He was steps away from giving Tahlequah an early boost last season in the playoffs, but it never materialized.
He was inches away from suffering a devastating and life-altering injury this past weekend.
Both were difficult setbacks for Dae Dae Leathers, Tahlequah’s electrifying running back.
Leathers reaggravated an ankle injury and fumbled on the game’s first play from scrimmage just short of the north end zone at Doc Wadley Stadium in a season-ending loss to Coweta in the playoffs last year.
He went to the sideline and never returned. He could only stand and watch as the Tigers were humiliated, 26-7, in what was otherwise a historical season for him and Tahlequah.
He remembers the moment, and it drives him.
“I do have a chip on my shoulder and I feel like everybody learned from the loss,” Leathers said Thursday after the Tigers completed their fourth day of spring practice. “It was a tough loss that everybody had to take. You can’t win them all, but I can promise you that we’re going to work our hardest to become better than what we were last year and make different choices and make different decisions in the playoffs.”
This past Sunday, Leathers was assaulted with a knife to his face, leaving several gashes that required stitches. One significant slash was just below his right eye.
“It was scary because it could’ve been a lot worse than it was,” he said. “I just thank God for it not being any worse and it’s made me more clear on my life.”
The facial wounds forced him to participate helmetless on the Tigers' opening two days of spring practice.
Leathers, who will be a senior next season, just wants to get back to normal conditions and play football again.
His head coach, Brad Gilbert, knows just how important he is and how critical his injury against Coweta was.
“It was a setback, there’s no question about it,” Gilbert said. “Dae Dae is a very, very versatile player, a very explosive player and he’s very valuable to our offense and what we need to do to win football games. That was a blow to the offense.”
There were a number of memorable moments for Leathers prior to his forgettable last carry.
Time and time again he flashed by hopeful tacklers and would go on to break the school’s single-season rushing mark, finishing with 1,586 yards, while also reaching the end zone 19 times. On three occasions, he rushed for 200 yards or better, including 200 against the same Coweta team in week two — a game where the Tigers did as they pleased offensively by racking up what was a season-high 535 yards in a 47-37 win. He rushed for a career-high 295 yards against Sallisaw.
Leathers still has room for even more growth this offseason. Prior to his junior year, it was about putting on more pounds and getting stronger to become more durable and more of a focal point of the offense.
“I want to become a better leader for the team,” he said. “I want to help everybody out like I should’ve done last year. I wasn’t much of a leader because I just stood back and watched everybody. I’d love to gain even more weight this offseason. I’m still training 24/7 so I’m guessing I’ll get bigger and stronger, but my mindset coming into the year is to become a better leader.”
“I think he just needs to duplicate not only what he did for us last year, but build upon it,” Gilbert said. “I thinks that’s what all great players do, no matter the level they’re at. They’ve got to build upon what they’ve done. There’s no question he had a big year last year, but for us to be as good as we need to be he needs to not only duplicate it, but he needs to even have a better season. We expect that, and he expects that too.”
Leathers is closing in on the school’s career rushing record. He has 2,941 career yards with only former All-State quarterback Cayden Aldridge standing in the way at 3,272.
It’s a milestone Leathers would gladly accept, but right now he’s just delighted to be back on the field, disentangled from misfortunes, and helping his hungry teammates prepare to restore order.