Leonard Fournette took the country by storm last fall when he churned out seven consecutive 150-yard rushing performances — a fitting start for the fleet-footed running back who haunted so many defenders, racing past and running over them, leaving them to watch his purple-and-gold clad No. 7 jersey in the dust.
Just more than midway through that stretch of dominance, however, Fournette managed to captivate the nation in a completely different manner.
Fournette declared he would auction off his game-worn jersey to benefit those in Columbia, S.C. seeking flood relief. He would later donate more than $100,000 worth of proceeds to those victims.
That’s the thing about Fournette — he may be a football icon, but he uses that spotlight in a way that’s uncanny for most star athletes of his caliber.
“People who have that type of talent usually come off as cocky, not really the type of person that will just talk to everyone else,” said Kristian Fulton, a five-star LSU cornerback signee in the Class of 2016 that played against Fournette from 2012-13 at Archbishop Rummel High School (Metairie, La.)
“But he’s obviously a team player. He likes to be around his other teammates. He’s a great guy that interacts with everyone. Really, what he did against South Carolina, auctioning off his jersey, that shows the type of person he is.”
Fournette is bracing for what should be a promising junior campaign at LSU, one that is filled with high expectations.
Over the past two years, the running back has made significant strides, setting numerous school records and contending for the Heisman Trophy, the Doak Walker Award and countless other honors.
Before that, Fournette was simply a New Orleans football prodigy, something others saw from the time he played park ball. He proved that the hype was real when he arrived at one of the city’s football powerhouses, St. Augustine High School.
Fournette was a man amongst boys under the Friday night lights, amassing 7,830 yards and 92 touchdowns in four years as a starter.
But his coach at St. Augustine, Cyril Crutchfield, was aware of Fournette’s talent even before he arrived at the Gentilly school.
It isn’t historic statistical achievements on the field that Crutchfield recalls about Fournette’s high school career, either. Far from it really.
“Probably, his humbleness, his down-to-earth personality, especially with the magnitude of attention on him, but it allowed for him to be grounded and to be an average person,” Crutchfield said. “That was the way he was, he was an above-average person, but so down to earth …
“Even when people came to recruit him or to interview him, it almost seemed like he would deflect a lot of the attention to his teammates. He would introduce the offensive line, the receivers, even the defensive line because he knew that as great as he was, he was still a part of a team. Without those 10 other players on offense and 11 players on defense, the team wouldn’t be where it needed to be. That spoke volumes about the type of character he has.”
Fournette using his own notoriety to assist the people of South Carolina wasn’t the first time his humble nature and desire to help others manifested itself. No, he claimed those qualities long before reaching football celebrity status.
Actions over ability
For all of Fournette’s accomplishments on the gridiron, it hardly stacks up to the good he’s done in other areas.
That’s quite the bold statement, but it comes with a solid foundation.
Fournette’s auctioned-off jersey for the South Carolina flood victims has reached was one of the more widely known deeds to demonstrate high character, but it’s far from the first.
December 2013 offers two unique cases in which Fournette embodied the term selflessness.
Fournette played his final high school game on Nov. 30, 2013 as St. Augustine was upset by Rummel in the Louisiana Division I state semifinals. The man-child erupted for 165 yards, three touchdowns and a pair of two-point conversions, but it wasn’t enough as his team fell 31-28 to the eventual state champions.
After the game, a teary eyed Fournette sat on the St. Augustine bench before being forced to meet with the media. In doing so, an emotional 18-year-old caught up in the magnitude of the moment opted not to shake hands with the winning team.
Fournette received a stroke of criticism soon after, but made amends his own way, one that a mere post-game handshake could never equal.
“After they lost in the semifinals, Leonard was very upset, and rightfully so,” Rummel coach Jay Roth explained. “He was pondering his future and answering questions for the press, and he didn’t have time for shaking hands with the team. People gave him flack for that, but I knew what he was going through.
“He came back and addressed our student body after Christmas and apologized, which is unheard of. The students gave him a standing ovation, then went and got autographs after. He came in with a St. Aug uniform and addressed the Rummel student body. That’s classy. Everyone realized the type of person he was, and if they didn’t know, they knew now. Kids playing for me took pictures with him because they knew what he was going to be … the future Heisman Trophy winner, the future No. 1 draft pick. He earned that much respect by doing that, and he didn’t have to.”
Roth didn’t coach Fournette. In fact, his Rummel teams got the better of Fournette’s St. Aug teams three of the four times they met.
Yet Fournette continues to call Roth during LSU’s football season to catch up and talk about their crafts, an act that’s largely unheard that, and of course, only Fournette would do.
Weeks after the high school playoffs wrapped up, it was award season.
Naturally, Fournette took home his fair chunk of hardware, but there was one trophy he had to refuse.
Fournette earned the top honor at the Greater New Orleans Quarterback Club’s Prep Player of the Year Award luncheon ceremony on Dec. 16, 2013, but this time he couldn’t accept the handoff.
Instead, when his name was called, Fournette walked up to the podium and pronounced Eugene Wells the winner.
Wells played quarterback for East Jefferson High School and helped his team capture its first state championship in 59 years. The nation’s No. 1 player deferred to a 5-foot-10, 180-pounder who lifted East Jeff to an undefeated season culminating with a 38-28 victory against Karr in the title game.
Yet again, Fournette showed off the type of class that’s simply uncommon among high schoolers.
“Even as shocking as it was for some, it was Leonard Fournette being Leonard Fournette,” said Crutchfield. “That’s the type of person he is. I didn’t expect it, but when it happened I just thought, ‘That’s him.’”
The prodigious one
There are few high school accolades Fournette did not earn during his time at St. Aug.
He was named the Gatorade Louisiana Football Player of the Year in consecutive seasons from 2012 and again in 2013. As a senior, he carved up opposing defenses to the tune of 1,792 yards and 16 touchdowns while leading the Purple Knights to the Louisiana Division I state semifinals.
Fournette also hauled in 45 passes for 745 yards and six scores that season, and as a Wildcat quarterback passed for 322 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
The No. 1 overall prospect in the Class of 2014, Fournette’s resume thickened when he put on a Tigers uniform.
In his two-year college career, he cracked the All-SEC Freshman Team in 2014, earned All-SEC First Team in 2015 and was also a Doak Walker award finalist that year.
Fournette led both the SEC and the nation in rushing last season, averaging a whopping 162.8 yards per contest. His 1,953 rushing yards and 22 trips to the end zone are both LSU single-season records. In the process, he managed 10 games with 100 or more rushing yards, which tied a school record, and set a new mark with four 200-yard performances.
Fournette is synonymous with greatness, though some realized it earlier than others.
“It was always a nightmare playing against him,” said Brother Martin coach Mark Bonis, who coached against Fournette all four of his high school seasons. “Probably his freshman year, I knew he was very special. Watching him on the field, seeing some of the things he did, we knew how good of a player he was. He was able to stop on a dime and get to that last gear so fast. He could press to the point of attack, from the left to the right side, and get it and go.
“That’s special, especially for a guy with that size. He was always big. He’s enormous now, but at a young age he was a big kid, but you saw the speed he had and how quick he was able to get to that speed. It’s pretty unbelievable.”
For others, a certain play said it all.
Edna Karr coach Brice Brown remembers watching Fournette compete in park ball, then replicate that same eye-popping ability when he reached the varsity level.
The size, the speed and the thought of his team eventually having to contain Fournette was as daunting of a challenge he Brown could recall.
“Everyone was in awe just courting him at park ball, but seeing it live and seeing him duplicate it again on the varsity level, it was easy to see then what kind of player he was going to be,” Brown said. “He had offers from LSU and Alabama as a freshman, and not too many people in the United States can say that.
“Against McDonogh 35, which had a tough defense, he ran a sweep around the left side and went 80 yards untouched. It’s a testament to his speed. How many people have running backs 230 pounds that run a 4.3 40? I remember a game against St. Thomas More, he rushed for 400 yards. We watched that film because we played him next week, and as a coaching staff we were like, ‘Wow, how are we going to stop that kid?’”
As other coaches throughout New Orleans and the state were trying to devise game plans to stop Fournette, Crutchfield was in the prime position to find ways to exploit them.
Fournette’s coach also can remember watching him dominate at the parks, but was mesmerized by the way he made a seamless transition at the high school level.
Watching Fournette prosper at LSU reminds Crutchfield of his days at St. Aug. He’s not surprised — far from it, really — just rather curious of when there will be a day when a defense can slow him down.
“On Day 1, you heard of him. Then to see him in person, everything they said about him was true,” Crutchfield said. “He improved every year. That was one of the things that amazed me — not just the things he did with the ball in his hands, but the things he did when they weren’t like pass protection, like blocking, and from an emotional standpoint, rallying the troops.
“That’s one special young man, which is why I’m not surprised what he’s doing at the next level. In high school, he was a man amongst boys. I look it at the same way in college. Figuratively, he’s a man amongst boys. He’s unbelievable. He’s a talented, gifted, blessed young man.”
As much as his coach and other area coaches knew Fournette had “prodigy” written all over him before he even moved up to high school, it hadn’t struck the running back until quite recently.
Despite multiple 200-yard efforts and emerging as a perennial record-breaking running back, the 6-foot-1, 230-pounder consumed largely by humility believes he just now turned a corner in his career.
After reviewing the film of his sophomore season at LSU, Fournette admitted there were a few highlights that caught his eye. Naturally, though, in true Fournette style, he couldn’t accept all of the credit.
“Last year, just looking back after the season, looking over at the highlights, I didn’t recognize it until after the season was over,” Fournette said in April. “But it’s not just me. It’s God’s ability and talent to do what I need to do and putting great guys around to block for me and protect me.”
Adding some flavor to the mix, when asked which highlights in particular stood out to the icon back, a grinning Fournette responded: “I don’t know. I had quite a few.”
The hero New Orleans needed
Like many that hail from the Crescent City, Fournette comes from humble beginnings. But that hasn’t stopped him from setting the bar for his future even higher at each of his stops along the way.
Fournette, a Slidell, La., native, was the nation’s top player in his class. Like many of his counterparts, he survived the wrath of Hurricane Katrina as a child and persevered in the aftermath nonetheless.
His off-the-field heroics were only heightened by his on-field triumphs, which provided many that he competed against and befriended — and even those who watched from the bleachers — a future to strive for.
“He respected all of his opponents, he’s always going to be a humble guy and he motivated everyone in the city to be great,” said Fulton. “I try to be great because he took this recruiting thing to another level. He was the No. 1 player, coming out of New Orleans, and you don’t see that. He gave us the motivation to get there with him.”
“I just looked up to him playing running back,” said Brother Martin’s Bruce Jordan-Swilling, the nation’s No. 8 outside linebacker in the Class of 2017. “I was watching him, wondering if I could be that guy when I get to college and possibly win the Heisman. I think he’s going to be able to do that this year.”
“He’s a great player, one of the best in the country, so he has definitely has a bright future ahead of him,” said Irv Smith, who played at Brother Martin and was part of Alabama’s 2016 signing class. “You could tell he was the No. 1 player in the country in high school, and now he’s one of the top college players. Everybody knows who Leonard Fournette is.”
Spider-Man often says that with great power comes great responsibility, and if that’s the case, then Fournette has made it a point to ensure he lives up to his superhero billing.
The decorated running back consistently makes stops in and around the New Orleans area at various high schools, even working out with this and the next generation of high school football players.
The Heisman hopeful lifts weights with current high schoolers that have idolized him the past six or so years — routinely — as Fournette proves that he hasn’t forgotten where he comes from.
“Any time he comes and work outs, the kids are in awe watching him,” Brown said. “It’s always good to know that you didn’t forget where you came from and you give back to the community. That’s something Leonard has always done, even in high school. A kid like that will have success in whatever he does. He’s going to be a mogul like LeBron James someday.”
Fournette is aware of his position and has embraced his status to a tee, which has not gone unnoticed by many in the community.
Nor is it anything new.
During his St. Aug days, Fournette would stop by Crutchfield’s office in between periods to play Madden on PlayStation with his son.
The then-high school phenom and the younger Crutchfield would compete and exchange some smack talk before Fournette continued onto class.
Little did Fournette realize the grand gesture he had done in becoming a role model for Crutchfield’s son, by simply playing video games with a child that quietly idolized him.
Today, Fournette’s reach has expanded to more than just New Orleans or even Louisiana. His burst onto the college football scene at LSU has turned into him into a poster boy for aspiring athletes and those who one day want to be in the same exact position.
Fortunately for them, Fournette’s personality fits that of a hero.
A unique blend of elite physical gifts, quiet confidence and a personable demeanor has made Fournette even easier to root for entering the 2016 season.
Simply put, the 21-year-old is one of a kind, and it has made his presence must-see TV.
“There’s only one Leonard Fournette out there,” said Bonis.
“He’s by far one of the best in the country, and he’s still young. If he stays, healthy, he’s going to do things that are unbelievable. You just don’t see it often. Some of the backs at the best schools in the country … he’s better than a lot of them. You look at the guys up for the Heisman, and honestly, he’s better than a lot of those guys … Looking at him, comparing him to the best backs in the country, he’s far better than those guys, and that should say everything about him.”
Sam Spiegelman covers LSU football recruiting for SECCountry.com and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter for the latest on who’s on their way to play in Tigers Stadium.