Belleville back Leigh brings Buccaneers to three straight wins

Before the 2019 high school football season began, Derek Leigh kept himself very busy in anticipation.

“I knew that my junior year had to be my breakout year,” said Leigh, a junior running back on the Belleville High School football team. “I felt it was a real important year. So I was really geared up.”

So much so that Leigh was a member of the storied Buccaneer wrestling team in the winter. Leigh was one of the team’s 182-pound wrestlers.

“I was not such a good wrestler,” Leigh said. “But I just wanted to stay in good shape for football.”

So in the spring, Leigh joined the Buccaneers’ track and field team, competing as a sprinter.

“I ran the 100 (meter dash) and the 200 (meter dash),” Leigh said. “I felt like I was just doing my part to help the team by getting ready.”

Belleville head coach Jermain Johnson liked the fact that Leigh kept himself busy all year.

“He’s old school, playing three different sports,” Johnson said. “I call him a ‘throwback’ type player. He’s getting the benefit of having played three sports.”

But Leigh didn’t know what his role would be with the Bucs this season.

“I had no idea that I could be the feature back,” Leigh said. “I just worked as hard as I always do. I felt I had a chance to play.”

However, Johnson had a thought in his mind.

“We knew from the beginning that Derek was going to be our featured back,” Johnson said. “We knew he had potential. We just had to teach him how to hit the holes, to cut and get downfield. Once we knew that Derek could be coached up, we knew that the skies were the limit.”

Johnson said that he sent Leigh to the famed Chuck Mound Speed and Agility Camp in Morris County. Respected speed coach Mound has sent hundreds of kids off to college sports with faster times and better agility and some have moved further on to professional sports. Mound has quite an impressive resume.

“He’s a big, strong kid,” Johnson said of Leigh. “He reminds me of (former New York Giants standout back) Brandon Jacobs. He’s learning to dip his shoulders and take on tacklers. So it’s a combination of seeing that hole and then once he gets to that hole, he goes. It’s a combination of everything.”

As the season began, Leigh’s hard work had paid off. He found himself in the premier back slot in the Buccaneers’ offense, getting his fair share of the big carries – and making the most of those chances.

In the season opener, Leigh rushed for 216 yards on 28 carries and scored two touchdowns in the Bucs’ 17-14 win over Tenafly.

In the second game of the season, it was more of the same. Leigh had 205 yards on just 10 carries and scored three touchdowns in the Bucs’ 45-6 win over Dickinson.

And last Friday night, Leigh did it again, rushing for 155 yards on 20 carries and scored two TDs in the Bucs’ 39-0 whitewash of Newark East Side.

For his efforts, Leigh has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week, the first such honoree of the 2019-2020 scholastic sports season. Every week, the Observer honors a local athlete, male or female, with the feature for Athlete of the Week, culminating in the Observer’s Male and Female Athletes of the Year, which are presented sometime in June and July of 2020.

Leigh has now totaled an astounding 576 yards and scored seven touchdowns in the Bucs’ first three games, all victories. The Bucs have started off the season once again with a 3-0 mark, the second straight year that Belleville won its first three football contests.

But Leigh doesn’t want to know how many yards he has or how many times he’s reached the end zone.

“I don’t pay attention to stats,” Leigh said. “I don’t like to show off. I haven’t thought about what I’ve done. To think I had 200 yards in each of the first two games? Well, I’m shocked because I never ran for 200 yards in my life.”

There’s a good reason for that.

“Well, when I was younger, I was a lineman,” Leigh said. “I only started playing running back when I was a freshman in high school. Now, I’ve received my chance. I’ve taken that chance and run with it, much like I did with the ball.”

Leigh is a smart running back – giving the credit where credit is due.

“First and foremost, I have to give it up for my line,” Leigh said. “They’re the ones who did all the work. I just get out there and push it to the limits. Now, I feel like I’m learning to know the position. I didn’t know the position until now. I feel like I can always do more. If I push myself and see the hole and then I go.”

Johnson likes what he sees.

“He definitely does it,” Johnson said. “He works hard. We still have to keep him humble. He’s a straight nosed kid. He’s done all the right things and it’s paying off for him. I think it speaks volumes to the type of kid he is. He’s always willing to learn and works hard doing it. He’s having a hell of a junior year. He’s raising some eyebrows and I’m encouraged to see what he has left in him.”

Leigh is ready to have a memorable career with the Bucs. At least he knows where he’s going to play. He’s a full-fledged running back now. The future obviously looks bright. Leigh would love to play college football one day.

“Of course, I’m going to try my hardest to get to a (NCAA) Division I school,” Leigh said. “If not, then I’ll take D-II. I’m a good student (high Bs). I think it helps me that I don’t play defense, because I can remain fresh on offense. If I do have to go out there and help the team on defense, I’ll do my part.”

For now, Leigh is pretty pleased with his performances thus far.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Leigh said of the three straight wins. “Maybe I can get 300 (yards) in a game. Or at least 250. I feel like I’m a grinder. If I stay in shape and stay strong and stay out of trouble, I should be in a good place.”

Derek Leigh is already in a good place. The Bucs are 3-0 and he’s running wild. It’s safe to say that it’s a very good place.




Belleville junior running back Derek Leigh. Photo by Jim Hague




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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer

Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.

It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.

In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.

In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.

He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.

During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.

Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.

Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”