When the Stanford football coaches evaluated their defense before this season, they felt especially good about their starting strong safety, 19-year-old Leon Vickers.
He had played sparingly in 1993 as a freshman, but proved he was a hard hitter. His teammates considered him one of the most vicious tacklers on the squad.
But Vickers hasn't played a single game for Stanford this season. He left school to continue his involvement in a religious sect, and his mother, Nancy Vickers, claims that Leon is a victim of mind control.
His membership in the religious group began during his senior year at Rancho Alamitos High School in Garden Grove (Orange County), where he starred as a running back and linebacker. One night, a girlfriend invited Vickers to a Bible study class at a local church called the Church of Christ. The church didn't actually have a church building. Its members met in various places. A friend says Vickers told him it even met for a time in a garage.
The Church of Christ now rents space in an office building in Garden Grove. It believes in a strict interpretation of the Bible and is associated with about 35 other congregations around the country. It is not connected with the more mainstream Churches of Christ or the United Churches of Christ.
Vickers enjoyed the Bible study and continued to attend on a weekly basis. At first, Nancy Vickers, who works in the cafeteria at Rancho Amalitos High, and her husband, James, who's retired from the Air Force and now works as a security guard, weren't troubled by their son's attendance at church. Leon had always had a religious bent, and he was able to balance his commitments to school, football and the church. But after a while the church began to demand more of his time.
Nancy Vickers was delighted when her son was accepted at Stanford. She felt that when he went away to school "he wouldn't have any of this (church activity)." What she didn't know was that her son's church has a congregation in Vallejo. Pretty soon, the Church of Christ was sending a car down to Stanford campus to pick up her son and take him to Vallejo for religious study.
Vickers' religious pursuits began to interfere with football practice, but coach Bill Walsh tried to be understanding. He said Vickers could leave practice 45 minutes early one day a week to attend his church classes.
But one night a week wasn't enough. The church began to require more and more of Vickers' time, and Walsh became worried.
"The final demand Leon made," Walsh said, "as that he wouldn't practice Monday, Tuesday, Thursday or Sunday. He would play in the games, but he wouldn't be with the team the night before."
So Walsh talked directly to Vickers. "As soon as I'd started talking in an inquiring way about religion, he'd get a strange look on his face and stare into space," Walsh said. "He'd tune out. I said, 'Leon, what if you have to work nights, can you be excused from meetings?' He said, 'No.' I said, 'What if you're a fireman and there's a fire when it's tgime to go to services?' Leon said, 'I'd have to go to services.'
"This man was a captive. He could not do anything that interfered with his church."
Last summer, Vickers announced to his parents that he wouldn't be returning to Stanford. They asked Walsh for help. Walsh told Vickers he could leave practice 45 minutes early two nights a week. That still wasn't enough.
Walsh had several of Vickers' teammates phone him, and he also told assistant coaches to call. Vickers wouldn't change his mind.
The Chronicle tried unsuccessfully to reach him for comments for this article. One member of his church in Garden Grove explained Vickers' unwillingness to be interviewed. "Leon has gone through an awful lot. Why does he have to be subjected to more?"
Recently, however, he was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times. When the church objected to the interview, Vickers wanted the article killed, but the Times refused. When a photographer for that newspaper tried to get a picture of him, Vickers ran away.
In the interview, he said, "I started realizing how much of the Bible I do need. It takes work to go to heaven. The more scripture I can put into my mind, the more filthiness I can get out."
Trying to explain this decision to quit football, he said, "I didn't want to give half of myself to God. When I watch Stanford on TV, sometimes I wish that could be me. But I know I'm doing the right thing. I don't regret it."
Nancy Vickers regrets it. Since Leon quit Stanford, she's had trouble eating and sleeping and feels she's "losing" her son. He still lives at home, and that gives her some relief, knowing she can keep an eye on him. But he's given up Stanford for a job at a plant that manufactures screws and bolts for helicopters and airplanes. He earns $6.50 an hour. Most nights he goes to church meetings."It's mind control," Nancy Vickers says of her son's church. "It's on the line of a cult. I attended Bible studies there, and I don't care for what they're saying. They were like Nazis. It was a big brainwash scheme. They put down every church but theirs. No one else could get to heaven."
Priscilla Coates, chairwoman of the Los Angeles affiliate of a preventive and educational group called Cult Awareness, is reluctant to use the word "cult" to describe the branch of Church of Christ to which Vickers belongs. SHe prefers the term "unsafe group".
"Someone gets a $100,000 scholarship to Stanford, and they're going to make him give it up," she says. "Is that a safe group? No way. If the group is unsafe, they maintain some form of elitism. Only through them can you get to heaven. Anyone not in the church is tainted and should not be associated with."
Kim Smith, a member of the church, is amused by Coates' characterization of the Church of Christ as an unsafe group. "What amazes me," Smith says, "is that everyone acknowledges Leon is intelligent and inquisitive, yet when it comes to his religion, this 210-pound man is 'brainwashed with Nazi tactics.' That's incomprehensible. He's not a little follower. He simply came to Bible class and continued to come."
On Vickers' giving up his scholarship, Smith says. "We've become such a materialistic society. Twenty years ago, if Leon went to the seminary it would be praiseworthy, but now money always supersedes good in our society. He made his own choice."
Mark Miller, Villers' high scool football coach and algebra teacher, describes Vickers as "a nice, respectful young man" who was always at school early to ask Miller questions about the math homework. Miller recently talked to Vickers for four hours, trying to persuade him to return to Stanford. "I didn't want Leon, five years from now, to say, 'Why didn't they tell me I was doing the wrong thing?'"
Miller too is suspicious of Vickers' church. "Leon is very committed to things," Miller says. "His whole life dream was to play in the NFL and get a degree from a good school. How can it be that he had a dream since he was a little kid and now he doesn't have it anymore? It's like his life is over. He's completely given over this life for the next one. He's been given great gifts, a great personality, and he's not using them. It's a tragedy. I call (his church) a cult. This is a bad group."
Miller was alarmed when he was told by some of Vickers' friends and teammates thta they had received notes of apology from him for trivial things they didn't even remember he had done. To Miller, this was another sign that Vickers was almost saying farewell to this life.
Jeff Byrd, another Stanford player, read one of the apology letters. It was addressed to a mutual friend and contained an apology for using a swear word during a ride in a car. Neither Byrd nor the friend remembered him saying the word.Next to Vickers' family, Byrd misses Vickers the most. He and Vickers were best friends in high school, even though they competed to be starting tailback on the football team. When they graduated, Byrd went to Columbia, but he and Vickers would talk on the phone several nights a week. The conversations mostly involved Vickers praising Stanford and telling Byrd to transfer because he was good enough to compete in the Pac-10. "We'll play together again," Vickers told him.
Inspired by the urgings of his friend, Byrd transferred. He is a reserve running back, a walk-on, who doesn't have a scholarship. He came to Stanford for the education, but also to be with Vickers. Three weeks after Byrd was accepted to Stanford last spring, Vickers told him he'd be leaving.
Byrd is trying to make sense of what's become of his best friend. "Leon is one of those people who's very easily manipulated," he said, "but he's also very focused. Whatever he focuses on, he gets. Now he's focusing on church."
Byrd is reluctant to say Vickers is making a mistake. He refuses to judge Vickers' life, but he's aware his friend has changed. "He's quoted scripture to me," Byrd said. "It's odd. I just had to sit back."
Nancy Vickers asked Byrd to talk to her son, but Leon didn't want to hear. Vickers told him, "Jeff, I can't just go to church on Sundays and put God off the other days."
"I just hope Leon doesn't in five years look back on his life and feel disappointed because he left a great education and a great football program," Byrd says. "I hope it works out for him. It's sad. It's terrible from my point of view."
Recently, Walsh was asked if he'd accept Vickers back on the team. "I'd have to visit with him at length and feel satisfied he was making a long-term commitment," Walsh said. "If I felt he was, he'd be welcomed back."