AHS Cougar multi-star Andrew Leota (19) sprints with the ball by Roberson star Shaq Gist (25), returning a kickoff in the pivotal victory. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
Leota moves into his dorm Sunday, Jan. 7, a mere day ahead of his first class. He followed his AHS counselor’s curriculum track, for enough college credits in three and a half years that he has enough in hand for his diploma and to enter college.
Northwestern is his choice as a “great academic institution,” and for its playing in the prestigious Big Ten. “Even if I were (an even more elite,) five-star prospect, I’d have chosen Northwestern,” the prized scholar-athlete said. The N.C. Shrine Bowl finalist committed back in March. He likes how the Evanston, Ill. campus is a mere 15-minute drive from bristling Chicago.
Leota eyes a major in theater. His ideal role is as the “unknown, mysterious type.”
His most acclaimed AHS role in football has been as a relentless, fierce pass rusher. Northwestern Wildcat coaches told Leota they will use him “on the edge,” as an outside linebacker or defensive end, he noted.
This will utilize his blend of superb 4.5 speed and strength. The four-year varsity star is 6-foot-4 inches tall, weighs 220, and agile enough that he also played tight end as a senior and has played AHS basketball. He does 4.2 shuttle run as quick as a receiver.
“Andrew is a leader. He gets after it,” AHS head coach David Burdette said. “Andrew plays with a high motor. Nobody can block him. He gets held every play.”
Asheville edged T.C. Roberson 23-22, in the Western Mountain Athletic Conference season opener Sept. 8. Leota was a menace, with his tenacious pressure. A stout Ram was called for a slew of holding penalties. “You’re killing us!,” TCR head coach Jason Dinwiddie scolded the blocker. Leota at times even got around Reynolds’ strong 6-6, 290 Shrine Bowler Jake Setterlind.
The pivotal victory over Roberson sprung AHS to a 7-1 WMAC mark — behind only WMAC-unbeaten A.C. Reynolds. TCR was preseason pick as runner-up to ACR in the conference, by WMAC coaches collectively and much media. “We don’t listen to the press, really,” Leota said of predictions. Instead, inner voices and teammates’ urgings rang louder.
Still, the Cougars as supposed underdogs were even more determined to show what they can do against another athletic and large squad from Asheville, he said. And they played TCR at home.
Danny Wilkins led Cougar winning in the new millennium, averaging 10 wins in 16 years. He won 12 MAC crowns, with 10 consecutive. Longtime assistant Burdette carried on the tradition, for two years and counting.
The pinnacle was Asheville’s state 3A title in 2005 under Wilkins, behind swift QB Crezdon Butler and TB Johnny White. Butler, now 30, was a standout CB for Clemson. He played sparingly for eight NFL teams, and is now on Saskatchewan in the Canadian league. White played for UNC.
Then 6-3, 310 DE Jeoffrey Pagan of AHS shined for Alabama’s BCS national title teams in 2011 and ’12. He played in two NFL seasons. The most decorated pro of Cougar alums was Leonard Little, now 43. He starred for the Vols, then St. Louis Rams with 87.5 career sacks — at least a dozen each in 2001-’03 — and was all-pro in 2003.
The Cougars out-dueled those local TCR Rams, flexing what Leota calls “Cougar mentality” from tradition and coaching. This spurs pressure yet confidence. “‘Best’ is our standard,” Leota said. “You give it your all. We’re a very determined team.”
A week later, AHS avoided a letdown and won at another main rival — Erwin, the eventual third-place finisher — by a convincing 33-6 score. After 43-7 and 51-14 wins, the Cougars thumped Tuscola 30-16. AHS’ sole WMAC loss followed, at Reynolds. Next, Asheville closed with wins of 35-13 and 37-19.
Asheville (7-5) then fell in its 3AA playoff opener to Watauga, in chilly Boone Nov. 10. Watauga’s Shrine Bowl blocker was 6-5, 280 Josh Headlee.
Just like a versatile actor, Leota sparkles in various roles. He enjoyed catching passes, as a mostly-blocking tight end in ‘17. He switched his number to 19. He has “surprisingly good hands,” Burdette said. “He can go deep. We used him mostly on short ‘quick-out’ and ‘hitch’ routes.”
The first Cougar pass versus West Henderson Nov. 3 was to Leota, up the middle for a first down to ignite a blowout. Earlier, Roberson coaches yelled at their players to watch big Leota as first target on any fake punt play.
He was a two-way lineman, as a junior in ’16. As left tackle, he protected the quarterback’s “blind side” on pass plays. “He will lay you out” with hard blocks, Burdette said then. Yet he found out Leota was so swift, he outran other blockers and “we weren’t in sync” as much as his leading wide runs as a TE on the perimeter.
Andrew’s elder brother Pika (“Pete”) Leota was a much heavier AHS blocker. Pete, now 6-5 and 315, is a tackle for James Madison Dukes after transferring from South Carolina. Their parents are Petelo and Molly.
Personable Leota’s film idols include Tom Hanks, such as in “Forrest Gump” and “Saving Private Ryan.” Hanks has taken average characters to great heights, with plain candor and righteous conviction and persistence.
Leota wants to act professionally if he “is not in the league (NFL),” which remains his primary dream. He could have a dual career, like action film star Dwayne Johnson who wrestled for over 20 years. Leota likes the adventurous and comical sides of muscular, oft-grinning Johnson.
“The Rock,” 45, is listed as 6-5 and 260. Like Leota, he was a defensive lineman — a young tackle on the Miami Hurricanes 1991 national title team.
Both have at least some American Samoan heritage. Samoan football stars include Jack Thompson, Washington State’s “Throwin’ Samoan” in ’79, the late ten-time all-pro linebacker Junior Seau (1969-2012), and current Lions all-pro nose tackle Haloti Ngata.
Johnson was a pro wrestler. Before “The Rock,” he went by “Rocky Maivia.” This blended wrestling stage names of his father Wayde Douglas Bowles (“Rocky Johnson”), and Samoan maternal grandfather “High Chief” Peter Maivia.
Johnson co-stars in the current comic drama remake “Jumanji.” Faster than you can say “Jumanji,” Leota should settle in at Northwestern on track as the next Cougar alumnus to star in college and perhaps beyond.