It’s been a long time coming for Southern sophomore running back Lenard Tillery.
The McKinley High graduate made his collegiate debut Saturday for the Jaguars, and it was a special one: Tillery racked up 75 yards and three touchdowns on 16 carries.
Last year at this time, Tillery was a long way from A.W. Mumford Stadium, working as a waiter to make ends meet.
“At this point last year, I was working at Buffalo Wild Wings just waiting tables,” Tillery said.
Tillery came to Southern with the expectation that he would earn a scholarship.
However, because of special circumstances, the opportunity fell through, leaving Tillery with the burden of tuition upon him.
“At first, I thought I was going to have to take out loans because (former) coach (Stump) Mitchell told me they didn’t have a scholarship for me,” Tillery said. “But I really wanted to come to Southern, so I decided to count my losses and still come up here.”
Tillery impressed the coaching staff so much so during the offseason that he quickly earned a scholarship and was named the team’s starting tailback before the season began.
However, a few weeks before the Jaguars opener at Houston, Tillery suffered an injury to the lower portion of his left leg, keeping him out of action for the rest of preseason camp and Southern’s first two games.
Saturday’s debut was all the more special because of the path Tillery took to the starting job.
“I was nervous; I was excited,” Tillery said. “I was feeling all types of ways. (Running backs) coach (Elvis) Joseph came and told me to calm down and play your game.”
Playing close to home has allowed for Tillery to share his accomplishments with family and friends.
“A lot of the guys I grew up can come see me play,” he said. “A lot of guys from my high school came and saw me play Saturday.”
Tillery’s nerves showed in the beginning, but he soon found his footing.
“It was tons of fun being out there with (quarterback) Dray (Joseph),” Tillery said. “He helped me out in the first half, and after that, I found my rhythm.”
Co-offensive coordinator Chad Germany said he was pleased with Tillery’s performance.
“He brought a spark to our offense,” Germany said. “I think our guys are comfortable with him. He’s a leader for the offense. (Tillery) just being back, I think, brought some excitement to all the guys on the team.
“His attention to detail — and I think he hones in on the fundamentals — makes him the player he is.”
Dray Joseph echoed Germany’s thoughts: “He’s got a great balance of power and speed.”
Suiting up under the lights in Mumford Stadium is no longer a dream; it is a reality.
“It’s a dream come true playing for Southern,” Tillery said. “I’m still at home.”