WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Some details still escape Traivon Leonard. The outcome, for example.
Leonard can’t remember if he won or lost the pickup basketball game he’d just finished playing that night.
He’s almost positive he and his friends were joking around as they left the gym and began their trek home through “the heart of the ‘hood” as he calls it. They typically did whenever they made the walk. But Leonard doesn’t recall who or what inspired the laughter on that particular night.
He can’t tell you the make or year of the car.
Yet there also are fragments nearly five years later Leonard can’t erase from memory.
Leonard still can recall the sound of gunfire coming from the car window. He still sees two of his friends laying on the ground after being struck by stray bullets.
And while it seems unlikely, Leonard knows he wasn’t scared but overcome by frantic shock. After years of intently avoiding the drugs and violence so prevalent in the Tamarind area of West Palm Beach, Fla., he and his buddies simply were in the wrong place at the worst time.
“I’d never been in that type of situation,” Leonard told SEC Country last month. “When you hear shots and see a car you think you got hit, so your body is in shock. I just kept checking my body to see if I was hit by anything.”
Still, Leonard would never wipe that night or a few others that stand out from his mind — even if he could.
“I think about it pretty often. That’s solely my motivation,” Leonard said. “I got another chance at life. All of my friends did. I don’t want to forget about it, I want to think about it, to use it as fuel. That’s what I really do.”
Leonard didn’t know it at the time, of course, but that nightmarish evening was one of several catalysts that propelled him toward a brighter future, one that included an “adopted” family, a college education and Division I football.
Now the 20-year-old could make another ascent, this time up the depth chart as a freshman defensive back at Auburn.
For many underclassmen contributing immediately may be overambitious, but the 6-foot, 170-pound corner has faced more harrowing challenges.
Besides, Leonard and those closest to him feel he’s right where he’s supposed to be at the perfect time.
The road to Oxbridge Academy
Barbara Wright did whatever she could to protect Leonard and her other three children.
“Some would say I secluded him,” Wright said. “I don’t think I secluded him, I just kept him under me.”
The single mom implemented rules. If her kids played outside, they stayed near the front of their home, avoiding dangerous blocks and neighborhoods. Leonard always was involved in some kind of sport at the park — be it Little League baseball or basketball.
“I tried to keep him busy so we didn’t spend time anywhere close to Tamarind, even though our house was close,” she said.
But as Leonard grew up it became impossible to shield him from everything. Over the years a few of his teammates and friends fell into new crowds.
Talented young athletes with limitless futures stopped competing and started selling drugs. Some joined gangs. Others ended up in jail or died too young.
“A lot of them had potential, but they didn’t use it,” Leonard said. “That’s what really pushed me to do more and focus especially on my education. I wanted to learn more.”
At that time, though, no combination of college and football was on Leonard’s mind. He figured if anything would help him get out of Tamarind it would be basketball.
But the night Leonard sprinted home and fell into his mother’s arms after the shooting was one of several that gradually changed him. And with every tear he shed that night, Leonard became more determined to construct a better future for himself. Sometimes “family situations” led him to take matters into his own hands.
A few months later, following some arguments with his older brother, Leonard told his mom he was staying with a friend. What Wright didn’t know was that her son was camped outside under a pavilion at the same Salvation Army where he’d played so many sports.
“I think I had a jacket or a blanket that I took from home,” Leonard said. “I knew a lot of people so I didn’t really think anything was going to happen to me, but in the back of my mind I was kind of scared.”
Through the next few months Leonard stayed with friends and different family members. He spent lots of nights with his best friend Will Koch and his family. He also was accepted to Oxbridge Academy, a private prep school in West Palm Beach.
Leonard continued to move around between friends and family through the first few months of his freshman year, but Wright struggled with transportation to get her son where he needed to be.
That’s when Angela Koch, Will’s mom and an Auburn alumna, offered Leonard an “adopted” home.
After meeting Koch and pondering the walk Leonard had to make to get home from the gym he was always at, Wright agreed.
“We talked, we got to know each other. I felt as though he was safe,” Wright recalled. “She’s a good person and my son loved their family. I didn’t see anything wrong with her wanting to step in and help me. It helped guide and mold him into what he is today.
“She wanted the best for him as if Traivon was her own son. She didn’t treat him any different. I was very protective of my kids, so for me to say it was OK, just the vibe I got from her, and from the time we spent together I felt as though it would be a good idea.”
‘You must be crazy’
Again, pieces are missing. Leonard can’t remember how he started playing football or who persuaded him to give it a shot once he arrived at Oxbridge Academy.
And he didn’t fall as hard for the gridiron as he did for the hardwood — at least not at first. But Leonard clearly recalls his coach’s reaction when he tried to quit football his freshman year.
“My coach pulled me into his office one day and said, ‘If you’re thinking about quitting football, you must be crazy,'” Leonard said. “I still remember that.”
He hated the contact and didn’t see the same potential others did, but Leonard kept putting on his helmet.
That’s when Angela Koch and her family took Leonard to an Auburn-LSU game — another life-changing experience.
“I’d never been exposed or been able to go to a game like that,” Leonard said. “After that Auburn was always the dream school. I remember I was excited, but never showed it. I was overwhelmed by everything around me. Ninety-thousand fans.
“I used to think what if I was playing on a team and running out of that tunnel?”
That seemed more like a fantasy than a realistic goal. At that point Leonard hadn’t been recruited by many schools. So when coaches from Temple, South Alabama and Florida Atlantic came calling, Leonard, also older than most in his class, felt he should jump at early offers.
Brendan Kent, who was Oxbridge’s defensive coordinator and took over as the head football coach going into Leonard’s sophomore year, saw all kinds of potential.
“He was big, he was long he could run, he was physical. Really instinctual,” Kent said. “You could tell he played basketball because when you’re on the football field he sees things so well. A lot of times basketball guys see things so well.”
First Leonard committed to FAU in December of 2015. It seemed as though the minute he committed, more coaches started to see what Kent had.
A Michigan State coach visited Leonard at Oxbridge. Wisconsin offered. Kentucky offered — as did other SEC schools. With scholarship offers from Arkansas, Mississippi State, Tennessee and others, Leonard felt an internal need to attend a school with a strong academic reputation.
The more schools surfaced, the more Leonard impressed Kent.
“A lot of times when you see basketball players on a football field they’re not very physical,” Kent said. “He’s physical. He’s smart, but the one thing is physicality at that position and I think that surprised me coming off the basketball court onto the football field.”
Still not fully convinced of his football ability, Leonard felt playing time in the SEC was a reach. That and a desire to “be done” with the recruiting process made Leonard want to commit to North Carolina.
After that, then-Auburn secondary coach Wesley McGriff, started coming after Leonard. He re-evaluated his decision, de-committed from UNC and committed to Auburn in December 2016.
Less than 100 hours later, McGriff announced he was leaving Auburn to become the defensive coordinator at Ole Miss. Even with the coach leaving who he’d bonded with most with and adored, Leonard stayed “all in” on being a Tiger.
— Auburn Football (@AuburnFootball) February 1, 2017
When Gus Malzahn added Greg Brown as Auburn defensive backs coach to replace McGriff in January, Leonard made an instant connection with his new coach.
Brown traveled to meet Leonard in Florida and right away, the detail-oriented veteran — Brown coached three players who earned the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s best defensive back — and the soon-to-be rookie seeking ways to improve, looked like a perfect pair.
“We’ve stayed on the phone for like, hours talking about coverages,” Leonard said. “Talking about man coverages, zone coverages. He’s very detailed with his stuff, and I like that. It rubs off on us.”
Playing for the past, present and future
As he prepared to travel to the Plains at the end of May, Leonard hardly could believe where his journey has taken him.
Despite getting a late start on the football field, Leonard ended up being a 3-star prospect in a short time. He snagged 10 career interceptions and totaled 57 tackles for Oxbridge Academy. Leonard was ranked a top 50 defensive back by ESPN and the No. 111 defensive back, according to the 247 Sports composite. He experienced situations that he feels will help him make an impact at Auburn.
“I feel like I’m a lot more mature,” Leonard said. “I’m obviously older than most of the guys that signed with me. I’m 20 years old. I’ve been through coaching changes, I’ve been through playing in front of a lot of people. I’ve had my ups and downs in my game. I’ve been through injuries. So I just felt like I’ve kind of been through it all and am ready for it. I’ve been practicing, I’ve been working out, I’ve gotten faster. And my body has started to mature more.”
And that’s just the football side of things. His life experience?
“That’s my foundation,” Leonard said.
The heartache still exists. Leonard admits “there’s nights where I just cry, even now.” As he prepared for his high school graduation Leonard knew it would be an emotional goodbye to the diverse academy that opened his eyes as well as his families. Occasionally he reflected back on friends from his childhood and the different paths everyone took.
Leonard’s list of goals go farther than the football field. He wants to be able to set himself up for career success so he can return to West Palm Beach with a purpose.
“Maybe one day I’ll be able to go back to where I’m from and talk to young kids who are dealing with the same things that I had to deal with,” Leonard said. “And have the ability athletically to make it out, to try to guide them down the right path. Hopefully that day will come.”
And as much as Leonard will be playing for his new teammates and coaches — his Auburn family — this fall, he’ll keep reflecting on his past. When he steps on the football field in Jordan-Hare Stadium he’ll be playing for those in his life and those who have touched it.
“But then I think about the big picture and you just have to play for those people. you can never forget about them and you can never forget about where you come from, but there is a better place. That’s Auburn. I can’t wait to get there. It’s been a very long time coming.”