Leonard Fournette can’t quite recall the first time he signed an autograph for someone.
“It must have been when I was a freshman,” he said. “It was a little kid, maybe a couple of them.
“I do know it felt great to have someone look up to you like that. It’s the kind of thing that keeps you going.”
And going is something Fournette hasn’t stopped doing.
Since he was a freshman at St. Augustine, when he burst on the scene with four straight 200-yard rushing games and drew an official offer from LSU, Fournette has been in the spotlight.
And now, going into his senior season, that spotlight is brighter than ever. Fournette (6-feet-2, 230 pounds) is the consensus No. 1 prospect in the nation.
A combination of size, speed and pass-catching ability unmatched in a prep running back since Adrian Peterson was tearing things up in Palestine, Texas, a decade ago, Fournette is so gifted that ESPN recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill has said that Fournette would be the No. 1 linebacker prospect if he chose to play that position.
That makes the autograph Fournette will be putting on a National Letter of Intent come Feb. 5 more valuable than a stack of Johnny Manziel photos.
An anxious college football nation won’t have to wait that long to know who it will be. Fournette long ago decided to commit in January at the Under-Armour All-American game in St. Petersburg, Fla. Fournette has said he can’t foresee moving his personal D-Day up or back, although his 19th birthday is two days later.
Nor can he see changing the list of schools were he will take official visits: Florida, Alabama, Miami, Michigan and Southern California, plus LSU, which he said he feels he knows enough about already. That hasn’t stopped other schools from around the country from sending enough mail to the Fournette home in Slidell to keep the U.S. Postal Service solvent.
And it certainly hasn’t stopped friends, strangers and various other parties from either inquiring about Fournette’s intentions or advising him on what should be his obvious choice.
“It’s every day, all day,” Fournette said. “They’ll say ‘Where are you going to sign?’ or ‘You should commit to LSU,’ or ‘You should commit to Alabama.’
“I usually just thank them for being interested. It doesn’t bother me at all.”
Well, sometimes it does.
“I think he gets aggravated about the volume of calls and people wanting to talk to him,” St. Augustine coach Cyril Crutchfield said. “Leonard does a good job with it, but if he talked with every person trying to get in touch with him about his recruiting, he wouldn’t have time for anything else.”
To that end, Crutchfield and Fournette have agreed to limit his media discussions to the upcoming season, at least as much as possible.
“It’s a lot more of a distraction for me than him,” said Crutchfield, who went through a similar process two years ago when he was at South Plaquemines and his stepson, Bradley Sylve, wound up signing at Alabama. “I’m only answering my phone when it’s people I know.”
“I’m ready to quit talking about it,” he said. “I’m not thinking about anything but football from now on.
“My focus is for us to win the state championship, and if I’m going to lead my team by example, this is one way to do it.”
Until recently, Fournette has been accommodating with media requests, although careful not to say the wrong things — a tip given him by St. Augustine director of communications Erin Burns, who just happens to be the daughter of Alabama recruiting coordinator Burton Burns, himself a St. Aug grad and former coach.
“We’ve sat down and discussed a few pointers,” she said. “But I’ve only been here two years, and by the time I got to him, Leonard already was a pro at this.”
Aside from not saying and/or twittering anything off-the-wall, Fournette won’t do any ranking of his six finalists. When asked about Miami, which, according to recruiting services, had not been on his radar until he included the Hurricanes on his list, Fournette said, “I’ve been liking them; I just haven’t said much about it.”
Not that Fournette has become withdrawn, especially where fans are involved.
“Everywhere I go, people recognize me and want to have their picture made with me,” he said. “I don’t turn them down because you might need that person in the future, and it also means something to them.
“God gave me this ability, and I’m going to use it in the right way. I have to stay humble about it.”
That can be hard thing to do when you’re an 18-year-old whom many are projecting as a future NFL superstar.
Fournette even reveals that he’s glad St. Augustine is an all-boys school because girls are distracting enough away from the classroom.
And, Crutchfield said, Fournette is mindful of the consequences of bad choices.
“Leonard realizes that what has taken him years and years to build up to can be taken away in a matter of minutes, a matter of seconds,” he said. “But he just doesn’t make wrong decisions on or off the field.”
Fournette does strive to keep it real, though, quoting a line from Lil’ Wayne, “I’m Hollywood, but I’m also Hollyhood.”
“People are always telling me that I’m Hollywood,” Fournette said. “But I’m still out of the 7th Ward.”
The 7th Ward was where Fournette’s father, Leonard Sr., grew up. Leonard Sr. got into his share of trouble even as adult, including being shot more than once, before he chose to move his family, wife Lory, daughters Latae and Lanata, Leonard and younger brother Lanard, a junior running back at St. Aug, to the middle class security of the north shore.
Leonard and Lanard still spend much of their time with friends and relatives in New Orleans.
Not everyone one though.
Echoing the lyrics of Drake, “No New Friends,” Fournette has become more selective in whom he associates with, although his mother said, “Leonard has always had a good eye for separating the wheat from the chaff. He’s going to figure you out the first few minutes he meets you.”
So strangers looking for an easy entrée be forewarned.
“I watch who I’m around more,” Fournette said. “If you weren’t with me when I was nothing, well, why would you want to come with me now that I’m something?
“Sometimes you’ve got to cut people off because they change on you. I don’t need negative energy around me.”
But to his friends, Fontenot and teammates Fournette is the same person they’ve known since their days together in playground ball.
“I don’t see any changes in Leonard at all,” said senior cornerback Jermaine Roberts, himself a high-profile recruit who has committed to Texas. “He’s had to cut a couple of people out, but you can’t be around the wrong crowd.
“We want to be around people who want to be successful. Leonard’s always there when you need him.”
Friends are also struck by the level of Fournette’s faith. He and his family are members of Temple of Zion Church in Slidell, and Fournette often mentions that he says his prayers every night.
“It’s something my mother instilled in me,” he said. “Without God, I wouldn’t be here, so I pray to God about helping me to do the right thing every day.”
On the recruiting trail, Fournette has been quick to promote his teammates, even though with 16 seniors expected to sign on the Division I level, St. Aug players are already getting plenty of exposure.
When he and Crutchfield traveled to Los Angeles this summer for Southrn California’s camp, Fournette told the Trojans coaches that the player they really needed to look was junior wide receiver Stanley Morgan.
“Everybody looks up to Leonard as a big brother,” Morgan said. “He tells us about the places he’s been and the things that are happening for him, but he never brags about it.
“And when he’s been gone, he puts in extra work lifting and running to show this is how you get to where he is.”
LSU sophomore guard Trai Turner said he’s noticed a growing maturity in Fournette, his St. Aug teammate in 2010 and 2011.
“When he was younger, Leonard would come around kidding all the time,” Turner said. “Now, he’s a leader who knows he needs to set a good example.
“From what I’ve seen, he’s handled all of this really well.”
Another St. Aug graduate, Cincinnati Bengals running back Ben-Jarvis Green-Ellis, has served as an advisor to Fournette and marvels at his maturity as much as he does his skills.
“First of all, his parents did a great job raising him,” Green-Ellis said. “And then you look at the way Leonard handles himself now.
“His future is so bright because he works so hard at his craft. He’s the kind of kid you want nothing but good things for because he’s stayed humble about everything.”
That’s not to say that Fournette is embarrassed about the acclaim.
To him, the No. 1 ranking is an honor.
“I’ve gotten to around and see parts of the country where I’ve never been before (the Rivals camp in Chicago and the Nike camps in Eugene, Ore., among others) and meet a lot of famous people (Marcus Allen at the USC camp made a particularly strong impression),” he said. “I’ve just got to keep working hard to keep that position to maintain it and keep the team grinding toward a championship.”
If that happens, it would be St. Aug’s first since 1978 — although thanks to the LHSAA’s select/nonselect split, only 10 schools, six of them in the Catholic League, will be competing for the title.
But the Knights have other showcase games, including one against Karr, the team that knocked them out of the Class 4A playoffs last year, and a nationally televised meeting with John Curtis that will be the first between the two schools.
“I can’t wait to play that game so the rest of the country can see what St. Augustine is all about,” Fournette said.
After the season is over, Fournette will zero in on his decision, one he said ultimately will be his, although his parents and coaches certainly will be called upon for advice.
“I’m not feeling any pressure,” Fournette said. “At the end of the day, it’s my decision, and nobody else is going to tell me where I should go or what is best for me, because I’ve got to make the decision myself.
“But I know I’m very blessed to be where I am. And I’ll keep praying to God to lead me in the right way and not let me get too big-headed.”
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