IRVING, Texas — Ronald Leary has come a long way since he first started playing football as a junior at Baton Rouge’s Southern Lab in 2005.
After a solid career at Memphis, he went undrafted in 2012 but landed in Dallas, where he spent most of last season on the Cowboys’ practice squad before being promoted to the active roster in Week 16.
He entered last offseason ready to push for a starting job on the offensive line before a right knee issue led to arthroscopic surgery during training camp. But after missing only a few weeks, he returned for Dallas’ Sept. 8 opener against the New York Giants and got the starting nod at left guard.
Leary, 24, has started every game since and, on Sunday night, he will start for the Cowboys in his home state for the first time when Dallas faces the Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“Playing near your hometown against the Saints, there’s nothing like it,” Leary said. “They’re doing well and we’re doing well, so it’s going to be a great matchup.”
Leary estimated he will have 25 to 30 family members and friends cheering him on in the battle of division leaders. Starting this game might be the ultimate testament as to how much he has progressed since his high school days — a time Michael Roach, his coach at Southern Lab, remembers vividly.
“I’ve been coaching about 22 years, and I have to say Ron Leary is probably one of the finest guys I’ve ever had an opportunity to coach,” said Roach, now the coach at Madison Prep. “I’ll never forget when he first came to Southern Lab, he wanted to be a basketball player. He was a 6-6, 300-pound forward.”
Roach envisioned something completely different. He quickly sought out Leary’s mother, telling her that his future was on the gridiron, not the hardwood. She was sold and, in fairly short order, he made the switch.
Since he had never really played the game, the transition was tough.
“He didn’t know how to put his shoulder pads on or put his thigh pads in,” Roach said. “But he’s a kid that really improves. He wasn’t a strong kid when he got there but, by the time he left, he could bench about 485. He was hard-working, a fast learner and a kid that developed a whole lot faster than I thought he would.”
Leary is not a big talker but, when asked to sum up how instrumental Roach has been in helping him become a starting lineman in the NFL, his response showed just how much respect he has for his old coach.
“Coach Roach helped me out a lot. I thank him for what he did for me in high school,” he said. “He was really the first one that introduced me to football. He’s a big reason why I’m here now. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be. ...
“I look back from when I first started playing to now and it’s amazing, a blessing with how far I’ve come.”
It’s not just Roach who is impressed with Leary’s rapid ascension. Dallas coach Jason Garrett also likes what he has seen.
“Ron’s done some good things for us,” he said. “Still a young player, he’s got nine starts under his belt now and he does some positive things. You see some flashes.”
Garrett liked how physical Leary played in Sunday’s 27-23 win over Minnesota, but he also sees areas where he can continue improving.
“There’s some technical things that he’s got to get better at — his footwork, his hands — and that’ll come just with more experience,” he said. “He works very hard at it and practices hard as well.”
For a guy only in his ninth year playing football at any level, someone who knows him well sees even bigger accomplishments ahead for Leary.
“The sky’s the limit as to what that kid can do,” Roach said. “I’m not surprised at all at what he’s accomplished at the pro level. I told him all the time, ‘You’ve got the body to be a professional football player.’ I’m just really proud of him.”