This story appears in the April 17, 2017 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
The black Nissan Altima pulls up to the back door of a New Orleans photo studio on an overcast Thursday in March. Inside the car, Leonard Fournette’s six-foot, 240-pound body is wedged into shotgun, slung diagonally, his right shoulder pinned against the door and his left knee crunched into the dashboard. He arrives clad head-to-toe in Under Armour athleisure-wear, on his face the look of polite engagement. The few remaining weeks until the NFL draft are a countdown to the rest of Fournette's football destiny, when a decade of inevitability meets reality.
Since his days at New Orleans’s Goretti Playground, where disbelieving youth league coaches consistently asked to see the boy’s birth certificate, this all seemed fated. He’s the football version of an AAU basketball prodigy: identified prepuberty, followed so avidly through high school and college that when he turns pro it feels anticlimactic.
Fournette has always been on an accelerated path. During one freshman football game at St. Augustine High (grades 7 through 12), he moonlighted at nosetackle and racked up 11 sacks. Soon after, his coach, David Johnson, was called in to see St. Augustine’s principal. The opposing school had accused Johnson of playing a senior. “Ohhhh!” the principal exhaled after Johnson explained. “You could have just told me it was Leonard.” Leonard was still in eighth grade.
By his first varsity snap, when he was a freshman, nearly everyone in the area knew Leonard. Veteran varsity players cowered away from tackling him in practice. After his third game he became the first ninth-grader ever offered a scholarship by LSU. He was 15. “It doesn’t take long to recognize greatness,” Tigers assistant Frank Wilson told a friend at the time.
As a senior he was the nation’s No. 1 recruit. A documentary filmmaker followed him. New Orleans rapper Lil Wayne tweeted about him. Before he ever took a snap in Baton Rouge, Tigers coach Les Miles compared him with Michael Jordan. “When Leonard was in high school, he was bigger than even Drew Brees in New Orleans,” says former NOPD superintendent Eddie Compass, a mentor to Fournette. “No slight to Drew Brees.”
Now the mind-boggling amateur ascent is about to collide with professional reality. Fournette, 22, is widely considered the top running back available on April 27, the first day of the draft, and he could go as high as No. 4, to the Jaguars. Could he end up with the Jets at No. 6? The Chargers at 7? Carolina at 8? It would be shocking if he slipped past 10. Inside the photo studio, Fournette patiently models the jerseys of each team. Nothing about the process, about the What-if? speculation, fazes him.
Wherever he lands, Fournette will headline a draft class that has the talent to make running backs chic again in the NFL. The blistering 2016 rookie season by the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott is having a ripple effect; scouts are “putting their retro Jordans back on,” as one player personnel exec explains.
It has been 12 years since three tailbacks were picked in the top 20 of the draft. Can Fournette lead a few of his peers into the first round? “I believe,” he says, “that I’m a big game-changer.”
Leonard Fournette wore number 7 at LSU as a tribute to the New Orleans neighborhood where he grew up, the Seventh Ward, a notorious area with a violent crime rate that is estimated to be 217% higher than the national average. Fournette speaks about his childhood comfortably, concluding that top prospects from, say, Texas or Florida lack his perspective. “The dudes you grew up with are killers, murderers,” he says, “but they’re your friends, people you’ve known since you were young.”
Fournette’s family moved to Slidell, just northeast of the city, when Leonard was 10. Recognizing the boy’s talent (and need for discipline), his parents sent him in 2008 to St. Augustine, an all-boys’ school 45 minutes away with alumni that include judges and mayors, former NBA coach of the year Avery Johnson and All-Pro Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu. St. Augustine famously allowed corporal punishment until ’11, when it became the last known Catholic school in the U.S. to stop using it—but before that, Fournette says his butt endured countless paddlings. How bad did it hurt? “Depends on who you got hit by,” he says.
St. Augustine is also where a cocoon formed around the young man, protecting him off the field and allowing him to maximize his talents on it. To ease his morning commute, Leonard moved in with Corey Scott, a prominent St. Augustine graduate who lived near the school. (Scott, 35, is now Fournette’s manager; he'll move with him wherever he’s drafted.) Compass, the police superintendent, became Fournette’s personal trainer. A doctor, a chiropractor and a masseuse—all with ties to St. Augustine—began working with Fournette before and after games. Even documentary filmmaker Kenny Chenier, another St. Augustine grad, played mentor while he filmed Road to Stardom: The Leonard Fournette Story. A simple plan emerged, Chenier says: “We’re not going to let you fail.”
As Fournette matured he developed an understanding of his potential, his ability to impact his city beyond the end zone. Johnson implored the young man to respect the “special gift” he had, and so Leonard avoided Bourbon Street. He skipped his junior prom and lived the bizarre teenage reality of knowing a damaging moment was only one tweeted photo away. “It was all about never wanting to fail them or let them down,” Fournette says of his mentors. “I want to be an inspiration to New Orleans.”
That maturity instantly paid off in Baton Rouge, where he broke LSU's freshman rushing record (1,034) and then, as a sophomore, reset the school's single-season marks for yards (1,953) and TDs (22). He rarely went out; he says he only twice visited Tigerland, an infamous Baton Rouge haunt, and only then because teammates called him “bougie.” Fournette always kept the bigger goal in mind, carrying the cocoon mentality over from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. Scott even moved on campus for Fournette’s final season.
Grateful for his carefully choreographed journey, Fournette now wants to return the favor. For starters, he plans to open affordable day-care centers for people in low-income New Orleans neighborhoods. “Where I’m from, it’s a bucket of crabs pulling each other down,” he says. “I want to be the crab who comes out of that bucket and pulls others up.”
Fournette’s ascent to the pros hit a snag last Aug. 16 when he went down in preseason practice, clutching his left foot. On the field, the music literally stopped.
He played in just seven of LSU’s 12 games, hobbled throughout his junior season by an ankle sprain. In the end he averaged an impressive 6.5 yards per carry, but his performances were feast or famine: 284 yards against Ole Miss, 35 against Alabama. In late September, LSU fired Miles. The Tigers finished 7–4, and at season’s end Fournette announced that he would skip the Citrus Bowl to rehab his ankle injury and prepare for the draft. Fournette would later say that interim coach Ed Orgeron was the one who made that call—and, in retrospect, Fournette says he appreciates Orgeron’s choice. “I’m kinda happy he made the decision for me because I wasn’t helping the team,” says Fournette. “I cried about it, but some people were made to tell you what’s right and wrong.”
A few days after Fournette’s announcement, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey—who added up more all-purpose yards over a two-year period than any back in college football history—announced he too would skip his team’s bowl game. He and Fournette became test cases for the future of elite college players.
They also became targets of second-guessing. Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said such a decision would “concern” him. Miami Hurricanes coach Mark Richt called their choices “sad.” TV analyst Kirk Herbstreit tweeted, “What happened to LOVING the GAME?”
Sports Illustrated spoke to 10 NFL coaches and front-office execs about college stars skipping their final games, and the consensus was a grudging understanding, given the money at stake. Former Eagles and 49ers coach Chip Kelly pointed to ex–Notre Dame ’backer Jaylon Smith and Michigan tight end Jake Butt. Smith tore his left ACL and LCL at the 2016 Fiesta Bowl, and the projected top five pick fell to No. 34 in the draft, costing him more than $15 million. Butt was one of the country’s top ends, but he tore his right ACL at the Orange Bowl in December. That injury will likely bump him out of the first round and cost him millions. “I understood [their decisions],” Kelly says of Fournette and McCaffrey. “The old-school part of you says, You can get hurt crossing the street. But it’s a personal decision for each individual, and I wouldn’t hold it against them.”
McCaffrey’s coach at Stanford, David Shaw, makes the point that these are two unique players. “Is this going to spill over to a lot of other people?” he asks. “There’s a small group of people who actually [face] that decision.” Adds one NFL personnel director, “I think [Fournette] is smart [for not playing]. He’s got a billion-dollar set of knees. What are you doing playing in a nothing bowl game?”
Fournette enters the NFL at a dark time for backs. Franchise-tag values—essentially the average salary of the top five players at a position—provide a barometer for how NFL general managers gauge a position’s value, and in 2017 running back ranks as the eighth highest paid of 11 positions. (Average salary: $12.1 million.) That puts Fournette & Co. ahead of only tight ends, safeties and kickers/punters.
Part of that can be explained by the NFL’s infatuation with—and dedication of financial resources to—the passing game, and part to the costly investments in some recent first-round flameouts. But the Cowboys took Elliott with the No. 4 pick in '16, and his dynamic rookie season—1,631 rushing yards, 16 total TDs—“has made people go back and take a look at the value of the running back,” says one NFL coach.
In 2017 a bumper crop of projected first-rounders—Fournette, McCaffrey and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook—sits poised to take advantage of that renewed interest. But consider the likelihood that any of those three will have as good an offensive line as Elliott’s (he ran behind three first-team All-Pros), with an elite field-stretching receiver (see: Bryant, Dez) and a dangerous quarterback (Prescott, Dak). Plus, Elliott’s skills are rare. Along with his speed and vision, his pass protection skills are outstanding and his hands are good enough to have caught 32 balls in year one in the NFL. “To be a top back now,” says Kelly, “you have to be Ezekiel Elliott in terms of being on the field all three downs.”
The top running back prospects in this draft are viewed as distinct talents. Fournette is a classic power back with a rare combo of balletic feet and an ability to run over defenders. The two most consistent comparisons from NFL execs: Adrian Peterson and LeGarrette Blount (with breakaway speed). Teams still have questions about Fournette’s hands and his ability to pass protect, but that may be more from a lack of film than from poor performance.
The 5' 11", 202-pound McCaffrey falls on the opposite end of the spectrum; one coach compared him with Patriots receiver Julian Edelman because he can easily split out into the slot and is dangerous as a kick returner. But can he withstand an NFL pounding between the tackles? Cook, who is 5' 10", 210 pounds, is more of a classic three-down back: big enough to grind between the tackles, versatile enough to average 14.8 yards per catch for FSU. Questions linger about his ability to pass protect or to handle a large workload.
But Fournette’s volatile cocktail of speed and stiff-arms set him apart. New Orleans football bard Archie Manning likens his style to Jim Brown’s. If a tailback revolution is upon us, the founding fathers will be Elliott and Fournette.
Two hours after arriving for his photo shoot, Fournette walks into Katie’s, a cozy neighborhood Creole-Italian restaurant in the mid-city section of New Orleans. Heads turn. Fingers point. Two women follow him toward a private room upstairs, but they’re asked at the door to retreat.
Fournette is ambivalent about it all. He won’t stay long; he’s in a rush to get to Baton Rouge to sign the birth certificate for his son, Leonard IV, who was born a few days earlier. (He also has a two-year-old daughter, Lyric, from a prior relationship.) Seated at a table—flanked by his agent, a publicist, Scott (his manager) and Terry Lucas, a former St. Augustine teammate—he matter-of-factly answers questions as the rest of the group listens. Everyone is focused on the soon-to-be-millionaire, including a waiter who lingers at the door, unsure if he should interrupt the proceedings to refill water glasses.
Fournette’s answers are quick and polite, but not particularly introspective. There are a few questions his people have worried about, inquiries about skipping the bowl game and about the fact that, at 240 pounds—five pounds over his LSU weight—he was easily the heaviest back at this year’s combine. On this latter point one NFL coach told SI, “That’s the biggest day of your life. That baffled everyone.” But Fournette casts that off as “water weight,” and when he shows up at LSU's pro day, five weeks later, weighing 228, it eases some concerns. (Says the same coach, “That’s good and bad. It shows he can lose weight. But still, how do you show up at 240?”)
Fournette’s 4.51-second 40 in Indianapolis was the fastest in 15 years for a back that heavy. He points to his 40 time and his production in college when asked what type of runner he envisions being in the NFL. “My talent speaks for itself,” he says.
As the interview grinds to a close, it’s clear that Fournette is ready to move on, to Baton Rouge that afternoon and to the NFL in a few weeks. “To be in that greenroom, man—that’s special from where I’m from,” he says. “To see where I’ve come, from a kid to a young man to a father of two children, waiting for my name to be called.”
He pauses, then says what has been apparent since he was 12 years old: “I’m ready.”