Leonard Fournette is about to be a top-10 NFL draft pick.
As the 2017 draft draws closer, the superstar running back’s stock and speculated match with the Carolina Panthers grow.
Analysts all over the country have projected him to be selected at No. 8 by Carolina in the April 27 draft. They see Fournette’s 230-pound frame, 4.5-second 40-yard dash and power-run style as the perfect complement to dual-threat franchise quarterback Cam Newton.
Head coach Ron Rivera was asked about Fournette last month at the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix, and replied: “He is a young man we most certainly want to get to know as best as possible.”
I wanted to know more about Fournette, too.
So on my way to Fournette’s LSU pro day in Baton Rouge I spent a day in New Orleans at his former high school, St. Augustine, where Fournette’s local-legend status became national knowledge. I walked the same halls he did, spoke to alumni and coaches who remember him fondly.
And I met another former St. Augustine superstar running back, who knows exactly what it took to leave New Orleans – and provided clues as to why it’s so important to Fournette to always come back.
The storm and the school
The first thing to know about Leonard Fournette is that he begins and ends with New Orleans.
More specifically, he begins and ends with St. Augustine.
It’s a preparatory school in the city’s 7th Ward, a place known for its high crime rate, especially after Hurricane Katrina. St. Aug, though, is a cornerstone of New Orleans – its oldest all-black, all-male private high school. It provides opportunities for students to succeed despite often having discouraging backgrounds. It boasts accomplished alumni such as former mayor of New Orleans Sidney Barthelemy and New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet, and a nationally known marching band.
It is also a football powerhouse. Current Arizona Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu is a St. Aug graduate, as are former Cincinnati Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and Carolina Panthers guard Trai Turner.
Based on its football pedigree alone, it seems a star like Fournette was destined to attend St. Aug. But for the child of the 7th Ward – who was just 10 when Hurricane Katrina eviscerated his neighborhood and flooded 80 percent of the city – nothing is ever certain.
After the storm, according to a Sports Illustrated story written in 2014, Fournette and his family had to live for almost a week on a highway bridge to escape the water.
“It was something as a young kid that I think that probably made me stronger than what I am today,” Fournette told Sports Illustrated. “Living on the bridge. Seeing dead people in the water. Just going to stores trying to survive, stealing food. It kind of makes you stronger than what you really were.”
After Katrina, the murder rate in New Orleans spiked to the highest in the nation. Though it was at times too dangerous to even walk down the street, Fournette still found parks where he could play ball.
His talent did not go unnoticed. Mathieu still tells stories about how parents tried to petition to ban Fournette from youth leagues because his domination was “unfair” for the other kids – and how, as a seventh-grader, Fournette steamrolled Mathieu, a senior, in a one-on-one matchup.
But St. Augustine – a school that got complaints from alumni and parents when it finally banned corporal punishment for students in 2011 – provided the discipline and structure that channeled Fournette’s talent.
“Leonard is kind of the typical New Orleans kid,” said current St. Aug football coach Al Jones, who has known Fournette nearly his whole life.
It takes more than God-given talent to make it and succeed and I think that’s what we try to teach in this building. Because some of those talented guys are out walking the street- they’re not on the field.
St. Augustine head football coach Al Jones
“Had talent, grew up in a not-so-good neighborhood. You always hear about this school called ‘St. Aug’ and you come here and it starts shaping you and molding you on the journey from being a boy to a man.
“It takes more than God-given talent to make it and succeed and I think that’s what we try to teach in this building. Because some of those talented guys are out walking the street – they’re not on the field.”
Jones believes in the programming at St. Aug. He has seen it help students thrive no matter their personal situation – including Michael Franklin, another product of the 7th Ward and a man for whom the St. Augustine way was a lifeline.
The other running back
Franklin sometimes jogs around the track at Tad Gormley Stadium, where the St. Augustine Purple Knights play football on Friday nights.
The storied field is just a few blocks from the New Orleans Youth Study Center, a juvenile facility for minors awaiting trial on serious charges.
Franklin is a mentor and facilitator at the new-age Travis Hill School inside the Youth Study Center. The school provides kids with an educational program, and strategies for staying out of trouble once they are released.
The Youth Center is small and nearly windowless, with a bare-bones courtyard in the center. The lights at Tad Gormley Stadium wink in the hazy New Orleans sunshine just over the walls, and they pull Franklin to them.
He jogs around the field where he was a St. Aug superstar running back two decades ago, and the fond memories swirl in the thick, humid air as he runs lap after lap before work.
He jogs there for his demons, too.
“I have like, 13 people up there,” Frankin, 35, laughed, removing his glasses and tapping his head.
One of those people is the man who still feels the bitterness of a football career that fizzled after college, before his NFL dreams were reached.
At St. Aug and in New Orleans, Franklin was a hero on the field while Fournette was still getting heat from parents in peewee leagues. Franklin rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each o fhis seasons as a Purple Knight, including a junior year during which he scored 25 touchdowns.
If it weren’t for St. Aug, I’d be... in jail. Or under the ground.
Former St. Augustine running back and current New Orleans community mentor Michael Franklin
St. Aug helped him get a football scholarship to San Diego State, where during the team’s first grueling summer workout he giddily ran wind sprints long after the other players had stopped from exhaustion. His coaches were concerned and drug tested him the next day.
Franklin laughed. “I told them it’s just that I can finally breathe,” he said.
Franklin rotated between a backup and a starter and was not drafted by the NFL. He bounced to the CFL before realizing football as he knew it was over.
Also in Franklin’s head is the scared kid, born in the 7th Ward as the oldest of six. He had to raise his siblings when his mother struggled to maintain a presence in their lives.
Franklin’s fourth-grade teacher, Tina Baptiste, began a savings account for him so that he could one day attend St. Aug – the school that she knew was famous for changing the circumstances of its students.
“If it weren’t for St. Aug, I’d be here,” Franklin said, motioning to the Youth Study Center. “Or in jail. Or under the ground.”
While in college, Michael Franklin decided that whether he made it to the NFL or not, his ultimate purpose was to get back in his old neighborhood to make a difference in the lives of the children there – the way Baptiste and St. Aug did for him.
That led him back to St. Augustine for a job as dean of students.
That’s where he met a 15-year-old Leonard Fournette.
The ‘it’ factor
Franklin had a routine before St. Aug games. He would pace furiously, frenetically around the Purple Knights’ locker room at Tad Gormley Stadium, staring into the eyes of each player and silently daring them to show any weakness.
His eyes locked on Fournette’s, then just barely into his prep-school career as a ninth grader.
“It was just different,” said Franklin, of what he saw in Fournette’s eyes. “That ‘it’ factor.”
He was right. At St. Augustine, Fournette thrived.
Hundreds of recruitment letters began to pile on the coaches’ desks as Fournette used his ballerina-meets-bulldozer running style to cruise past 7,500 rushing yards by the end of his senior season. He made headlines as the first ninth-grader ever to be offered a college scholarship by LSU, where he ultimately decided to continue his football career.
As the dean of students at St. Augustine for three years, Franklin was one of the voices guiding Fournette and his classmates through not just the perils of high school but the neighborhood, too.
Once, Franklin said, he caught Fournette using a cell phone when he was not supposed to. He confiscated the phone, and the two had to have a chat in Franklin’s office, where the latter went over the code of conduct for St. Aug students.
After that, Franklin said, he never had to discipline Fournette for his phone again. But what was more notable, he remembered, was that he also didn’t ever again have to scold the kids in Fournette’s friend group or his close teammates regarding their phones, either.
“He was a teenager, he did teenager things,” said Franklin. “But he was also always a leader.”
‘That’s Leonard Fournette’
After a stellar three-year career at LSU during which he was often in the Heisman Trophy conversation, Fournette declared for the draft. He signed with celebrity-studded agency RocNation. He got a sponsorship deal with Under Armour, and bought a beautiful black Mercedes Maybach.
But that Maybach could still hold the car seats for his two young children if he needed it to. And alongside his glamorous pre-draft moves, Fournette created a charitable foundation, BUGA Nation, and a scholarship program.
Like Franklin, Fournette found himself drawn back to the city to make a difference long after he left the purple-locker-lined halls of St. Aug, where community service was mandated. At LSU, he wore No. 7 to represent the 7th Ward.
He went back in February to donate a truckload of water to victims of a tornado that ripped through New Orleans, and to bring gifts to his teachers – $500 and the promise of game tickets to whatever NFL city brings him in. Jones joked that Fournette gave these items to the teachers “he gave the most trouble to.”
Fournette plans to return often to try to help uplift a community that, despite its sores, raised him to be what he is today. While sitting with Franklin, I wondered aloud why giving back to New Orleans is so important to Fournette.
“He’s a Purple Knight,” he said. “On the field, in the classroom and in the community. Those are the things that he was able to wrap all together.”
That, Franklin says, is Leonard Fournette.