For the past five years, Leonard Fournette Jr. has roused his sons at the ungodly time of 4:45 a.m. to drive them from their Slidell home to St. Augustine High School in New Orleans.
That’s where Leonard III has blossomed into the nation’s No. 1 running back prospect going into his senior year. And it’s where Lanard, a running back who’s a year behind his brother, is starting to get scholarship offers of his own.
Class at St. Aug doesn’t actually begin until 7:30. But with Leonard Jr. due for his job as a courier at Sun Electric in Harahan at 6:30, there’s little choice but to drop the boys off early.
Then, late in the afternoon, the process is repeated. Leonard Jr. always tries to finish his rounds in time to catch the end of whatever sport the boys are practicing.
And, oh, what a bonding experience it is as father and sons talk about their day and their bright futures.
Check that: Most of that time, Leonard III and Lanard sleep — both going and coming. But for Leonard Jr., it’s all good.
“I don’t care if they’re asleep or not,” he said. “I love being with my sons.”
The feeling is mutual.
“We really appreciate everything he’s done for us,” Leonard III said. “A lot of parents aren’t able to do things for their children or aren’t around. Our dad is always there for us.”
Added Lanard: “I don’t like having to get up so early, but he’s always made sure we get there and get home.”
Not that Leonard Jr. doesn’t have time for daughters Latae, 22, and Lanata, who turns 21 on Sunday. Or Lory, his wife of 22 years whom he met when they were teenagers.
But boys — well, boys are special.
“Only a boy can carry on your name,” said Leonard Jr., also the father of Tulane football signee Leonard Davis and a 7-year-old daughter from other relationships. “And a woman can’t really raise a boy to be a man. That’s just my opinion.”
The Fournette daughters, who still live at home, don’t seem to mind — or even notice — any favoritism on their father’s part.
“He’s pushed Leonard and Lanard in football, but he pushed us to stay focused in school, to not get distracted by anything so we can reach our goals and to never give up in what we do,” Lanata said. “He can talk about our brothers all the time, but he’s never treated us any differently or anything.”
Leonard Jr. also has definite ideas about what being a good father entails.
“First of all, it’s making sure that God is first in their lives,” he said. “And then it’s teaching them not to make the same mistakes you did. I did a lot of things I shouldn’t have. I don’t want them to follow those roads.”
That has double meaning where the boys are concerned.
Leonard III may be the most hotly pursued high school football player in the country. More than 100 schools have made official offers to the 6-foot-1, 225-pounder, who last year averaged almost 12 yards per carry and scored 31 touchdowns.
Lanard has offers from Alabama and Tulane and is making the rounds at elite camps, which his brother has done since he was a freshman.
Leonard Jr. and Lory are treading the thin line between being involved in the process and not being overbearing. They don’t want to put any pressure on Leonard on when, or to which school, he should commit.
Leonard III has said he would not decide which five schools he will make his official visit to until later this summer.
“Leonard needs to find his own way in this,” Leonard II said. “But we’ve told him, when a coach or somebody else comes around, they need to see us first. There are people pulling at him in a lot of different ways. We’re just trying to take some of the pressure off him.”
Leonard Jr. has always been involved in his sons’ football lives. He coached them on the playground level at Hunter’s Field and Goretti Park in New Orleans — even though the family relocated to Slidell in 2003 to escape the violence of the Seventh Ward, where Leonard Jr. and Lory grew up and still have relatives.
“We left, but we never left,” Leonard Jr. said. “New Orleans is still our home, but there was too much bad stuff going on there.”
The discipline instilled at St. Aug — not football, he added — was the reason he wanted his sons to make the 35-mile commute back to New Orleans.
It was at Goretti where Leonard Jr. first realized that Leonard III, bigger and faster than the other 11-year-olds, could be something special. But because Leonard Jr. never went past high school, continuing to coach his sons beyond the playground wasn’t possible — at least officially.
To this day, Leonard Jr. roams the St. Aug sideline during games.
“He’ll say stuff like, ‘Keep your head in the game,’ ” Leonard III said. “I don’t ever see any other fathers down there, though. He’s probably coached everybody on the team back on the playgrounds, and a lot of them who don’t have fathers at home look up to him as one.”
A two-way starter at running back and linebacker at Kennedy, Leonard Jr. started working right after high school — offshore with the Sewage and Water Board, even owning a couple of small used-car lots before landing his current gig at Sun Electric.
“I think he’s enjoying this because he never got a chance to do the same things when he was our age,” Lanard said. “We’re giving him that chance now.”
But as much as Leonard Jr. anticipates his sons accomplishing big things in college — and after that, the NFL — he sees it as a means to an end.
“I’ve had to work every day to take care of my family,” he said. “My sons are going to have a chance to make some real money by playing football, and then they can choose how they want to live and how to provide for their families.”
If the predictions for greatness come true for Leonard III, he plans to buy his parents a larger home and to make sure his mother, an administrative assistant at Heritage Manor nursing home in Slidell, “can kick her feet up and never have to work again.”
As for Leonard Jr., he’s not so sure.
“He’ll keep working,” Leonard III said. “That’s just the way he is.”