Fish Out of Water: Cole Leininger keeps Florida close to his heart

Cole Leininger_KChan1

Kore Chan/Senior Staff

It wasn’t until it was a few dozen feet away that Cole Leininger spotted the 10-foot bull shark. Amid paralyzing fear, he locked eyes with the creature — one of the deadliest sharks in the world.

The shark rapidly zeroed in on him, slicing through the water with ease. Armed only with a snorkel and his own limbs, the 13-year-old Leininger was nothing more than a floundering fish — an outsider in the treacherous Florida Straits.

“He was coming right at me,” Leininger says. “And I was like, ‘Oh crap,’ and I just froze.”

Leininger steadied himself and forced himself to stare down the shark. Ten feet away now. Leininger spread himself out, his arms and legs reaching full extension, making himself appear as big as possible in an attempt to fight fear with fear.

Five feet away. The shark hadn’t veered or altered course,

As the shark continued to close the distance, Leininger held his breath, awaiting confrontation with the 400-pound predator.

The shark was within reach. At the last second, it glided underneath him and disappeared into the depths.

“I got big, and I was still, and he swam under me,” Leininger says. “And I took off.”

Leininger frequently visited the Florida Keys as a youngster growing up in Florida. Though he’s currently in the middle of his third season as the punter for the Cal football team, Berkeley still isn’t quite home for Leininger. His home is a place that most football fans know only for its dismal NFL team. But Jacksonville is more than that for Leininger, though he admits the Jaguars are impossible to root for. It’s his past and future.

“I miss the weather,” Leininger says. “I just really enjoy the sun, getting a nice little sweat in. I know that sounds weird. A lot of people call me crazy around here for liking that. And I love the beach — the warm water, not the freezing Pacific.”

Leininger spent most of his Florida days on the soccer field or the water. When he was 10, he caught his first dolphin fish.

“Of course, he had to have his picture taken with it — he had to hold it up,” says Cindy, Leininger’s mom. “I think his grin was probably as big as the fish.”

Eventually, Leininger substituted soccer balls for footballs when his coach convinced his dad that his son had the leg to kick at the collegiate level.

Cal wasn’t the first Division I school to offer Leininger a spot on its football team. But when Cal did, he was confused. He knew what UC Berkeley was, but didn’t realize Cal and what he knew as “Berkeley” were actually the same schools. At first, he thought he was being recruited by a Division II school. Soon, he realized the magnitude of the opportunity in front of him.

But Berkeley is a world away from Jacksonville. Leininger thinks that when he visited Cal in the fall of his senior year, Jeff Tedford and the coaching staff avoided parts of the city in an attempt to minimize the differences between Jacksonville and Berkeley.

“They did a really good job of hiding the fact that it was so much different when I visited,” Leininger says. “I came here, I met with the staff … I stayed away from Telegraph and all that. So I didn’t really see Berkeley.”

Three weeks later, Leininger committed to Cal.

Just one season later  — in 2012 — Tedford was fired, forced to abandon a team full of players who had expected to spend their college years playing under him. One of those recruits was Leininger, who says he likes Sonny Dykes and the rest of the current coaching staff. Still, it’s not the same. Tedford and his staff were the ones who sold Leininger on the idea of attending Cal.

“I don’t really have as close of a connection to them as I do with Tedford and the other staff,” Leininger says of the current coaching staff. “The new coaches didn’t recruit me to play for them. I just got thrown in.”

Leininger’s role as a specialist is a strange one — one that requires some distance from the rest of the team. He’ll spend the beginning portion of practice at Memorial Stadium but leave in the middle to walk up to Witter Rugby Field, where he punts and practices his drops. Later, back at Memorial Stadium, Leininger works with the the other specialists and special teams coordinator Mark Tommerdahl.

During games, Leininger’s number isn’t called often. He spends most of his time watching from the sidelines. If he is asked to punt often, that’s usually bad news for the team. Such was the case last season, when Leininger averaged nearly six punts per game. He made good use of those chances though, banging out close to 43 net yards per punt — the third-best average in the Pac-12.

But Cal won just one game last season. No matter how far Leininger managed to punt the football, no matter how many times he pinned teams inside their own 20-yard line, he could only help by shifting field position. Considering his team boasted the 124th-ranked defense in the country last season, 42.9 yards per punt hardly boosted Cal’s chances.

“It’s rough,” Leininger says. “It’s out of my control. I’m not good at receiving or tackling or whatever, so I can’t go out there and help.”

Away from the field, Leininger likes to maintain a low profile.

“I don’t really do much with football people outside of football,” Leininger says. “I kind of keep to myself.”

It’s not that Leininger feels excluded from the team — he shares an apartment with three teammates — but he tends to spend most of his time with the other specialists, his girlfriend or friends from class. In July, his three roommates were moving into their new apartment while Leininger was in Alabama for a kicking camp. Leininger, who enjoys cooking, texted one of his roommates a special request for the apartment.

“He texted me, ‘Hey is there anything on our balcony yet?’ I said ‘No, not yet. We’re probably going to get some chairs,’ ” says Cal kicker Matt Anderson. ‘He said ‘Alright, well leave some space, because I’m going to grow some herbs and stuff.’ So we got a little nice garden out on our balcony. We got some parsley, some radish, some jalapenos and carrots.”

In some ways, cooking allows Leininger to stay close to his roots. He makes seafood frequently, though he’s no longer catching the fish he eats.

When he isn’t cooking, Leininger spends his time watching “Game of Thrones.” He likes Tyrion Lannister, a dwarf born into prestigious family. His second favorite character is Arya Stark, a girl who prefers swords to dresses. Both are outcasts — both far from home, heading farther away with each passing scene.

Despite being content with his current situation, Leininger knows for certain that when he graduates, he’ll be moving back.

“He is a Florida boy, and he does love his Florida,” says Mark, Leininger’s dad. “He’ll always have a warm spot — forgive the pun — for Florida.”

Anderson likes to tell Leininger that in 100 years, Florida is going to be underwater and he’ll have to come live in California. As long as Florida is still above sea level when Leininger’s done at Cal, he’ll be heading home to a land scorched by the sun and filled with sandy beaches. He’ll be going back to where he belongs: on the shores of the Florida coast, the horizon dotted with fishing boats, the Atlantic filled with dolphin fish and 10-foot bull sharks.

Leininger, right, is pictured here with his uncle, Jeff Leininger, after catching a dolphin fish in 2005.

Leininger, right, is pictured here with his uncle, Jeff Leininger, after catching a dolphin fish in 2005.

Sean Wagner-McGough covers football. Contact him at Follow him on Twitter @seanjwagner.

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