LSU's Leonard Fournette is calling to mind the greats, but what does hype matter to a child of Katrina?
This story appears in the Oct. 19, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
You knew it was coming. For 30 minutes and 47 seconds South Carolina had done the impossible: contain Leonard Fournette. But it couldn't last. On second-and-seven from the Gamecocks' 13-yard line LSU's sophomore tailback faked right then broke left to take the handoff. Fournette is basically a Lamborghini in shoulder pads, and by the time he was three yards past the line of scrimmage, he was nearing top speed. Waiting for him, in perfect position to make a tackle, was strong safety Jordan Diggs. In the first half in Baton Rouge last Saturday the 6' 1", 230-pound Fournette had pounded his way to 49 yards on 15 carries, tough bursts that may have affected Diggs's body, to say nothing of his soul. "Every time Leonard touches the ball it does damage, even the short runs," says Tigers senior offensive tackle Vadal Alexander. "Those four- and five-yarders take a toll—on them, not him. They're like the jabs that set up a knockout punch."
Diggs started to get low, girding to be smashed again. Fournette has a very sophisticated understanding of football, but he likes to talk about his craft in the simplest terms: "Everyone has a job to do. Mine is to make one man miss. Then good things can happen." Instead of taking on Diggs, Fournette broke to his right with a cut that was savage in its angle and abruptness. What happened next was cartoonish: Diggs didn't just fail to make the tackle, he whiffed entirely. As he said mournfully afterward, "I looked up, and all of a sudden he was in front of me. Then he was past me." In the split-second that followed, a full-throated roar of anticipation filled Tiger Stadium: The crowd knew. Two defensive backs were in position to stop Fournette, but he accelerated between them. With his 4.35 speed, the rest was a formality.
Fournette's 87-yard touchdown pushed the lead to 24–10, broke the Gamecocks' spirit and propelled No. 6 LSU to a 45–24 win. He played only one more series, leaving with 158 yards on 20 carries, which pushed his total through five games to 1,022 yards on 119 rushes—an 8.6 yards-per-carry average, to go with 12 touchdowns. The game-breaker against Carolina was merely the latest highlight in what looks like an unimpeachable Heisman Trophy campaign, and it accelerated comparisons between the 20-year-old Fournette and the game's all-time greats.
South Carolina senior safety Isaiah Johnson likens Fournette's hard-charging style to Adrian Peterson's: "You have to get your mind right" to bring him down. He has the "unbelievable vision and physicality" of Earl Campbell, says Syracuse coach Scott Shafer, whose team surrendered 244 yards to Fournette on Sept. 26. Tulane assistant David Johnson cites Marcus Dupree, saying, "He's so powerful but so graceful—he doesn't just run through people, he runs past them, with ease." For LSU running backs coach Frank Wilson, Fournette conjures images of Marshall Faulk: "He can spin on you, he can hurdle you, he can give it to you and take it away, and then be gone in a hiccup." Or, as Vince Dooley, Herschel Walker's coach at Georgia, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune, "Fournette is the closest thing I've seen to Herschel."
Then there's Rickey Williams, who coached Fournette at St. Augustine High in New Orleans: "He's like Bo Jackson in that he's strong as a bull but also has that breakaway speed. Bo was like Herschel, a bowling ball just knocking over people. Leonard can do that too, but he's not a straight-line runner like them—in the open field he has the elusiveness of Barry Sanders, of Emmitt Smith. And he has those high knees like Roger Craig. But really his running style reminds me most of Eric Dickerson—big, strong, fast, but no one ever gets a clean hit on him."
To recap, that's 10 backs who won four Heisman Trophies, sport five mustard-colored Hall of Fame blazers and own eight Super Bowl rings. Fournette is accustomed to hyperbole—he was the subject of a 55-minute documentary in high school—but refuses to embrace it. He has old-school tastes, citing Ernie Davis and Jim Brown as inspirations, but he avoids direct comparisons: "It's cool, but I would never say anything like that. All those guys are legends. Hopefully one day when I'm older, I can have a career like them, but for now I just want to be me."
That starts with being humble. Fournette is the first player in SEC history to rush for 200 yards in three consecutive games. After one of Fournette's superlative games coach Les Miles called him up in front of the team to name him the Tigers' offensive player of the week, but Fournette demured, insisting the recognition go to sophomore fullback John David Moore—much as he regifted a New Orleans player of the year trophy to the quarterback at a rival high school because Fournette considered him more deserving.
If awards and accolades don't motivate him, what does? Fournette strokes his beard at the question; the scruff makes him look like a middle-aged man, an effect belied by a boyish smile that reveals a mouthful of braces. "I like the responsibility of so many people counting on me," he says, with some feeling. "There's only one ball on the football field, and everybody wants it. If that ball is in your hands, you have to take care of it like it's your baby. In that ball the whole of Louisiana is in your hands."
Fournette grew up in the 7th Ward, a hardscrabble part of town far from the bright lights of the French Quarter. His father, a delivery driver, who is now known far and wide as Big Leonard, was also a New Orleans running back, starring at Kennedy High in the 1980s. "He was bigger than his son and faster than his son," says Big Leonard's old teammate Theron Porter. "He was an animal. He should have gone all the way."
But Big Leonard's pro potential remains a tantalizing what-if; he never even played college ball. His son frames his father's unfulfilled athletic career as a homegrown cautionary tale: "People all over the city still talk about his talent, but this is New Orleans. He got caught up. The streets got him." Big Leonard ran with a tough crowd, including the father of the Arizona Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu, Darrin Hayes, who is now doing life without parole in the Louisiana State Penitentiary for second-degree murder. Big Leonard had his own troubles, which he is loath to talk about; that may explain why he didn't show up for a lunch appointment and was too busy for any subsequent interviews. Cornered after the Carolina game, he said by way of explanation, "I've been running." Then he excused himself, never to return.
Big Leonard devoted his life to setting his son on a different path. It wasn't easy. Leonard's mom, Lory, says their son had so many behavioral problems that he was kicked out of multiple elementary schools; Fournette would ultimately be diagnosed with ADHD. Football became a crucial outlet. In New Orleans the youth game is called "park ball," and Fournette, always big and nimble for his age, was a natural from the time he was six. He did a lot of his damage at Hunter's Field, an expanse of dry grass wedged between I-10 and the Claiborne off-ramp. In the Hoop Dreams-style documentary Road to Stardom: The Leonard Fournette Story, his park ball coach, Jay Smith, tells filmmaker Kenny Chenier, "He was just knocking kids out. People from around the park would come over to our practices just because of the sound they heard: Ka-pow! Ka-pow! Instead of running away from the defense, he ran toward the defense. It was like target practice for Leonard."
Fournette was 10 when Hurricane Katrina blew into New Orleans. Seeking higher ground, his family took refuge in a downtown hotel. "There was looting in the hotel," Fournette says. "It got set on fire." His voice drops an octave. "I saw things no kid should ever see. I saw a man get shot in the head. I saw a guy take a watch off a dead man's wrist."
The family fled to an overpass on I-10, which was already teeming with refugees in their own city. For five nights the Fournettes—Leonard's parents, grandmother, older sisters LaNata and LaTae and younger brother, Lanard—slept on the pavement. Leonard ventured into the streets every day to scavenge for provisions. "I didn't feel any fear, even though there were dead bodies everywhere," he says. "We were just trying to stay alive."
After the storm the Fournettes spent a year as exiles in Portland, Texas. When they returned to their broken city, Leonard was enrolled at St. Augustine, a beacon in the 7th Ward that felicitously sits on Hope Street. St. Augustine bills itself as the nation's only African-American Catholic school. Principal Sean Goodwin says 98% of St. Augustine's students—there are 640 from seventh to 12th grade—matriculate to college, and in 2011 it became one of the last schools in the country to cease using corporal punishment. "Me and that wooden paddle became well acquainted," Fournette says with a laugh. "I was doin' too much clownin'. My seventh-grade year seems like I got the paddle every period. Sometimes twice. But I needed that discipline. Keeping my slacks clean, tying my own tie every morning, making grades—all that changed who I am."
Yet Fournette brought such a ferocity to the football field that when he was 12 the other parents in his park ball league successfully petitioned to have him banned, citing concerns for their kids' safety. He played instead on St. Augustine's freshman team against boys two and three years older, punishing them like it was park ball. In eighth grade Fournette began working with former New Orleans police chief Eddie Compass, who devised a Herschelesque workout routine of up to 1,500 push-ups and 1,000 sit-ups a day.
"Leonard is a classic child of Katrina," says Goodwin. "These young men were sent away as outcasts. They had to fight to live, then they had to fight for acceptance. So of course they play with a chip on their shoulder. When they step on the football field, they have something to say: We're still here, we still matter. Leonard has never lost that edge."
By ninth grade Fournette was a knot of muscle weighing more than 200 pounds, and he earned a spot on the varsity. This is no small thing—the Purple Knights play in the brutally competitive Catholic League and boast a rich tradition that includes seven NFL draft picks over the last two decades, including Mathieu. Fournette was so intimidated he rushed for 238 yards in his first game. "But that's not the most impressive thing he did that night," says Tulane assistant Johnson, then the Knights' coach. "We lost the game 59–56. Leonard got on the bus, and there was a lot of talking so he shouted, 'Nobody say anything, put your head down until we get home.' It went dead quiet, and that team had Trai Turner, who is now a starting guard for the Carolina Panthers. But Leonard was that kind of leader."
After four games Fournette had rushed for nearly 1,000 yards and earned a scholarship offer from LSU, thus beginning a prep career that has already passed into legend. He would ultimately pile up 7,916 yards and 88 touchdowns while also serving as the punter and placekicker. To hear Williams tell it, Fournette's talents were wasted in the backfield.
"He was a better receiver than running back," says the coach. "We could line him up anywhere, and he ran perfect routes. Great hands too." In crucial games Fournette also played defense. "If he wasn't the No. 1 running back in the country, he would have been the No. 1 linebacker," says Williams. "He loved hitting people, and he had great instincts."
Fournette takes particular pride in his football IQ, developed in part from obsessively watching game film with his dad since he was a preteen. At St. Augustine he often consulted with the coaches on play-calling and says his favorite memory was drawing up a counter play that sprang his brother, also a running back, for a crucial touchdown in a big comeback against Covington High in 2013. Of course, in that game Leonard had scores running, receiving and throwing.
As a senior he was the consensus No. 1 recruit, and the comparisons with Bo and Herschel were already flying. Fournette's final two schools were LSU and Alabama. "Everyone was going to Bama," he says. "I was raised to be different."
That was evident after a bitter loss to Rummel High in the state semis his senior year. He bawled on the field afterward and was the last player to leave the locker room. Waiting for him in the parking lot was one of his biggest fans, Derek Mercadal II. Deuce, as he's known, had fallen in love with Fournette watching St. Augustine games with his father, an alum, and earlier that year, with the innocence of youth, he invited Fournette to his fifth birthday party. To the Mercadal family's shock, Fournette arrived straight from the airport, having just returned from an all-star camp. He presented Deuce with a St. Aug jersey and stuck around to play touch football. Now, after the loss, Deuce was crying too. On the way to the bus Fournette stopped, scooped up Deuce and tenderly offered some consoling words. "At his lowest moment he had the empathy to comfort my son," says Derek Mercadal, a lawyer. "That tells you everything you need to know about Leonard—about how much he cares for other people and his community."
Last season Fournette set an LSU freshman record with 1,034 yards and led the SEC in all-purpose yards per game (137.4), but it's a measure of the outsized expectations that his year was widely considered a disappointment. That belief began when he was held to 18 yards on eight carries in his debut against Wisconsin. The following week, against Sam Houston State, Fournette scored his first touchdown and then struck the Heisman pose, a disco move that was wholly out of character and for which he later apologized. "He was hurting," says LSU's Frank Wilson. "People were saying he was a bust, and he had only played one game. It was his way speaking back to the media: See, I can do this."
Fournette had struggles in other games—nine yards against Arkansas, 40 against Kentucky—that he attributes largely to spotty playing time. "The game was moving too fast," he says. "I couldn't keep up. I needed more reps."
By the end of the season he began to catch up; in a breakout game against Notre Dame he busted an 89-yard touchdown run and 100-yard kickoff return. "Everything started to slow down," Fournette says. With a chuckle he adds, "Now everything's so slow it's like The Matrix."
Many of Fournette's best runs begin before the ball is snapped. "So much goes into those few seconds," he says. "Reading the defense, understanding our blocking scheme and where the cutbacks are. Is the nose leaning one way? Is the 'backer cheating this way or that? Those little details can be the difference between a five-yard run and taking it to the house. You need to find the defense's weakness. After that, it's just instinct." Those instincts are sharpened by preparation. Fournette is known around LSU for his punishing workouts and the intensity he brings to every practice. This goes a long way toward explaining the undefeated Tigers' unexpected success. Says Moore, the fullback, "When your best player is your hardest worker, that has a big impact on a team."
Fournette's tight focus—on the next game, on a national championship—is his way of drowning out what he calls the "noise": the Heisman hype and NFL chatter. He would certainly be playing in the NFL next season, if not this one, were it not for the rule that prevents players from turning pro until they've been out of high school for three years. The downside of this rule was highlighted last Saturday by the gruesome season-ending knee injury suffered by Georgia sophomore running back Nick Chubb. Fournette's family is looking into an insurance policy but won't reveal the amount—whatever it is, it's not enough for a once-in-a-generation talent. On the series after his 87-yarder last Saturday, Fournette's left leg was twisted in a dog pile, and he limped slightly coming off the field. All of Louisiana shuddered, and though Fournette was uninjured, he stayed on the sideline. He still found a way to make an impact, consoling freshman running back Nick Brosette after a fumble and cheering wildly while freshman backup Derrius Guice rumbled for 161 yards. "The only time I feel like a kid is when I'm on the field, having fun with my boys," he says.
After the win, on national television, Fournette expressed sympathy for the victims of the flooding in South Carolina, which had necessitated moving the game from Columbia to Baton Rouge. Fournette linked their struggle with Louisiana's after Katrina. He wanted to get the words just right so he wrote out a statement in advance and read it on the air. Fournette offered to raise money for relief efforts by auctioning his game jersey, but Miles immediately squashed the idea, fearing it would run afoul of NCAA rules. This left Fournette a bit mopey but then, two hours later, the NCAA tweeted its approval.
There was an element of slapstick in all of this, but issues of football and money are more urgent for Fournette now that he is a father, to nine-month-old Lyric. She lives with her mom in New Orleans, but Fournette spends every weekend with his baby girl, at the apartment he shares with Lanard, now a freshman on the LSU team. The brothers rarely venture out. "Everyone with a phone is media now," Leonard says. "Every decision I make affects Lyric and her future. I don't want to short her by making dumb decisions and jeopardizing whatever good things I have going on."
This might sound like Fournette is already worrying about his draft stock, but he offers a passionate rebuttal: "This is much bigger than football, man. Being a dad has changed me a lot. It's made me grow up. It's changed how I look at the world."
The many different roles Fournette fills were all on display last Saturday. He was just one of the guys on the sideline, but after the game, while his teammates mingled easily with fans and family, a state trooper led him through the underbelly of Tiger Stadium, to a remote exit that would allow him to avoid being mobbed. A trooper opened the back door to a sedan, and then Fournette disappeared into the night, lights flashing. He was delivered to his apartment, where he could be both a son and a father, playing with Lyric while enjoying his mom's home-cooked jambalaya, roast chicken and corn bread. Leonard eventually crashed on the sofa, watching football with Lanard and their uncle Corey Scott, offering a perceptive running analysis. He had little to say about his starring role in that afternoon's victory but lit up at the mention of his understudy's success. "I'm happy for Derrius," Fournette said. "That kid has a future."
There's no football player on earth who's future is as wide-open as Fournette's. "When I break out into open space," he says, "I can feel the energy of the crowd. I can hear the noise. But what I'm really listening for is footsteps. I want them to get softer and softer. I want to run so hard that I can't hear any footsteps at all."