His daddy is of the old school, as in: There's no such thing as
an acceptable shortcut, curfew is 11 o'clock sharp, and look
your mama in the eye when you ask to take her car out for a
spin. Lee McElroy Sr. may be 78 now, long past his days of
lugging the mail throughout Beaumont, Texas, but his voice still
carries an authority redolent of hickory switches and forbidding
woodsheds. You want old school? From the creased easy chair that
he wears like a throne, Lee Sr. will tell of the time at
Tuskegee (Ala.) Institute he watched Dr. Carver--that would be
the legendary botanist, inventor and professor George Washington
Carver--interrupt his constitutional to unload groceries from a
This is an article from the Aug. 5, 1995 issue
"He came walking down the street with his suit all wrinkled and
gravy stains on his tie," McElroy says. "That man could do more
with peanuts than a monkey, but when she asked him for help, he
stopped and took those groceries in. Next day she found out who
he was and called to apologize. 'Oh, Dr. Carver, I'm so sorry.'
But he said it didn't matter, he would have helped her anyway.
That's what people don't understand. If you're somebody special,
you don't have to act big and tell the whole world. They're
going to find out."
At 21, Texas A&M junior tailback Leeland McElroy is the youngest
(by seven years) of Lee and Maud's 12 children, but his values
come straight from the old school--even if the diamond stud in
his left ear might seem like a violation of its dress code. He
loves the traditions at A&M, where yell practice and male
cheerleaders decked out in Man from Glad outfits endure like
hiccups from some time machine. After sitting for 11 games,
McElroy was willing to sacrifice a season of eligibility in his
redshirt year and suit up for a suspended Aggie player in the
1993 Cotton Bowl, although he never played. He studies hard, is
solicitous of strangers, never has to be reminded about his
duties (especially, as we shall see, weight training) and keeps
an ironing board poised for action in his spartan College
Above all, McElroy is the 5'11", 202-pound embodiment of his
daddy's George Washington Carver parable on the fatuity of
flaunting one's gifts: He has waited without complaint for three
years to become A&M's featured tailback, even though he has long
been able to do more things with a football than Doc Carver
could with a goober.
Indeed, in an era of specialists, the blazing McElroy will burst
on the scene in 1995 as a genuine throwback: the all-around
threat. Or, as Aggie coach R.C. Slocum puts it, the young man
has reached a coveted rank in old-school football (and one
befitting his parentage): McElroy, he says, is A&M's "mail
carrier." In addition to rushing between the tackles, sweeping
around end and catching passes out of the backfield, he will
handle kickoff returns and may field punts as well. As a
redshirt freshman and a sophomore, McElroy averaged an
NCAA-record 42.4 yards per kick return and scored four
touchdowns, two shy of the alltime career mark. "He's the kind
of guy who when he gets the ball, no matter where, you hold your
breath because he can always go all the way," Slocum says. "We
know if we're going to be good, Leeland is going to have to get
a lot of touches."
In 1993 and '94, however, touches were precisely the rub for
McElroy. He sat first behind tailbacks Rodney Thomas and Greg
Hill and then split time as a sophomore with Thomas. No matter
that McElroy runs the 40 in 4.27, has scored 24 TDs as a
two-year backup, averages 6.5 yards per carry and gains 9.8
yards per magical touch. No matter, because among the Aggies the
torch at tailback is not passed casually. But with Hill and
Thomas operating in the NFL these days, McElroy has Kyle Field
all to himself at last.
Now, as he talks about the upcoming season, McElroy's foot beats
a rapid-fire tattoo against the leg of his chair. "It's
exciting--kind of like going to college all over again," he says.
"It's my first chance to really play, not just in spurts. A lot
of people thought I'd get lost in the shuffle here, but it
Because probation kept the Aggies off the tube in '94 and the
upperclassmen kept him out of the starting lineup, McElroy is
essentially a mirage in the public eye. Of course, opposing
coaches are well aware of what he can do with the slightest
slice of daylight. As a freshman, he roared 26 and 58 yards for
a pair of TDs on screen passes against LSU; then at Rice he
brought back two kicks for scores before the Aggies' offense
even took a snap. Last season Texas coach John Mackovic vowed to
kick off to McElroy "over my dead body," having witnessed
McElroy's end zone-to-end zone dash during an 18-9 A&M victory
in '93. Still, when the Longhorns tried a sideline pooch,
McElroy pounced, scooting 83 yards to the Texas one. After the
34-10 A&M blowout, one scribe alluded to Mackovic's promise by
writing, "Autopsy pending."
The Aggies, too, are well aware of McElroy's largely untapped
talents. "I'm not taking anything away from the other great
running backs we've had," says senior quarterback Corey Pullig,
a four-year starter, "but Leeland has that burst. That burst is
hard to believe, man." Adds McElroy's roommate, junior right
guard Calvin Collins, "Whenever he did play, it was awesome. But
there was nothing I could say to him to encourage him, because
unless someone got hurt, he wasn't going to play a lot."
As Slocum ticks off McElroy's gifts--power, speed, vision,
elusiveness, cutback ability--he illustrates the way he runs,
gliding his hand, palm down, through the air. He is already
touting McElroy for the Heisman Trophy. If you're somebody
special, they're going to find out. "Leeland's the greatest
combination of everything we've had," Slocum says. "I see him as
a guy who could explode on the scene from nowhere, the way Barry
Sanders did at Oklahoma State [in 1988]."
Certainly, McElroy is fit to shoulder the baggage of a Heisman
hypee as well as the mail of a national title contender. In '93
he exploded on the scene of the Netum A. Steed Physiology
Research and Conditioning Laboratory, a.k.a. the A&M weight
room, winning the team's spring conditioning award. Last season
he copped the trophy for the third straight time and so
dominated the field that strength and conditioning coach Mike
Clark, a 14-year devotee of gargantuan heaves and grunts,
assigns him the flattering designation "genetic freak."
Clark's spring test includes six events that measure movement
and lifting, with points awarded according to a player's finish
in each task. Thus the lower the total, the better, the best
possible score being a 6. When Clark worked at USC, All-America
linebacker Junior Seau netted a 28. In March, McElroy scored a
14. Clark sounds like a preacher who has just risen from a bath
in holy water as he runs down McElroy's unprecedented
performance. "You can see a guy like Leeland jumping 40 inches,"
he says. "It's exceptional, but you can see it--even though I've
had only three guys who ever did it, and two were alternates on
the Olympic team. And 4.27 for the 40 is awesome, but he's the
fastest guy on the team. And you can understand his 20-yard
shuttle time--3.78 seconds--and him finishing second there.
"But you cannot fathom him squatting 510 pounds, and you cannot
fathom him power-cleaning 330--unless he was an Olympic
weightlifter--and you cannot fathom that the same guy who does
all this can bench 390, blow it away and just miss doing 400
pounds. All that, and his percentage of body fat is 3.9. To say
he's something else is an understatement."
Maud McElroy knew her baby boy would be something else from his
first days on earth. Four nights after Leeland was born, Maud,
then 38, took her mother, who had become ill, to the hospital.
As Maud recalls, "My mother told me, 'I'm not going to be there
to help you with him, but he's going to be very special. He's
going to take care of you.' She said that, and less than a week
later she died."
Despite the 57-year gap between Lee Sr. and Leeland, the two
have always been close. "With my children it's never been,
'Daddy, can I?'" Lee Sr. says. "It's always been, 'Daddy,
let's.'" That togetherness notwithstanding, Leeland had his
first encounter with his father's belt when he was a toddler and
had crossed the street without permission. It was also his last.
"That's all it took," Leeland says. "My father's a very firm
guy; at the same time, he's a very caring guy. He has always
rewarded me for what I did on the field or in the classroom. But
he was raised back in the times when things were real hard, and
he believed whenever he said something to me, his word was law.
Which it was."
Even before Leeland's whupping, three of his brothers had
established the McElroy name in football. Lee Jr. was a 6'3",
230-pound linebacker for UCLA from 1967 to '69; Carl was a 6'6",
280-pound offensive lineman at Oklahoma in '67 and '68; and
6'6", 290-pound Reggie starred at West Texas State and is now an
offensive lineman for the Denver Broncos in his 12th NFL season.
As Leeland notes, "I got shorted on size."
With his brothers grown and around the house only sporadically,
Leeland didn't gravitate to football right away; he preferred
powerlifting and running track instead. He finally took up the
game as a ninth-grader at Beaumont Central High.
Forty-seven-year-old Lee Jr., who earned a doctorate in business
and education and is now the athletic director at Cal
State-Sacramento, kept tabs on Leeland's development, visiting
as often as he could. "The relationship we have is almost like
father-son," he says. "In fact, a lot of people come up to me
and say, 'You must be so proud of him.' They think I am his
Not surprisingly, given Lee Jr.'s influence, UCLA was among the
final colleges considered by Leeland, who rolled up 1,532 yards
and 21 TDs as a senior, while sprinting the 100 in 10.6. But he
preferred the less distracting environment of College Station to
Westwood. More important, A&M is a mere 135 miles northwest of
Beaumont, and he wanted to stay close to home. In the past seven
years Lee Sr. has been stricken with diabetes and blood clots,
suffered a mild stroke and received extensive treatments for
colon and prostate cancer. "One summer we thought we might lose
him," Leeland says. "But he's a very strong man."
While Texas A&M's handy location has benefited the McElroys, who
attend almost every game en masse, Leeland's spot on the Aggies'
depth chart disappointed him initially, and he considered
transferring. It was touch--or go. "My first year it was hard,
real hard," he says. "I would get down sometimes and wonder if I
would ever play again. After that first year I wanted to do
anything to get the ball back in my hands." Fortunately for his
psyche, he shared a room with Collins, who had attended West
Brook High, Beaumont Central's annual opponent in the Beaumont
Bowl. A tape of that game from their senior year would
frequently make its way into the VCR, reminding the two redshirt
freshmen of what it was like to suit up.
Even now, the high school rivalry kindles their own. "We won
24-21," Collins says.
"Yeah, but I ended up having a pretty good day," counters McElroy.
"Not the first three quarters."
"Then I had an 80-yard run, a 50-yard screen. I wound up with
close to 200 all-purpose yards."
"But I was only in for five plays on defense. Had two tackles
and a sack."
"I didn't notice you. I don't have eyes in the back of my head."
In addition to Beaumont Bowl memories, McElroy had his family to
lean on in lean times. Lee Jr. speaks to Leeland at least once a
week and has even offered his services as an over-the-phone
tutor. He stops by College Station when he can, too, and then
has an appointed round to swiftly complete: visits to members of
the coaching and administrative staffs to make sure baby
brother's books and life are in apple-pie order. Not that
Leeland, whose major is business management, needs much help
with his priorities. Last year Playboy honored him as its
All-America kick returner and flew him to Phoenix. When Lee Jr.
called at 10:15 p.m. to say he wouldn't be able to join his
brother for the festivities, Leeland was already in bed for the
Mostly the McElroy brothers like to kick back and talk. "A while
ago people were telling him he might win the Heisman Trophy and
be the greatest tailback ever at the school, and here he was
third string, so he wanted to know if that could be true," Lee
Jr. says. "I said, 'In college football, yes, it could be.'"
Whether McElroy will be able to bookend the John David Crow 1957
Heisman that sits on a pedestal in the Koldus Building lobby at
A&M will depend largely on how well he holds up after 30 or 40
touches a game. The old school is definitely one of hard knocks.
Slocum fed him the ball early and often during spring practice
and came away pleased with McElroy's stamina. Exposing his best
rusher to the extra blows from kick returns is a risk, but the
reward is too great to pass up. With McElroy set to receive, the
Aggies' average starting field position last season was the
37-yard line. "Leeland doesn't take too many shots on kickoffs,"
Slocum says. "My experience is that people have to try to drag
him down from behind."
For Lee Sr. in his easy chair, Leeland's progress is all part of
the family plan. "I'm a fanatic about bettering your position in
life," Lee Sr. says. "I've told all my kids to try to go farther
than the one ahead of you." And on any given touch, as the world
is soon to find out, Leeland McElroy is a threat to go all the