Far removed from massive hype, Leonard Fournette found redemption and a trip to the Super Bowl with Bucs

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The hype was heavy for Leonard Fournette before he ever played a down in college. Already a top recruit, LSU coach Les Miles compared freshman-to-be Fournette to Michael Jordan. It’s hard to slow down that train.

Fournette had some special moments at LSU and was the fourth pick of the draft during an era in which running backs are generally being devalued. The talented Fournette was one of the rare backs who seemed worth that pick.

Nobody figured that after three seasons, he’d be out of a job after being released by the Jacksonville Jaguars.

“It was a tough time for me,” Fournette said on Tuesday. “Going into work and someone was at the gate saying coach wanted to see me. He just cut me. Wasn’t any explaining, or why, it just happened. It was a terrible feeling.”

Just before the 2020 regular season, Fournette suddenly had no idea what his NFL future held. Stardom hadn’t found him like many expected when he was coming out of LSU. He landed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and after accepting a role that was unusual for him, he ended up in Super Bowl LV.

Leonard Fournette predicted a Super Bowl in high school

Fournette was one of the rare athletes who could tweet about playing in a Super Bowl when he was still in high school and it didn’t seem outlandish.

In 2017, when the Jaguars took Fournette fourth overall, the thought of him playing in a Super Bowl four years later wasn’t crazy either. But not the way it happened.

Fournette did have some moments with the Jaguars, including two 1,000-yard seasons. His production just didn’t live up to his draft status or his hype. Off-field incidents, and a suspension for joining a fight against the Buffalo Bills, damaged the relationship between Fournette and the team.

He was openly shopped for a trade last offseason and the Jaguars didn’t find anyone to give even a modest return for the back who was once compared to Michael Jordan.

We couldn't get anything, a fifth, a sixth, anything,” then-Jaguars coach Doug Marrone said after Fournette was cut.

Fournette said it was humbling. He said he took a week off to get his mind right. He hung out with his kids, and said that helped him refocus on why he was playing football.

Fournette landed with the Buccaneers, but it wasn’t like he was going there to dominate the backfield. For a player who was a superstar since high school and supposed to be a generational NFL back, taking a backup role wasn’t easy.

“It was difficult for me,” Fournette said. “You’re coming from a team where the offense ran through you, and you come to a team where you’re part of the offense. So it’s different. I had to accept my role and just ball.”

Leonard Fournette was cut by the Jaguars at the beginning of this season, and ends it in the Super Bowl with Tampa Bay. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Leonard Fournette was cut by the Jaguars at the beginning of this season, and ends it in the Super Bowl with Tampa Bay. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Fournette gets comfortable with lesser role

Ronald Jones II was the Buccaneers starter most of the season. Fournette was contributing some, like when he put up 102 yards in his second Buccaneers game, but he was a backup. He had just 367 yards on 97 carries in the regular season. When Jones dealt with injuries and also spent time on the reserve/COVID-19 list, Fournette got a shot to start. He wasn’t the focal point of a Tom Brady-led offense, but he was doing his job.

“The biggest thing with Leonard was accepting that he wasn’t the superstar and the only guy, and wasn’t ‘The Man,’” Buccaneers running backs coach Todd McNair said. “Once he accepted that, he’s been a trooper, man.”

Fournette has played his best games for Tampa Bay in the playoffs. He has 211 rushing yards and two touchdowns in three wins this postseason. His touchdown run against Green Bay in the NFC championship game was spectacular, perhaps the greatest run of his NFL career.

Fournette is on a modest one-year, $2 million contract. It seems hard to believe but he just turned 26 years old, and should still have some years left. He’ll be an interesting free agent, whose value has perhaps been revived a bit by his play in the postseason.

Fournette has done things in football that are remarkable. He was a top-five recruit, a college star and a top-five pick of the draft. He has 1,000-yard seasons, has made millions of dollars and now a key role on a Super Bowl team. It just seems a bit disappointing because of the hype that he carried into the NFL.

But Fournette made sure to point out that his football story isn’t complete yet.

“My overall career has been OK, and it’s going to get better and better as time goes on,” Fournette said. “Mark my words”

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