By Bart Wright, Former Tacoma News Tribune Sports Columnist
Back in the day, he could do it all, and the only question seemed to be, where would Damani Leech decide to take his athletic ability into the future?
At Tacoma’s Bellarmine Prep, he was a backcourt distributor and shooter in basketball, a versatile infielder in baseball, but after you were around him a bit, after you had seen him play all three sports, it became clear that Damani Leech was a football player. Even better, he was a football player with a head on his shoulders, a thinking man’s athlete.
One day, in a summer 7-on-7 game, he was smart enough to see his future. “Guys would play at Husky Stadium on the weekends,” he said. “This would have been about ’93, the summer before my senior year. I went up there one day and it was Brock Huard, Jerome Pathon and a bunch of others — good players, all of them. I remember thinking, ‘These guys are going to be playing on Sunday,’ and I knew I wasn’t at that level.”
That’s when he started thinking of other possibilities, and because he was a good student, other possibilities existed.
“He was something special,” said former BP athletic director, Ed Ploof. “He was so well respected by (other players), that was a key. We were really fortunate back then to have a really good group of players, in a variety of sports, but Damani was at the top of those lists, in whatever sport he played.”
Ploof recalled a round-of-16 playoff game against Inglemoor at Pop Keeney Stadium in Bothell when he was stationed on the top receiver and kept him in check the whole game, and was alert enough to spot a quick kick by the running back. Leech noticed immediately, began to retreat and made the return good for 31 yards.
“There were a lot of times I thought, ‘Where would we be without him,’ because he did so much for us,” Ploof said. “He was one of those guys who made those around him better.”
Leech remembers his Bellarmine days with appreciation. “There was nothing like it,” he said, “to play there, the smell, the sights and sounds all come back just thinking about it. It was just a great time in a person’s life growing up, I loved it there.”
Yet, he remained an honest broker of his own ability, and with a scholarship to Princeton, the choice wasn’t that difficult. After participation in a few 7-on-7 camps, he had some interest from Big Sky schools, the Idahos and Boise States of the West, and he had a few offers to come as a preferred walk-on and see what happens.
“My ego took over,” he said. “I didn’t want to walk on, I wanted to play.” You can’t fault a teenager for choosing to attend Princeton.
The competition on the field quenched the physical side of his being and the competition in the classroom shaped him for the future.
“It was definitely a culture shock,” he said, “I’d never been so far away and I realized right away I was going to have to work in class. The work I did in high school to earn an A on a paper? I’d be lucky if that same work got a C at Princeton, so the work was on, it was constant.”
At that point, the academic rigor at Princeton made him aware of two essential facts. “I realized I wasn’t going to play in the NFL,” he said, “but I also knew I wanted to work in sports, somewhere, somehow.”
Out went the resume, here, there and everywhere. He got some interest from the NCAA and eventually spent 17 years there, learning how the operational structure worked. He worked in drug compliance both in the NCAA and for Olympics competitions. He became a “Dr. No” for the department and oversaw compliance until he got enough.
“I just got sick of saying, “No,” so many times to so many people and groups, it lost some luster.”
That’s all right because brighter options were on the horizon. Leech became an executive for the NFL in 2015 working to expand the game internationally as well as other business development and strategic initiatives. Then, in August 2022, he joined the Denver Broncos as their President.
Leech leads the business operations of the Broncos and Stadium Management Company, which operates Empower Field at Mile High. Leech’s role with the Broncos includes oversight of all areas pertaining to the fan experience, revenue generation, finance, corporate partnerships, ticketing, facilities and stadium management, information technology, communications, marketing and community development.
His background leans heavily on the fan experience, and that’s what he’s working on in Denver, where a new stadium will be the focal point when the current stadium lease is up in 2030. The Broncos are putting $100 million into the stadium to get them to 2030. But doesn’t the facility already have everything? Leech laughed at the suggestion. The franchise is currently expanding its video board, making it 70 percent larger, it is developing new luxury suites to total 127 in all, concession stands are being upgraded and a new members-only club is in the works.
“Once you start fixing up this or expanding that,” he said, “the money goes fast.”
At some level, when you remove all the trappings, the presidential office and all the titles, Damani Leech is a promoter. He’s there to build interest — meaning profitability — in the Broncos for fans everywhere. For example, he’s been a big part of the push to drive up interest in Mexico City, where the franchise has an enthusiastic clutch of fans. They aren’t moving there, the NFL isn’t moving there, but building interest helps the brand, increases sales of merchandise and can set the groundwork for an announcement about a preseason game being played there.
Maybe a regular season game, in time. It’s looking ahead, building more into the product, looking for shared growth opportunities, which was seldom the case at the NCAA.
“The (NCAA) rules were complicated and excessive, I thought, but there were a lot of things you could take from that experience that are beneficial in this role. I got sick of saying “No,” so many times,” he said. “But in the playoffs, you were looking for ways to provide a great experience for the school, how to build integrity into what we were doing, and how to make a profit off both.
“When teams arrive at the hotel, what do they do that night? You want to have, maybe, a massive barbecue, where we would welcome them to the championships, give the coaches a few minutes to say what they want to say and go from there. All of that plays into what we do here,” he said.