Cam Leach (93) celebrates his sack in Eastern Illinois’ win over Northwestern State (La.) earlier this season. (Photo by Sandy King, EIU Athletics)
By Dan Verdun
Cam Leach found his way into quality playing time early in his high school career at Nazareth Academy in La Grange Park.
“I played a bunch of positions,” Leach said. “Coming in my freshman year, I was a linebacker. They liked me playing that position, but on the varsity level there was an opening for a defensive lineman. That was an opportunity to play early. I took it and ran with it.”
Leach also saw time at running back and tight end.
The Chicago native was a top contributor his senior year as the Roadrunners won the 2018 IHSA Class 7A state championship.
Leach was a force in the title game, getting a sack and a fumble recovery to go along with 1.5 tackles for loss.
This followed a junior year in which Nazareth Academy finished as the 6A runner-up.
That prep success led to his immediate impact at Eastern Illinois. As a true freshman, Leach played in all 12 games — making two late-season starts on the defensive line — for head coach Adam Cushing’s Panthers.
By his sophomore year, Leach was an established starter. In 2021, he was part of a defensive unit that led the Ohio Valley Conference in team tackles for loss.
When Cushing left Charleston to accept an assistant coaching position at Duke University, EIU alum Chris Wilkerson took over the Panther program. Though Wilkerson only coached Leach one season, he noticed and appreciated what the junior brought to the team.
“Cam has just been an amazing young man. He’s been a steady force for our defensive front,” said Wilkerson, a former EIU defensive lineman himself. “He was banged up a bit early in the season, but he does provide us a strong, physical presence.
“He’s a guy that gives great effort. He’s been a great mentor to the younger players. He’s almost like having another coach with the guys during the summer (and) with some of the guys we added late leading up to preseason camp.”
Though he still has a year of eligibility remaining, Leach has decided to pursue a master’s degree in law.
“It’s something that we don’t have the opportunity for him to do here,” Wilkerson said.
Thus, Leach will play his final collegiate game Saturday when EIU visits Tennessee Martin to close out the season.
Get to know Cam Leach in our Prairie State Pigskin Moving the Chains Q&A.
You played at Nazareth Academy at a time when the Roadrunners were an Illinois high school football powerhouse. Describe that experience.
It was a great experience. It molded me into the player I am today. It helped a lot with the transition coming into a Division I football program. I felt like I was ahead of a lot of my classmates. That contributed to me getting on the field as fast as I did.
How many of your former high school teammates do you stay in touch with these days?
Basically everybody, especially from my senior class. (Defensive back) Devin Blakely, who used to be on the team here. (Receiver) Mike Love, who is at Long Island (University) right now. I keep up with a bunch who are still playing college football today.
What’s it like to turn on the TV and see former Nazareth quarterback J.J. McCarthy starting at Michigan?
It’s surreal. I played with a bunch of big-time players and just being able to say that I know him, and that everybody knows that I played with him, is pretty cool.
You played for two head coaches and three position coaches at Eastern. How difficult was that?
Every coach comes in having his own different philosophy and mindset on things. That’s the biggest adjustment.
Both the head coaches that I’ve had brought in really good people. I knew each D-line coach pretty well. Coach (Adam) Morris is the best hire they’ve had. Everything worked out in the end.
You played in the transfer portal era. That, along with the coaching changes and Eastern not winning many games, begs the question why did you stay with the program?
It was more so for the connections that I had, the people here, and the fact that I believe in the program. We haven’t been through the best of times, but I think we’re headed in the right direction, especially with Coach Wilkerson coming in. Things are going to be turning around pretty soon.
What’s the most satisfying thing about your time at Eastern Illinois?
The people I’ve met here, especially my roommates. These are guys who will probably be in my wedding. I see myself really getting to know them and be connected with these people for the rest of my life.
Is there one game or one play that stands out in your mind from your EIU career?
The Northwestern State game this year. Everybody was hyped, and the crowd was really into it the whole game.
What do you remember about the sack you got in that win?
It was a (defensive line) stunt. I came around pretty tight on it. The line was pushed pretty good, and I was able to come around and finish the job.
You made the decision to not use your remaining eligibility to play next season. How did that decision come about?
Eastern doesn’t provide the program that I’m looking for. It had nothing to do with football. It’s more of what’s best for me and my future.
Even though the decision was ultimately yours, who did you consult for advice?
I talked to my mom and dad mostly. I communicated my plans to my position coach the whole time, and he’s on board.
What are your future goals?
I’m applying to Ohio State University and the University of Illinois. I either want to go into forensic accounting or sports agency. For forensic accounting, I could get an MBA, but not as many people have a master’s in law for that. It’s one more thing that will separate me from everybody else.
Now is the perfect opportunity to see things through.
Thanksgiving is approaching. What does that holiday look like for you?
My birthday is usually on the day before or the day after Thanksgiving. It’s a good time to spend with my family. It will be good to see them. I haven’t seen them in a long time.
What are you thankful for?
I’m just thankful to be able to play a sport that I love and have my education taken care of. Not many people have the opportunities that I’ve had. I’m thankful for my parents, who have really given me everything that I could ask for. They guided me along the way.
What is your favorite food on the Thanksgiving table?
The mac and cheese, definitely. My grandma makes the best.