things he does, but we don’t know everything he’s doing,” Baker said. “Sometimes people would rather do things undercover.”
More to do
Jackie Leach still lives in Rowland, in the three-bedroom, two-bath house her son bought her.
When she drives into town in her black SUV with the purple Baltimore Ravens flags on both sides, she passes the town limit sign, and the sign underneath that reads “Home of Vonta Leach. NFL PLAYER.”
She also rides past the barbershops and the hardware store, and past the empty buildings that line the highway.
She sees the needs, and hears about them. Several people in town say the most pressing need is a community center, to create a few jobs and give kids a refuge from the streets.
Others have different priorities. But they all hope Leach will help.
“I gotta expect it’s a lot of pressure,” said Tishawn Brown, who grew up with Leach. “But right now he’s got to stay focused to win this game. Because that’s more money.”
Jackie Leach had her hair done Tuesday and flew to New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII on Thursday.
Sunday, she’ll be where the eyes of America are focused. Like the folks back in Rowland, she will be watching Baltimore’s No. 44.
“No one’s ever made it to the big leagues from my town,” Vonta Leach said. “That’s what I always wanted to do. That was my dream. I’m living my dream.”
That, Principal Wooten said, is an accomplishment, Super Bowl title or not.
“Rowland may not see it, and I wish they would,” Wooten said. “I wish they would just appreciate him leaving Rowland, making something of himself and doing what he needs to do.
“That, in and of itself, is enough.”
Staff writer Joseph Person contributed.