In a league filled with freakish athletes and stud recruits, Leonard Fournette flashed on the radar of SEC powers as a high school freshman.
In that way, he immediately stood out in comparison to his peers in the 2014 class.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban and LSU head coach Les Miles would engage in a four-year battle over Fournette equally as intense as any of the high-profile matchups their clubs have produced on the field in recent years.
By the time Fournette began his senior year at St. Augustine High School, he was as much a part of the fabric of New Orleans as Mardi Gras, Bourbon Street and cajun cooking.
Ask anyone who saw him play in the New Orleans youth leagues and chances are they would tell you the current LSU star rusher is right where they expected him to be all along—starring in Baton Rouge as one of the nation's elite skill players.
Dig a little deeper and ask those who had a front-row seat to his journey from playground legend to the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2014 class and a theme emerges.
As good as he was on the field, perhaps his greatest trait is his character and ability to recognize his gifts and the responsibilities that came with them.
“Honestly, he always knew that whatever level he was playing on, he could sense that he was better than everybody else,” said David Johnson, who was the head coach at St. Augustine High School from 2009-11. “But even with that, he’s always been a guy that works extremely hard.”
Even his training habits were legendary.
Eddie Compass, a former New Orleans police chief, agreed to be his personal trainer after putting him through a rigorous workout designed for college and pro football players when he was in the eighth grade.
“Usually, in 15 minutes, the kids are burned out. I worked Leonard out for over an hour, and he wasn’t even breathing hard,” Compass recalls. “Then he looked at me and said, ‘You’re going to be my strength coach.’ I said, ‘I guess I am.’ That’s how we met, and the rest is history. We built up a training routine. Because as he got older, he got stronger. I had to challenge him even more.”
Johnson, who just wrapped up a four-year stint as the tight ends and running backs coach at Tulane, had a relationship with Fournette’s father—who is known as “Big Leonard” to his friends and family. That connection made him aware of the younger Fournette’s exploits as a middle schooler.
Johnson let Fournette onto his freshman team when he was in the eighth grade, in part because parents of other players were complaining to youth league officials about his size and strength in comparison to the kids in his age group.
As Johnson detailed, playing against older players didn’t faze him at all.
“His very first game playing with [the freshman team], he played defensive end, running back and nose guard,” Johnson said. “That [opposing] team called the school after the game and said we had a senior playing, and they didn’t think it was fair. But I had to let the principal know that it wasn’t a senior playing, it was Leonard.”
Word began to spread about the newest star in the Purple Knights program. In 2010, when he was still a freshman, he rushed for nearly 1,000 yards during his team’s first three games of that season.
That display was enough for him to net his first college offer.
“That’s when [LSU running backs coach] Frank Wilson came in immediately and said, ‘Listen, I’ve seen enough tape on this kid, and I’m offering him and getting in on him early,’” Johnson recalls.
Shortly after, Johnson received a visit from current Auburn assistant Dameyune Craig, who was at Florida State at the time. Craig was mainly visiting to look for junior and senior prospects.
Johnson insisted that Craig check out his star freshman. Craig responded, telling him that he didn’t need any running backs because the state of Florida was littered with talented rushers.
Johnson, who had known Craig since his days as a grad assistant at LSU, kept pressing and eventually persuaded him to take a look at Fournette’s film.
Craig’s reaction is something he said he would never forget.
“After he watched [Leonard], he called [Seminoles head coach] Jimbo Fisher and said, ‘Listen, man, we have to offer this kid. This kid is better than any running back in the state of Florida right now,’” Johnson recalls.
The attention around Fournette after his freshman year was so intense, Johnson reached out to former Oklahoma star running back Marcus Dupree—who was at one point a marquee running back recruit and the subject of ESPN’s 30 for 30 film, The Best That Never Was. Johnson's logic was rooted in finding someone who could identify with the pressures of being a once-in-a-generation type of prep phenom.
Johnson noted the two were able to connect after he left for Tulane, as James Smith of the Times-Picayune detailed.
By the time his senior year approached, Fournette was the country's consensus No. 1 prospect.
He was such a big star in the Pelican State that he was the subject of a 10-month-long documentary chronicling his senior season and his recruitment. Kenny Chenier directed the film, titled The Road to Stardom: The Leonard Fournette Story.
“I caught it right at the cusp of when [the recruiting hype] really started picking up and the intensity really magnified at that point,” Chenier said. “It was unlike anything I had ever seen. I’ve been around athletes for many years, but I’ve never seen it to that level or magnitude with him being a kid that everyone in America wanted.”
Cyril Crutchfield, who took over in 2012 as St. Augustine’s head coach when Johnson left for Tulane, arrived in time to witness Fournette’s final years on the prep level.
Crutchfield—who noted that he removed himself from giving Fournette any advice on recruiting since his son, Bradley Sylve, was and is a current player at Alabama—calls Fournette the best player he’s ever coached.
He remembers the circus that centered around his star pupil’s recruiting process.
His office was a revolving door for college coaches dropping in from around the nation. His phone was off the hook nonstop with media, coaches and friends asking questions about where Fournette was headed.
Yet, despite the atmosphere surrounding Fournette, one thing that stuck with Crutchfield the most was how Leonard attempted to use his platform to help his teammates.
“It definitely got overwhelming, but it was a good thing in that it allowed other young men on our team a chance to be recruited,” Crutchfield said. “Leonard was a big part of that. Every college program that came in, he would always introduce his teammates and share their accolades to coaches. He just wanted his teammates to get opportunities too. That speaks volumes to the type of character that young man has.”
Despite having offers from top programs around the country, two SEC West powers quickly established themselves as the primary players in his recruitment.
“I think he listened to all [schools], but I basically believe it was always going to come down to LSU and Alabama,” Crutchfield said.
Aside from being two powerhouse programs that featured bruising running backs, there was another critical factor that helped those two programs separate themselves from the pack.
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Both Wilson and Alabama running backs coach Burton Burns were St. Augustine grads.
“You had Frank, who was a St. Aug guy right there in Louisiana, so he was easily accessible to drop in,” Crutchfield explained. “Frank has his nephew who is at the school. Then you have Burton, who is a St. Aug guy. His sister-in-law and daughter works at the school. With all of those dynamics going on, and so many people there connected to one of those two guys, it was mind-boggling that [Leonard] was able to handle all of that.”
Fournette took official visits to both schools. After his senior season ended, that’s when the hype machine kicked into overdrive.
For example, Fournette changed his cellphone number without telling his head coach—which led to an interesting turn of events as both of them were preparing to head to the Under Armour All-America Game in Orlando, Florida.
Fournette texted Crutchfield to let him know he was waiting for him at the New Orleans airport, but the coach never responded since he didn’t recognize the number.
After they arrived in Florida for the event, Fournette asked a confused Crutchfield why he never responded.
“[Fournette] laughed and said, ‘I had to change my number. Everyone was getting on my nerves,’ Crutchfield chuckled. “At that point, I was like, ‘Let’s go ahead and get this decision out of the way and get it over with.’”
After that exchange, Fournette decided to make his commitment during the all-star game.
Still, the coach and others close to him had no idea of which school he would choose. As Chenier noted, Fournette and his family kept everything about their thought process internal.
Fournette spoke on his recruitment just days prior to this year’s showdown between the two SEC West rivals and shed light on how his recruitment played out, as LSU Tiger TV detailed.
“Everybody had the same [pitch]. They wanted me to come to their school,” Fournette explained. “But, at the end of the day, it was up to me. I felt home here at LSU. Nothing was wrong with ‘Bama. I just wanted to be different. Everybody kept going to Alabama, ‘Bama, ‘Bama. Why not be different and create your own legacy. That’s what I decided to do.”
He also confirmed what many close to him suspected during his recruitment. It was always a two-horse race, with both programs offering him as a prep freshman.
“[Alabama] came at me heavy. I knew throughout my whole [senior] year of high school, it was going to be out of those two: LSU and Alabama. I just chose LSU,” Fournette said.
In the end, he selected the Tigers with one common factor being cited among those who were closest to him.
“I think Leonard realized the importance he had in the community, especially after the hurricane when Louisiana had gone through so much,” Compass said. “I think he really realized how much of a boost it would be for the whole community if he stayed local and how much it meant to the people in the state.
"If he would’ve went somewhere else, I think the whole community, they would have supported him, but I think they really would’ve felt that loss. His energy is contagious, and I think he really energized the community when he stayed home.”
Sanjay Kirpalani is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand and all recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.