He doesn’t lumber or labor or mope. No, Leonard Fournette has a spring in his step as he struts through this upper level of Topgolf. That’s what stands out first. Fournette, in blinding lime green Under Armour kicks he designed himself, down 20 pounds, with a groomed beard that slopes into a shrub of hair on his chin, is the chiseled embodiment of positivity.
He’s wearing sweatpants, but not for the reasons the rest of us do, to hide the fact that we’ve skipped a month of cardio. His fit snugly.
His pearly whites are in braces, and he’s smiling. Actually, he never stops smiling.
Fournette takes a seat inside one of the pods—a steel fan overhead blasting cool air, the pinging of golf balls synchronized with rock music—and the words cannot jump out of his mouth fast enough.
“I’m in a happy place right now,” the Jaguars running back begins.
Compared to last year? “Way, way, way, 100 percent better. 100 percent.”
Which may surprise everyone, considering the last time you saw Fournette, his career was fishtailing off a cliff. He was in pain, plodding along at 3.3 yards a clip on a bad hamstring, finishing the year with 439 yards rushing after going for 1,040 as a rookie. Overweight, because he couldn’t run. Out of control, bolting from his sideline to slug an opponent in the face in Buffalo. Immature, pouting on the sideline throughout Jacksonville’s final game. Chastised, by his own bosses publicly, with coach Doug Marrone admitting the team voided the guarantees in his contract.
Dismissed as a bust by virtually everyone, just two seasons after the Jaguars picked him fourth overall.
Most pro athletes love selling the underdog tale, love chronicling the chips on their shoulders. That’s never been Fournette, because Fournette was always preordained for greatness. Lil Wayne tweeted about him when he was 18. Then-LSU head coach Les Miles compared him to Michael Jordan (twice) before he took one collegiate snap. And once he did, there was local icon Archie Manning calling him the next Jim Brown at 21. From childhood urban legend to No. 1 recruit in the nation, his rise was meteoric.
All along, Fournette embraced his role as savior in the eyes of kids, peers and adults back in his ultraviolent 7th Ward neighborhood and all of New Orleans.
Everything had come so easy. Until 2018. Until he was miserable.
“It was really the first time—in my life, in football—I had a bad year. A down year,” he says. “I dealt with an injury. A lot was going on. I wanted to reinvent myself.”
Because he was doubted, truly, for the first time ever.
“People doubting me and counting me out,” he says. “I love that.”
It’s hard to know what to expect when you meet someone like Fournette. Maybe he’ll have an impenetrable god complex considering the world’s been telling him how great he is his whole life. Maybe he’ll have gone full recluse, sweating the high-stakes reality of this third pro season. He’s been far from introspective in national interviews past.
Instead, he’s neither. He alternately lounges back in a state of bliss and leans forward in deep self-examination.
Fournette’s quest for happiness in football has made him look inward like never before. This entire offseason has been a reawakening.
He exiled himself to Wyoming for three months and trained like his career depended on it.
He put his personal life under a microscope, cutting out all negative influences while still running toward, not away from, problems in New Orleans. He can change lives. To him, it’s a calling.
His weight dropped from 247 to 228. His mind cleared.
Don Juan Moore/Getty Images
So many nights this offseason, he laid in bed, listened to music, shut his eyes and talked to himself. I’ve got to get better, he’d think. I’ve got to sacrifice some things for me to get back to where I want to be.
“For me to get back to that happy place,” he says, “I want it working…perfectly.”
He looks like he’s reached that place. Like he’s ready to be the Leonard Fournette he was always meant to be.
The first thing Fournette did after the worst football season of his life, after Jaguars boss Tom Coughlin called him “selfish,” was place a phone call to Ben Iannacchione.
Ben was his strength coach at LSU. Ben would have answers.
Fournette told the man who helped him eviscerate SEC defenses how out of shape and unhappy he was. He needed him. Badly. Ben informed Fournette he was now the director of sports performance at Wyoming. After checking a map, about 48 hours later, Fournette called him back. OK, so Laramie was 1,500 miles from home. He knew it’d be cold. He knew he wouldn’t know a soul. He knew this was precisely what he needed.
Then his reawakening began.
This was the type of Rocky-Balboa-bear-crawling-the-mountains-of-Russia training NFL fans dream of hearing about from underperforming stars.
He lived out of a hotel, alone, right up to his two-year-old son’s birthday.
“I had to get myself together,” Fournette says, “in the right state of mind.”
Life was exquisitely simple: wake up, lift, eat, run, crash at the hotel across the street, do it all over again. For someone who’s only lived in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Jacksonville, Laramie was a culture shock. Temperatures hovered in the 20s, it snowed practically every day and there was nothing else to do.
Iannacchione sticks up for his new home. Love skiing? Hiking? This place is paradise. But Fournette isn’t into either, nor did he have time for either. He spent day after day after day with Wyoming’s college team, and a fire within was relit.
For the first time in a long time, Fournette woke up sore, sluggish and wanting to hit snooze, but he kept storming back. He again relished what he calls a “new day, new beginning” mentality. Coughlin and Marrone were harsh. Fans were harsher. But Iannacchione says Fournette was harshest on himself.
“So he went about his business to get back to being who he is,” Iannacchione says.
And that’s a player who sticks his damn foot in the ground, turns upfield and blasts through fools.
He pushed Wyoming’s players. “Just showing them, no matter how far you get, man, you still have to be able to compete,” he says. “Don’t settle for the money.” And they pushed him.
Each morning from 8-10:30, he grunted through Olympic lifts with two of Wyoming’s defensive tackles. Power cleans. Snatches. Split jerks. The three talked smack to each other the entire time, bringing Fournette back to his epic lifting competitions against Duke Riley at LSU.
All at Laramie’s 7,165-foot altitude. Far away from anyone’s expectations but his own.
Through a blend of “tempo” runs (Wednesday and Saturday), “accelerators” (Monday), change-of-direction drills (Thursday) and heavy sled work (Tuesday and Friday), Iannacchione helped Fournette shed that sophomore 20 and rekindle the burst that made him special. He’d sometimes take Fournette’s arms out of the equation at the sled by making him hold a long stick on his back. His legs once again became tree trunks.
It wasn’t easy. Many days, Fournette would FaceTime his kids, hang up, become overwhelmed with sadness and tell Iannacchione how terribly he missed Leonard IV and his 4-year-old daughter, Lyric. But all along, he conceded that this was the price to pay.
He needed to humble himself.
Needed to realize that no one cared anymore that he was one of the most-hyped prospects ever, or an LSU legend, or a top pick, or the back who in just his fifth NFL game egged on one of the hardest-hitters in the league while rolling for 181 yards in Pittsburgh—and then three months later upset those same Steelers on the road in the playoffs with a three-touchdown day.
“I think Leonard had a really good rookie year, but to be honest, I think he thought he had it figured out,” Iannacchione says. “And I would say he probably got a little complacent with his training. Which isn’t in Leonard’s nature. I’ve never seen him be complacent. But I’ve never been in a position where, at 20 years old, you have a really good rookie season and people are talking about you like you’re the next great running back and you’ve got a substantial amount of money in your bank account. He probably got a little complacent, and last year smacked him in the face a little bit.
“I know this about Leonard—that is completely out of his nature. So if I’m a Jacksonville fan, I’m happy that happened to him last year, because I think he’s going to come out this season and light the league on fire.”
Says Fournette: “S–t, I got better, man. I took time to get myself together.”
After Wyoming, he trained in Dallas with one of his college friends who ran track at LSU, one who sliced Jamal Adams’ 40 time to the 4.3s.
But this offseason wasn’t only about Fournette’s body.
Don Juan Moore/Getty Images
On March 2, Fournette posted a quote on Instagram he ran across about a homeless man who lost everything because he was constantly showering everyone else with love. He’d give and give and give until, suddenly, he was homeless. When it was time for others to return the favor, they ignored him. Fournette posted this to his legion of followers with seven “100” emojis and the caption, “I use to break my neck for people also give them my last sometimes you have to selfish……. can’t water dead plants.”
He’s been megaphoning similar messages to his 866,000 Instagram followers and 412,000 Twitter followers ever since.
Fournette doesn’t get specific on who he kicked out of his life, but he makes it clear that many men and women he had built bonds with over the years had to go.
“Your loyalty makes you want to stay there, but they’re not for you,” Fournette says. “So it’s a choice I made as a man to better myself, better my situation and better my life. Cut ’em off. A lot of people don’t see the vision, the dream, you have. They’re short-cutting you. I had to get them out of the picture. Totally.”
On cue, the Cold War Kids’ “Hang Me Up to Dry” plays on a speaker above this couch at Topgolf. Since Fournette can remember, that is what he never wanted to do to anyone back in New Orleans. Leaving anybody out to dry felt tantamount to betrayal, but he had no choice. He also knows that the crime rate in the 7th Ward is 265 percent higher than the national average and that the 7th Ward is forever a part of him. All of New Orleans is.
Fournette estimates that 50 percent of his family is in prison and 90 percent of the kids he grew up with are in prison.
Many, for life. Many, he still speaks to regularly.
He can’t turn his back on this vicious cycle. He wants to save as many lives as he possibly can.
Which begs the question: How do you cut out longtime friends when you also genuinely want to help other longtime friends? Is a balance even possible? He doesn’t hesitate. The key, he says, is being “street smart” and realizing “everyone’s not going to be for you.”
So, like a magnetic pull, after his time in Laramie and Dallas, Fournette was pulled back to New Orleans.
Where he knows he can inspire. Must inspire.
The names that should stress Fournette out hardly make him blink. He’s impossible to agitate. Kindly point out that the Jaguars could’ve drafted Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson or Jamal Adams over him, and he smiles and says he’s been playing football his whole life, so it’s simple: “There’s never pressure.”
Never pressure when so many of your childhood friends are locked away for life.
Never pressure when you’re lucky to be alive—you bet he was in the crosshairs himself.
So what sounds on the surface like another professional athlete completely distancing himself from his past is anything but. Rather than treat all of New Orleans like it’s Chernobyl, rather than ignore everything and everybody, Fournette returned home. Again. This needed to be part of his reawakening, because another key to Fournette living a happy, fulfilled life is saving other lives.
“It just gives me that feeling of, know one thing: ‘Don’t let your talent go to waste,'” Fournette says. “I’ve got people in my hood who have been doing the same thing since I was four, five years old. Sitting in the same spot, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes. The same exact spots since I was a little boy. So I go back there to get a little motivation.
“I go back there, and it wakes me up.”
All the memories rush back.
From getting kicked out of six schools as a kid because he couldn’t stop fighting—”I was just terrible!”—as Grandma reassured Mom, all along, that he was bound to be special.
To the shootouts that’d break out at parties and the wayward bullets, somehow, missing him. He talks about growing up with killers with the same calm as asking the waiter for a glass of water.
To Dad, always Dad, because Dad’s been shot 23 times himself. Fournette traces a line from his chest down to his stomach to show how many stitches Dad needed once after getting shot. Told to stay on bed rest, to stay inside, Dad somehow still managed to make his eight-year-old son’s championship game a week later. Leonard remembers looking up, seeing Dad and having the game of his life.
The two still talk every day.
“If it wasn’t for him,” he says, “I wouldn’t be where I’m at.”
To all the violence. To the senseless murders, like his 18-year-old cousin getting gunned down for no reason. His family moving to a safer neighborhood when he was 10 helped. So did having a younger brother in his shadow. But even then, Fournette learned plenty the hard way. Everyone does. That’s why he feels an inherent duty to give back.
“That’s my hood,” he says. “That’s where I’m from.”
He donated basketball hoops before, and this offseason, he funded a football park for his high school team because he can still remember shootouts breaking out where they used to practice. Right in the hood.
He’s learned the impact a five-minute phone call to a friend in prison has, so whenever Fournette returns home now, he visits whoever he can in person at Dixon Correctional Institute.
“That’s one of the craziest things to me, to have life in jail, but every time they talk to me, they’re so happy,” Fournette says. “You bring them so much motivation when the rest of their lives, they’re going to be behind bars. To me, that’s something special. And I think that’s the effect I have on a lot of people in my city.”
Fournette can’t just turn his back on all of this. Not when he knows the doomed system kids are born into.
Oh, his own dad tried. His dad would take in friends and cousins and give them the speech on avoiding the streets. But ask Fournette if it’s a matter of such education, of all kids realizing they have a choice, and he just shakes his head. Sadly, he explains, many don’t have a choice. Not without a dad around.
“They’re finding ways to help their mom,” Fournette says. “Their moms are working, so you’re pretty much raising yourself, to keep it real. Your mom’s working 9 to 5 every day and might get a second job. So you’re really raising yourself, and you’ve got nobody else, so you go outside, and the streets raised most of us.”
Something like The Wire, he nods. “Omar…Avon…” he says out loud. The renowned HBO show isn’t far off.
Talks only go so far. He needs to show everyone a better life, not just tell them about one. Which is why Fournette stays in touch with the probation officers for friends that have been released from prison. Recently, he was able to get a handful of friends travel passes and brought them to the Roc Nation offices in New York. It was their first time on a plane and first time out of New Orleans, period. “In my mind,” Fournette says, “I’m like, Guys, damn, there’s so much more to life than the hood.” This fall, he plans on calling the probation officers again to bring some to Jaguars games.
He’s gotten dozens of people jobs. Most in construction, others through sponsorships at LSU.
Many have been in jail for so long, they need to get caught up on life in general. One couldn’t believe iPhones had replaced Nextel and that electric cars were a thing.
Fournette is doing everything in his power to help, but he also knows this: He’s only one man.
“Can’t do it all,” he says. “I can’t save everyone. That’s the sad part. … I can’t take care of everyone. So I have to be smart with everything I do.”
Right when it appears all of this may be distressing Fournette, he makes it clear that he isn’t conflicted. Not at all. He’s at peace because, finally, he struck a balance on who to help and who to cut out. And No. 1 on his priority list? His kids. More than anyone, Fournette knows how crucial it is for them to have Dad in their lives. He says Lyric and Leonard IV have unearthed “a whole different motivation” inside of him.
Dad already finds himself being extra sweet around his daughter, more disciplined around his son, and it blows his mind how both imitate everything he does. Right down to sleeping exactly how he sleeps. He doesn’t take any of this lightly since his kids can forever Google anything he does. Like, you know, the time he slugged Shaq Lawson in that Bills game. The times those old New Orleans instincts kicked in.
Says Fournette: “That’s how I was brought up. That’s the first thing to kick in, you know? Your brother gets into it with somebody. You go help.”
He realizes now that public fisticuffs have consequences beyond a one-game suspension.
Fournette must be the father his kids need.
And try to save lives throughout New Orleans.
And lift these Jaguars to prominence.
And, by God, that’s a lot for a 23-year-old to handle.
So many people in so many different worlds are counting on Fournette, but again, he isn’t fretting. At all. Ask him about these burdens and he leans back, again, impervious to pressure.
“I’m good, man. I’m good,” he says. “I can handle it.”
When Fournette took off to Wyoming, his entire Jaguars team was in disarray. This was an arrogant clique of bullies that planned on pillaging anything in its path, remember? The defense didn’t shy from comparisons to the ’85 Bears, the offense mentioned Blake Bortles’ name in the same sentence as Tom Brady, and this concoction of delusion and cockiness and atrocious quarterback and injuries proved…disastrous.
A team that pushed the Patriots to the brink in the AFC Championship Game in the 2017 season and trash-talked their way into the 2018 season with very real Super Bowl dreams finished 5-11.
Looking back, Fournette says the Jaguars were “most definitely” overconfident. He’s a winner, so he expected to win. The same goes for the Jags’ official hype man, Jalen Ramsey.
“Last year humbled a lot of us,” he says. “The reason why I love Jalen so much is he reminds me so much of me. Because I hate to lose. I’ve always had that instilled in me since I was a child. Racing. A game. You want to be in first place every time.”
Phillip Heilman @phillip_heilman
Statement from: Tom Coughlin:
“I am disappointed in the behavior today from T.J. Yeldon and Leonard Fournette. They were disrespectful, selfish and their behavior was unbecoming that of a professional football player.”
Hence, the Week 17 sulking. And when the season bottomed out, when the Jaguars were exposed as frauds, common sense pointed to Fournette’s days in Jacksonville being numbered.
Then, something weird happened. By the time Fournette returned to Jacksonville, everything had changed:
The team’s psyche. When Marrone addressed everyone for the first time in the spring, nobody could believe their ears. He didn’t scold his team. He apologized. Doing so instantly mended the broken relationships.
“We were shocked. Everyone was shocked as hell,” Fournette says. “It was kind of like a relief. He was sorry with how the season went, sorry with how he handled it. Fresh start from there. A fresh start. All the negative s–t went out the window right there. …
“We respected him before that, but we gained so much more for him because usually coaches are like, ‘It’s the player’s fault. We tried everything. We tried to execute everything.’ He took ownership, and I love that about him. I think that’s why I respect him so much as a coach and as a man, too. Everybody goes through their own problems. He’s not perfect. I’m not perfect.”
The team’s quarterback. Out is Blakes Bortles, a scab on this franchise that opened and re-opened over five painful years. After 24 wins and 49 losses, the Jaguars finally moved on. In is Nick Foles, and players cannot hide their euphoria. After one preseason game, wide receiver Keelan Cole pointed to his quarterback’s locker, eyes wide, and proclaimed that the Jaguars now will be able to run and pass, adding, “You know he’s going to do his part.” Fournette praises Foles’ IQ and leadership and ability to sling it deep.
And for all the talk about Fournette’s hamstring, weight, temperament and Deontay Wilder-esque swing of a right hook, one prominent Jaguars source points to Bortles as the No. 1 reason that Fournette struggled last season. Nobody respected the pass. Fournette himself is careful not to trash his former QB. When asked if the box will loosen a bit, he chuckles—slightly—and doesn’t say anything. Frankly, nothing needs to be said. Defenses now must honor a Super Bowl MVP.
The defense. Going 5-11 helped in one regard. Hello, Josh Allen.
Dov Kleiman @NFL_DovKleiman
I don’t know if it’s the #Dolphins offensive line or not but #Jaguars rookie Josh Allen is leaving in their backfield.
The 7th overall pick out of Kentucky will scream off the edge of a defense that allowed the fourth fewest points in the league last season. And the mere presence of Foles has lifted the spirits of the team’s defensive players, too, a team source says, knowing that they won’t have to carry the team as much this year.
But even above Foles, this new Fournette is by far the biggest change in Duval County.
On one side of the locker room is Cole, who gets that a bad hamstring frustrated Fournette but admits, “It’s definitely more [about] team,” he says. “You can tell he’s here for us.”
As Cole breaks it down, Fournette is thick as a linebacker yet also one of the five fastest players at all times. He doesn’t believe there’s anyone like him, adding that Fournette runs with a sheer “aggression,” that he’ll get “any yard that he wants.”
On the other side of the room is this team’s conscience, the stoic glue that held those rowdy AFC South champs together: 12-year veteran Calais Campbell. Only one locker separates him from Fournette this year, and Fournette, he believes, has matured.
“This is year three,” Campbell says. “He’s a natural leader, a guy who people naturally gravitate toward. So we can use his voice and energy in the locker room. The biggest thing is being in the locker room creating positive energy. Not to say he wasn’t before, but he’s doing it more and more, and that’s good to have. He’s bringing a smile and energy to work. That’s contagious.
“It’s early. We still have a long season. But when he’s at the top of his game, when we can run the ball and get four, five yards a pop, we’re going to be tough to beat.”
And in an office room at Jags HQ is the offensive coordinator who challenged him.
John DeFilippo didn’t mince words upon taking over: Fournette needs to be a major part of this offense. Months later, he admits he knew this comment would go viral and, undoubtedly, get back to Fournette. To him, Fournette clearly “accepted” and “embraced” the challenge, too. Yeah, the physical attributes stand out. The vision, the burst, the fact that Fournette is so light on his feet and can jump-cut like a back half his size.
But Fournette’s pure happiness is now evident as much as anything. His sense of humor. His energy.
DeFilippo can’t answer to “recommitted” since he wasn’t around last year, but the Fournette that DeFilippo has seen has been committed, and his message hasn’t changed.
“We need to get the ball in his hands,” DeFilippo says. “He’s going to be a major part of this thing.”
Not exactly what you’ll hear in other NFL cities. The NFL Running Back has practically been on trial all offseason, with two of the best in the league, Melvin Gordon and Ezekiel Elliott, set to begin the regular season as spectators, still holding out for new contracts. Fournette is quick to note that his agent, Ari Nissim, set the market with a four-year, $57.5 million deal for Todd Gurley, and he’s quick to state the case that an elite running back is worth every penny.
Especially when you’re getting the ball 300 times per year. Especially when you’re hit every play.
The window’s small, he says, so why not pay backs what they want now?
A few other names are mentioned to him: Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, Christian McCaffrey. These are the players universally considered to be the best running backs in football, he’s told. The fantasy elites everyone’s currently obsessing over, beer in hand, draft after draft. Will Fournette be viewed on this upper echelon by season’s end?
“Most definitely,” he assures.
There’s no doubt in his mind—no doubt what’s coming in 2019. Fournette only smirks and offers a “We’ll see…” on the details, because the Chiefs come to town Sept. 8, and what an opportunity that would be to shock the world. One year removed from being one play away from the Super Bowl, Fournette believes these Jaguars are the same contenders.
His swagger’s back, and the Jaguars’ swagger is back.
“You have to have that attitude about yourself,” Fournette says, “that you can’t be messed with, you can’t be stopped.”
These are the kids he can help today, these high schoolers from around Duval County who have gathered for a chance to meet and golf with Fournette. After chatting with B/R, he pops up and heads to an adjacent room to take any questions the students may have.
Initially, it’s quiet.
“I ain’t gonna bite,” he says.
Photo by Tyler Dunne
With that, the questions flow. The more he helps, the happier Fournette appears. He relives his lowest of lows without hesitation, strikingly comfortable in his own skin.
He tells a story he says he’s never told before. The time he actually wanted to transfer out of LSU after rushing for only 18 yards on eight carries in his first game against Wisconsin. He was in tears. He couldn’t stand people calling him a bust. One chat with running backs coach Frank Wilson changed his mind.
He tells them he needed to cut friends he’s known for “20-plus years” completely out of his life.
He admits that being the No. 1 recruit in the nation was “aggravating” because he couldn’t be a kid like everyone else.
He says he couldn’t read until he was eight years old, grinding through Hooked on Phonics for an entire year. Now, he reads all the time. Without question, his No. 1 pet peeve is hearing anyone say they can’t do something. (Including Lyric saying she can’t tie her shoes.)
“There’s a lot of things people say they can’t, but they’re not willing to do,” Fournette says. “I’m challenging y’all as athletes and even as young women and young men—never use the word ‘can’t.’ Never.”
For the next hour, he’s a kid again. He introduces himself to each student, one by one. And while Fournette does take the occasional swing of a club, he cares far more about having heart-to-heart conversations with every girl and every boy he can. They all act like they already know Fournette—probably because he’s been broadcasting his life all offseason on Instagram Live. That was another big change. Sure enough, that addicting reaction game he’s always playing with Ramsey on IG makes an appearance here.
He turns his hat backwards. He’s laughing. He’s happy.
Scott Taetsch/Getty Images
Before departing, Fournette wants everyone to know one more thing. Too many players, he says, change when they get to the NFL. They become more “professional.” He never, ever wants that to happen to him because he needs to have fun playing this game. It’s too violent, too taxing.
“Like Drake said, ‘When I’m done having fun with it, I’m done with it,'” he says. “You’ve got to have fun in everything you do.”
Last year, football was not fun.
Briefly, his mind wanders.
“F–king losing,” he says. “That’s tough. It was just…it was just…excuse my language. It was just s–tty. The most s–tty feeling ever.”
And one week later, the world would understand such a sentiment a little better with the retirement of Andrew Luck.
Stricken with yet another injury, Luck walked away and reminded everyone that players aren’t necessarily happy just because they get paid millions of dollars. His retirement was a reminder that NFL players are not robots you plug into a fantasy football lineup. They, too, seek joy in life. Seek nirvana. Like anybody else.
Luck will begin his own quest now. Without football.
Upon hearing the Luck news, Fournette sent a heartfelt message to his followers on Twitter:
7⃣ Leonard Fournette @_fournette
Taking this time sending my prayers to Andrew luck man y’all don’t know how much we put in for this sport, yes it’s draining but than we love it so much at the same time…… #LoveLuck
Fournette would know, because Fournette lost his joy. Then, from Wyoming to Dallas to New Orleans to Jacksonville, he got it back.
Now, finally, he’s ready to reintroduce himself to the world.
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TylerDunne.