By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Editor’s Note: This is the cover story of Tiger Rag’s 2016 Football Preview issue, available on newsstands across Baton Rouge now (tigerrag.com/extra) or available for purchase to be delivered to your mailing address (tigerrag.com/subscribe)
The sweltering heat of a mid-July Louisiana afternoon isn’t something you ever get used it. It’s not even the mid-90s temperatures, but the oppressive humidity that makes venturing outdoors feel like walking into a sauna fully clothed. Even daily downpours have offered little reprieve during what’s been a scorching summer in Baton Rouge. The air still hangs heavy with tension and tragedy.
Ethan Pocic never experienced weather like that growing up in Lemont, Ill., but he’s had four years to adjust, as best he can. During the course of LSU’s grueling summer workouts, the varsity group runs sprints together every Tuesday and Thursday morning. And athletic as the senior is for a 6-foot-7, 300-plus-pound Midwesterner, he experiences the same feeling of sweet relief when the final dash is done.
Only on this particular Tuesday, the weary contingent doesn’t make it three steps toward the cool oasis of the hydration station before a firm voice stops them in their tracks.
Nah, get back on the line. We’ve got five more sprints.
There stood Leonard Fournette. And when the Tigers’ All-American tailback and preseason-Heisman favorite speaks, his team listens. The veterans lined back up and completed the prescribed runs.
“He’s always pushing us,” Pocic smiles. “All us big guys were like ‘ugh,’ but he pushes us, and it makes us better. And we push him too. That’s what I like about this team.”
Summer workouts are largely done independent of supervision from the coaching staff. It’s an opportunity for players to set the tone and establish mantles of leadership.
But that’s not why Fournette ordered the extra sprints. His top-dog status in the locker room goes without question, cemented by a 2015 campaign that rewrote program records for rushing yards (1,953) and rushing touchdowns (22).
No, it’s because of the way last season fell apart down the stretch. The three consecutive lopsided losses that dashed both LSU’s championship aspirations and Fournette’s Heisman hopes; that nearly cost Les Miles his job.
For Fournette, it’s about making sure that history doesn’t repeat itself this fall. And as he tells it, every summer sprint, every extra set in the weight room, every detail gone over in the meeting room is paramount to making sure that happens.
“At the end of the day, I know our job is to win a national championship,” Fournette says. “I believe we’re working hard each and every day. The main focus is just staying focused. And when adversity hits, just keep pushing.”
Bringing a championship to Louisiana has been his stated goal since the highest-recruited back to come out of high school since Adrian Peterson decided to stay home. Coaches and teammates describe a man with laser-like focus on said mission.
“He doesn’t really joke around in practice,” Pocic says. “There’s always some guys that’ll say something here or there to try to get a chuckle out of him, but he just works hard in practice, and obviously it shows.”
“The guy is a machine,” adds senior cornerback Tre’Davious White. “The way he works out and the way that he goes about his business, I feel like he takes that initiative every day to be one of the best ever.”
Thing is, that’s only half of Fournette’s story. Within the Footballs Ops complex, he works like a championship-chasing cyborg. But off the field, far away from the bright lights of Tiger Stadium, he’s just a 21-year-old college student trying to be a good dad.
LIKE SO MANY of the fanatics who pack the lobby of the Wynfrey Hotel during SEC Media Days, Marcus Byner hoped to score some autographs for his young son. But unlike those who stand behind the rope and catch only a brief glimpse of their favorite coaches and players en route to the escalator, he had an in.
Byner currently works for the Hoover Police Department. He’s an Alabama native, but has been an LSU fan since Gerry DiNardo spoke at his high school’s annual “Green and White Day.” His fellow officer, Brian Hale, got assigned to work LSU’s security detail, and Hale allowed Byner to come up to the third floor with wife Tiffany and his young son, Maddox, before LSU’s turn began Thursday morning.
The purple-and-gold-clad family stood out amongst the collection of beat reporters conducting interviews with Les Miles and the trio of players. For one, fans aren’t allowed up to the third floor. Jerseys and tiger print don’t exactly blend into a proverbial sea of neutral-colored suits.
Fournette asked about the family — a black man, his wife and a 20-month-old child. They had a small LSU helmet and a pile of pictures, posters and magazine covers, each depicting Fournette, for him to sign.
A member of the security detail told him that Byner worked for the Hoover Police Department, and Fournette walked over and began signing memorabilia. He played with Maddox. A few minutes later, Les Miles came over and offered the boy a scholarship. That’d be for the class of 2037, if you’re keeping track.
“I’ve got it recorded, so we’re going to hold that to him if, hopefully, Maddox plays football,” Byner laughs. “I’m not going to pressure him, but pretty sure he’ll want to play at some point in life. I played. My brother played. We’re a football family.
“Talking to Leonard was great. He’s a super nice guy. Football is a way of life. I’m a former college athlete who played DIII football here locally, so I know how it is. Football has the power to bring everybody together.”
It hadn’t been two weeks since Alton Sterling was shot to death by Baton Rouge police. The protests and demonstrations that’d become daily occurrences in the time since had tensions within the city at a boiling point.
Meanwhile, issues that’ve plagued the city for years played out in the eye of a national media storm. Fournette himself turned some heads by tweeting out a picture of himself wearing a t-shirt depicting Sterling’s face, adding extra attention to what already promised to be the main attraction in Hoover.
Few high-profile amateur athletes speak as candidly on social issues as LSU’s Heisman hopeful. He’s long been open about the violence and poverty he saw growing up in New Orleans. He raised $101,000 for Columbia flood relief by effectively forcing the NCAA to rewrite its rules to allow him to auction off his game-worn jersey from the relocated South Carolina game last fall.
“Because I have a voice,” Fournette says, asked why he feels comfortable speaking out. “And I also feel like a change needs to occur everywhere in the world. I know what I did came from my heart. At the end of the day, I’m fine with what I did. So like I said, just keep praying for the whole world and the whole world will keep praying for a change to come.”
Three days later, Baton Rouge was again rocked by tragedy when a gunman from Missouri killed three law-enforcement officers in a planned attack that struck the city to its core. Again, Fournette shared his thoughts with the world on Twitter: “Pray harder everyday…. Our kids have to grow up in this generation.”
That way of thinking crystalized in Fournette’s mind forever on Jan. 4, 2015, as he watched from the delivery room while Lyric Jae Fournette came into the world.
Lyric was born premature and underweight, but she’s since grown into a healthy and happy 18-month-old.
From her birthday forward, Fournette says he’s driven to make the world a better place for that little girl. In the macro sense, that means speaking out and trying to use his high-profile platform to affect change as best he can. In the micro sense, that means being the best father he can be.
“Fatherhood has changed so many aspects of my life,” Fournette says. “Especially dealing with decision making. It’s helped me grow tremendously. I thank God every day for giving me the opportunity to be a father and for having one of the most beautiful young ladies in my life, Miss Lyric Jae Fournette.”
For someone as oft-interviewed as Leonard, answering questions about ‘this run’ or ‘those expectations’ gets tedious quickly. It’s not that he’s a bad interviewee, but there’s a certain matter-of-factness to his answers. As is often the case with transcendent stars who elect to let their play do the talking for them.
But bring up Lyric, and suddenly his eyes light up. She is Leonard’s world. His motivation. His drive. He’ll give you a longer answer as to why Lyric’s first birthday party was rodeo themed than a whole line of questioning about Heisman hype or championship expectations.
There’s a soft glow beyond Leonard’s scraggly beard as he explains that Lyric actually picked out his Media Days attire. He showed her three pictures, and she pointed to the dark blue suit with a light-blue bowtie. A selection after Les Miles’ own heart. Not like the red bowtie and pants Leonard wore to Hoover the year prior.[su_pullquote align=”right” class=”wide”]“Fatherhood has changed so many aspects of my life. Especially dealing with decision making. It’s helped me grow tremendously. I thank God every day for giving me the opportunity to be a father and for having one of the most beautiful young ladies in my life.” — Leonard Fournette [/su_pullquote]
Life has become an exercise in time management. Balancing football practice and workouts and meetings with school work and still finding time to spend with Lyric. Free time and going out have become luxuries Leonard can no longer afford. The grind is exhausting, but it gets easier with practice.
“You still have to make time for your kids,” Leonard says. “I’m used to the process and being tired now, so it’s no big thing for me.”
Lyric is a regular visitor to Coach Miles’ office. Like Shaquille O’Neal babysitting an infant Odell Beckham Jr., while Heather Van Norman attended track practice. Lyric has an outfit for every occasion.
Leonard jokes she’s the best-dressed baby on Instagram. “And I think she’s the most famous next to Steph Curry’s,” he adds. She’s also got a fleet of miniature cars.
A crowd forms everywhere they go. Doesn’t matter if it’s the park, the zoo or a sushi date in New Orleans. People recognize them. Sometimes they want a selfie or an autograph. Other times it’s a passing shout out.
Just not always to the Heisman hopeful.
“I think she’s more famous than me,” Leonard deadpans. “People always scream her name before my name. They always saying things like, ‘Oh, that’s Lyric!’ And then they be like, ‘Oh, hey Leonard.’ I’m used to those things by now.”
There’s times Leonard wishes he could take his daughter out to eat in relative anonymity. But for now, and as long as Lyric doesn’t mind the attention, he doesn’t, either.
“She’s so young, you know, so it doesn’t bother her,” Leonard smiles. “She’s just enjoying the moment of being a kid. That’s what I like about it.”
TOMMY MOFFITT KNOWS what his star tailback had for breakfast on any given morning. More importantly, LSU’s strength and conditioning coordinator knows if he ate the prescribed two meals before coming in for a workout. And he knows if any of his charges made the cardinal mistake of eating right before going to bed.
Fournette is weighed in before the start of every practice or workout session. Every one of his steps is monitored via a GPS system to produce an odometer reading. His maximum velocity reached is recorded and charted over time. Those are just three of the roughly 120 variables LSU’s strength staff monitors and tracks over time, Moffitt explained on an interview with ESPN 104.5’s Culotta and the Prince last fall.
And this summer, Fournette decided to make all those biometric analytics work for him.
It began during the spring, with Miles mentioning Fournette’s added bulk seemingly every time the coach spoke into a microphone. Sometimes he threw down the gauntlet directly at the feet of his Heisman hopeful. Others, Miles would more subtly throw shade.
Either way, Fournette accepted the challenge to slim down by the start of fall camp. By summer’s end, he’d cut to 226 pounds and eviscerated every conditioning test Moffitt put in front of him.
“It was hard, especially eating right,” Fournette says, parsing off credit to the work of Moffitt and his staff. “I think some people need that, you know what I mean? To stay on your back and make sure you’re making the right choices; the right decisions.
“Coach Miles kind of put that target on my back to get my weight down. I appreciate him pushing me.”
Miles let out a booming belly laugh when asked if Fournette had lost enough weight for his liking. You’d think he’d forgotten about ever bringing it up, much less repeatedly harping on it. And Miles certainly didn’t want any of the credit Fournette extended in his direction.
“He wants to be an elite back,” Miles says, “and I don’t think he trimmed up for me, necessarily. He knows he’s coming into the season, and this is the time where you have to have the speed in combination with strength and size.”
As if Fournette didn’t already possess the raw power of a runaway freight train when he broke into the open field. As if there were anybody in college football who could chase him down from behind on any of the runs where he got behind the secondary in 2015. As if he couldn’t already race stride for stride in the 40-yard dash with Donte Jackson, an NCAA-class sprinter carrying some 50-odd pounds less muscle on his slight frame.
Derrick Henry won the Heisman Trophy last season and dashed a handful of SEC records, but a legitimate case could be made that Fournette was actually the best back. The head-to-head matchup went decidedly Henry’s way in Tuscaloosa, but the press box consensus that night was that if the roles were reversed, Henry wouldn’t have been able to penetrate that vaunted Alabama front, either.
Fournette worked his summer away to be the best back in the nation. And looking around, there are more name-brand elite backs atop the college ranks in 2016 than there have been in quite some time.
Fournette has received the most preseason attention, but Christian McCaffrey is the one who actually received an invitation to New York last December. The do-it-all Stanford star shattered Barry Sanders’ Division I record for all-purpose yards with 3,864. He was a consensus All-American.
Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, another All-American, also belongs in any conversation of best amateur tailback. So too does Georgia’s Nick Chubb, assuming he makes a full recovery from the knee injury that cut his sophomore season short. Not to mention whatever breakout stars emerge once fall finally rolls around.
“I believe this is the Class of the Running Backs with all those great talents,” Fournette says. “I can’t wait for the season to start and for all those guys to go forward. I’m ready to see them play.”
Note the use of the word class. All four of the mentioned backs are juniors, making them eligible to enter the 2017 NFL Draft next spring. In general, given the inherent injury risk and shorter career span relative to other positions, prized running backs rarely stay in college for four years. It’s one of the few positions where added collegiate mileage is often cause for devaluation at the next level.
With that in mind, this “Class of the Running Backs” comes at a fascinating time where the position’s value appears to be in flux. For a few years the prevailing NFL trend has been toward devaluing backs, with backfields by committee comprised of cheap, replaceable parts taking the place of traditional workhorse backs, who require a larger allocation of carries and capital.
It wasn’t by coincidence that zero running backs were selected in the first rounds of the 2013 and 2014 drafts. Some draft analysts wondered aloud if it’d ever be commonplace for backs to warrant top picks again. If Adrian Peterson was the last of a dying breed — the franchise tailback you build an offense around.
But football is cyclical, and the NFL is a copycat league. The Rams went against the trend by selecting Todd Gurley with the 10th pick in the 2015 draft. And despite missing the start of the season while recovering from knee surgery, Gurley played like the stud he was billed to be, at times carrying an all-around lousy offense.
Then the Cowboys raised the bar again this spring, selecting Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick. Dallas is widely considered to have the league’s best offensive line, seemingly allowing them to plug in any low-budget part in and generate production. Instead, they elected to go all-in on the ground game by selection Elliott.
“Zeke is a great running back, and he did a great job representing running backs,” Fournette says. “So we just have to hold the legacy up. Todd Gurley went first. Now it’s Zeke. We’ll see what we can do.”
If Zeke and the Cowboys win big, there will be copycats who jump on the blossoming trend. That thought isn’t lost on Fournette, particularly in a year where as many as four backs could project as legitimate first-round talents.
Bringing a championship to the state of Louisiana remains his stated mission. He’ll do anything in his immense power to make it happen, but the future is always kept in the back of his mind. Frankly, it has to be.
That’s life for anyone who has a child depending on them. And there’s not an 11-man front on this earth that Fournette wouldn’t sprint, cut or truck-stick through to provide the best life possible for his baby girl.