In Louisiana, Fournette's legacy measured by the stories people tell
Leonard Fournette said in August that he was playing this season for his home state of Louisiana, which had been through hard times over the summer with epic flooding and civil unrest surrounding a police killing of an unarmed man in Baton Rouge.
“You never know whose life you can change,” he said at the time. “You never know who you can inspire.”
Fournette plays his last LSU home game Saturday against Florida. When he finishes his college career and moves on to the NFL, it will end a chapter in his life that dates to childhood.
You see, Fournette isn’t your typical blue chip football player. He’s half man, half legend. He’s a story to tell in a state where storytelling is a way of life.
In Louisiana, he’s Paul Bunyan. He’s John Henry.
Were those guys real? Or are they myths?
At times, people in Louisiana have had the same questions about Fournette. We in Louisiana have been hearing about this next great thing from the New Orleans playgrounds since he was a kid. Stories, so many stories.
Could he be as good as the hype? Can a player from a state so full of good players really be as dominant as they say?
He finishes his LSU career — and a lifetime as somebody who carries the banner for the state of Louisiana — in three games, unless he inexplicably decides to come back for his senior season.
Those last three games include just one in Tiger Stadium: Saturday against Florida. That’s Senior Day, and Fournette is not a senior.
But nobody in a purple and gold uniform Saturday will have been in the consciousness of LSU fans longer than Fournette, the home-grown legend. So he should be honored like a senior, right?
“Of course,” said sophomore defensive end Arden Key. “He has meant so much to this school, this program, both on and off the field. Of course they should honor him.”
It would be honoring a Louisiana legacy, as much as a departing LSU football player.
Fournette has had hype surrounding him since he was way too young to carry such a burden. It started with what you thought might have been an urban legend — you knew about it if you lived in Louisiana — about a kid so good in the New Orleans youth leagues that other players’ parents wanted him banned.
And these are the New Orleans playgrounds that routinely churn out NFL players, from Marshall Faulk to Neil Smith to countless others who have overcome the mean streets to reach NFL stardom.
Yet, Fournette’s dominance stood out even in that context. It’s like the basketball legend who dominates Rucker Park in New York City. The venue makes the legend even greater.
So the possibility of Fournette finishing that career at the Sugar Bowl, in the Big Easy where his legend was born, would be such a fitting ending to his LSU career and a big reason why LSU should have plenty of motivation to finish strong.
“To be where I’m from, with our fans there, that would be a tremendous feeling,” Fournette said.
At LSU, Fournette has rushed for 3,790 yards, fourth in school history. A big game against Florida would make him the fourth LSU back to rush for 4,000 yards in his career, a number he’s sure to reach if he stays healthy enough.
There are plenty of numbers that help tell the story, although they’re only a fraction of Fournette’s legacy.
LSU RECORDS HELD BY LEONARD FOURNETTE
|Yards per rush (min. 15 carries)
|Consecutive 100-yard games
But those are just numbers. It’s the stories — the continuation of the tales we’ve been hearing since he was a child — that are going to make him somebody people tell their grandkids about.
I remember hearing about that kid too good for youth football. Was it true? Or an urban legend.
But then he started dominating at New Orleans’ St. Augustine High and you found out that, indeed, this is that kid those stories were about. And that curiosity — is this kid as good as the stories? — made him something of a sideshow.
Nov. 16, 2012 is the day the phenomenon that was Leonard Fournette became real to me.
As a reporter for ESPN.com’s Recruiting Nation, my task that Friday night just over four years ago, was to watch the sensation everybody was talking about in a playoff game at Lafayette’s St. Thomas More High. He was the top-rated high school junior in the country.
What I witnessed was more than just a typical high school football playoff game. Fournette lived up to his end of the deal with 354 yards in a 40-14 win over a good Cougars team.
But what really impressed me were the number of people I encountered who were neither St. Aug nor STM fans, but just people who were there to see if the guy from New Orleans was all he was cracked up to be.
The stadium buzzed every time he touched the ball. In some ways, STM vs. St. Aug became a sideshow. Leonard Fournette vs. the stories you heard about him was the main attraction.
And he delivered.
Talk to people who watched Fournette as a prep star and they have stories to tell. Folks at the STM game talk about the three tacklers he carries into the end zone for the score that put the game out of reach. Others will bring up epic nights in New Orleans’ tough Catholic League.
People outsize some of the stories. But isn’t that what legends are about. What was real, what was part of the myth?
It seemed, at times, Fournette was on a mission to live up to his legend, so he got to LSU and ran with purpose..
And the stories continued.
There was the Auburn game last year, a game Ed Orgeron told Sports Illustrated was “the most dominant performance of any college player I’ve seen in my 30 years coaching. It was unbelievable.”
He rushed for 228 yards that day, but again, those were just numbers. It was about the stories. The time he bulldozed an Auburn defender on his way to a touchdown. Or the time the Auburn defender seemed to avoid trying to tackle him on his way to another score.
Than there was the Ole Miss game this year. For the history books, it was a school-record 284-yard rushing day. But for the stories told around Louisiana crawfish boils and from barstools, it was the game where he trucked the defender on the screen pass and where he broke the school record despite playing on a bad ankle.
And like any Louisiana story, there has to be a tragic element to it.
Like Alabama, the red Kryptonite to Fournette’s Superman legacy.
And the ankle. Fournette has dealt with a high ankle sprain all season. At times, some have opined that his backup, Derrius Guice, has been the better back.
But forget that.
Fournette is a legend in Louisiana in a way only people from the state will understand.
After this season, he’ll move to the NFL and, unless he somehow ends up with the New Orleans Saints, he’ll finally put down that Louisiana flag he has been carrying since his playground days. He’ll be just another one of the state’s (and LSU’s) many pro players.
But in Louisiana, his legend is already cemented. The only question now: Is there another story left to be told before he’s done in Baton Rouge?