Size? Check. Leonard Fournette is 6'1" and 225 pounds.
Speed? Check. He clocks in with a 4.35-second 40-yard dash.
Strength? Check. He squats 600 pounds, benches 315, power-cleans 300 and, just for good measure, muscles off 100 push-ups every night to “maintain strength.”
Agility? Double-check. Triple-check, if you’re the cornerback to whom he gave the Barry Sanders-like move, where the leg that he was tackling disappeared and snatched back quicker than the defender could strike, with Fournette barely breaking stride.
Or if you’re the linebacker who had the misfortune of meeting him in the hole and whose chest he chose not to crater as he barreled through. On that occasion, the linebacker was left cleatless when Fournette pulled a spin move that a man his size has no business executing and left the poor 'backer diving at a shadow.
Fournette has always been an exceptional football player. He rushed for 1,735 yards and 22 touchdowns as a high school freshman and earned comparisons to Adrian Peterson as a junior. But talent and promise are no guarantee of success. It takes a little something extra to earn a college scholarship and a lot extra to be called the best high school player in the country.
Nobody knows this better than Fournette’s father, Leonard Sr. The elder Fournette, a former star running back at New Orleans’ Kennedy High School, is all too aware of the pitfalls of being young in New Orleans.
“We saw a lot of people get in trouble growing up,” Fournette Sr. said. “I've told Leonard about those things, about how to try to stay away from the wrong people. He saw a lot of bad things, but he didn't fall into that. He was strong.”
When he was 14 years old, Fournette said he had to make a decision. Continue to hang around with the wrong crowd and always be on the fringes of trouble, or decide to walk a straighter path.
“I had to cut off a lot of people, I had to mature fast," he said. "I was still getting in trouble in ninth grade, still doing dumb stuff like sleeping in class. But as that year proceeded, I had a talk with my dad. He was like, ‘You can’t do the stuff these other ninth-graders do.’ I really had to put that in my head.”
Fournette made the state of Louisiana very happy when he pledged at the Under Armour All-America game on Jan. 2 to play for local favorite LSU. He picked Baton Rouge over a multitude of offers from the likes of USC and Alabama for reasons including, but not limited to, football.
“Academics first,” Fournette, who will major in engineering, said. “Then, it’s football. I want to be successful, not just in football but as a young man. I want to become wiser.”
In Fournette, Les Miles and Cam Cameron will get an outstanding running back who, with the departures of running backs Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue, will have a chance to start and succeed as a freshman.
All the names of the recent Louisiana high school running back greats—Marshall Faulk, Brandon Jacobs, Kevin Faulk, Matt Forte, Dalton Hilliard, Joe McKnight—come to mind. But there’s a caveat: No one possessed Fournette's complete combination of athletic gifts, the balletic feet and concrete shoulders, fire-hydrant thighs and ripped biceps, exceptional vision and sprinter’s speed.
“He has the ability to make cuts that smaller backs make,” said John Curtis High coach J.T. Curtis, who knows a little something about high school football in the New Orleans area. Curtis has led his Patriots to 26 state football championships in 45 seasons. With a career record of 530-56-6, he ranks second on the all-time victories list for high school coaches.
“We played against Brandon Jacobs a few years ago, when he was at Assumption High School,'' said Curtis, whose 2013 title team this season dropped a 29-28 decision to Fournette and St. Augustine in the regular season. “And as good as Brandon was, I don’t think he had the feet, the ability to cut back and the ability to make quick moves the way Fournette does.
"Usually, big, fast and quick don’t go together. Usually it’s little and quick, or big and strong and fast. But he’s able to combine all the things together, and he can catch the ball. I think he’s probably as complete a back as I’ve ever played against, and through the years we’ve played against some awfully good ones. He’s probably as good as I’ve ever played."
Curtis said Fournette made a cut against his team on a two-point conversion that was rare. "We had him—what we thought—bottled up. And he saw a hole to the backside of him that I have no idea how he saw it. He made the cut and he got the foot into the ground and got it to the backside and got into the end zone. That was two of the points that led to us getting beat."
In his final game—a playoff semifinal loss to district rival Rummel High—Fournette accounted for 165 total yards and three touchdowns in the Purple Knights’ 31-28 loss to the defending state champions, who went on to repeat.
“He’s the best player I’ve coached,” St. Aug coach Cyril Crutchfield said. “He’s the best player that I’ve actually been involved with in a game, whether it’s on my team, on an opposing team. And he’s the best player that I’ve ever seen in high school football. He’s the best, bar none.”
From most accounts, Fournette always has been the best. His mother, Lori, who works at East Haven Care and Rehab Center in New Orleans, said he always was the biggest and fastest in his age group, his genetic gifts garnered from Leonard Sr.’s side of the family.
“He was like, just running over everybody, at the age of five,” she said.
His first coach noticed the gifts, too. Leonard Sr. coached his son for seven years through park ball at Goretti Playground in New Orleans.
“The way he ran that ball, Leonard was a monster,” his father said. “I told him, from the time he was 10 and 11 years old, the same guys he’s playing with in park ball are the same guys he’s going to meet in high school, college and the pros. So he’s been doing the same things.”
Fournette has been the rare athlete who somehow has always remained head and shoulders above his peer group. Some peak early, others develop late, some stagnate and cease to ascend. But the pack never has caught up to Fournette.
“You have to continue to work hard,” he said. “There are going to be some kids who are good, talented like you. But what separates you is your work ethic, who wants it more and dedication toward the game.”
The younger Fournette took that advice and ran with it, transforming his body from a big 237-pound mass to a devastating 225-pound machine over the last three years.
“I think he’s separated even more,” said Crutchfield, who coached Fournette for two seasons. “He hit the national stage as a freshman and he didn’t allow people to catch up.''
Crutchfield said Fournette has excelled in the rigorous strength and conditioning program his teams go through during the spring, summer and fall.
"What I’ve seen since I’ve been here is that his body has started to transition. He always was a big-bodied kid, but what I’ve seen, as he’s continued to mature, is some of that unwanted body weight become pure muscle. He has the desire to do it all, not just on the football field but also in the weight room.”
If Fournette’s physical talents sound too good to be true, wait, because there’s more.
After being named Prep Player of the Year by the Greater New Orleans Quarterback Club on Dec. 16, Fournette turned and presented the award to a former rival, East Jefferson High quarterback Eugene Wells.
Wells’ team won the state title for the first time in 59 years and finished undefeated (15-0) for the first time in school history.
“I played against him twice, in my junior year and senior year, and as a player you could see he grew,” Fournette said. “He got better as a player and he got better as a quarterback. And he won a state championship.
“He became a leader and I just felt like he deserved this award. Even though I don’t talk to him a lot, I couldn’t be prouder of him for being a leader and for winning a state championship.”
The move surprised few who’ve known Fournette.
“Everybody gravitates to him,” Crutchfield said. “We have kids 6'5", 335 pounds, and if Leonard Fournette wants them to stand on one leg for a whole hour, there are no questions asked. He commands respect when he walks into a room. He’s one of those guys that have that combination of being a vocal leader but also a leader by example.”
Said Fournette: “My mother always tells me to say my prayers every night, ask God to keep me humble and wise, because he’s the only person who gives us that. He gave me this talent and ability, and I make sure I use it right."
If he thinks about straying from the path, he has many willing advisers. One among them, Arizona Cardinals rookie defensive back and St. Augustine alum Tyrann Mathieu, who was kicked off the LSU football team before his junior season for repeated violations of team rules, absolutely can tell him about pitfalls.
“He’s a levelheaded kid, very humble. He understands and hopefully he’ll learn from my mistakes," Mathieu said. "There are a lot of guys who set bad examples, so hopefully he’ll choose the other route.”
Mathieu chuckles as he recalls a smack-talking Fournette, then in eighth grade, telling him "I’m going to be better than you" when Honey Badger was a senior star at St. Augustine.
To be fair, Fournette did outweigh Mathieu by more than 60 pounds at the time.
I ain't wearing 5 in college I'm wearing 7 💯— LeonardFournette (@_fournette) January 1, 2014
All signs point to a bright future for Fournette, and if all goes as planned, he may finally get a chance to back up his smack talk against Mathieu on some sunny Sunday in a few years. If the above tweet holds true, NFL fans could be in for some 7-on-7 violence.
“He has the whole package,” Curtis said. “He has size, he has speed, he has vision, and he has quick feet. I think he’s got an opportunity to be an outstanding back at the next level—and if he stays healthy, at the professional level.”