Editor's note: This is Part 1 in a five-part series looking at some of the top prospects in the 2014 class.
NEW ORLEANS -- Leonard Fournette carries it in his eyes. He wears his heart on his sleeve and lets the weight of the world fall on his sculpted shoulders. There's a heaviness to him -- his hands, his legs that rise from the ground like the hearty roots of the live oaks and magnolia trees that shade the cracked, pitted roads here in New Orleans.
He stares straight ahead, his eyes a perfect black and white canvas. The strokes are broad and vicious: devastation, pain, death. The cuts are deep and fresh. This city has done it to him, the city he loves but cannot enjoy. To wrap his arms around it would be like welcoming suffocation. It will take his life if he lets it. For many in his family, it already has.
Two months ago, his 18-year-old cousin was shot in the chest, murdered for nothing, murdered because it's what this city does. Tears well in Fournette's eyes when he talks about it, collecting himself before pushing on. "I just wish I could hear his voice one more time," he says.
Last year, one of every 1,700 residents from the Crescent City were slain, the highest murder per capita rate in the country. Fournette is aware of the fact. There were 199 people killed in New Orleans last year, and there's a chance Fournette knew who pulled the trigger on a few of those occasions.
"All my family is killers," Fournette explained, as if it were as simple as saying the sky were blue and the grass green. "People my age are killers. They're in jail or got life."
Sitting in his living room, the constant, high-pitch beep of his parents' home-alarm system rings throughout the day every 15 seconds: four times a minute, 240 times every hour, 5,760 times a day. His spacious tan and white trim house sits in a clean, modern neighborhood on the east end of the city, several miles away from his family's former home in the Seventh Ward. Here it feels safer. The doors are locked and the neighbors keep to themselves.
But still, there's a sense of unease. School is out for the summer and yet no children play in the streets. It's too quiet. The house next door is abandoned, its windows blown out, the weeds overgrown. It's not the roughest corner of New Orleans, but that doesn't mean it's without the crime and violence that color the city's dangerous reputation.
"You have to watch the places you go. It's not really safe. They shoot up parties, so that's why I only go to parties around this area" -- Fournette said before thinking a second longer -- "Well, it's not really safe. They still shoot here.
"I was about to go to this party over here and a girl I know went and got shot in the mouth. Yeah ... it happens a lot."
The murder was a few blocks from Fournette's doorstep, the second reported homicide within a mile of his home since Jan. 1. Widen the scope and the numbers swell, the assaults too many to count. There's no hiding from it, no matter how hard Fournette may try.
There's no suppressing the memories of violence. He is just 17 years old, but Fournette has seen things that no teenager should have to witness -- brutal, unspeakable things that admittedly troubled him as a young boy.
Hurricane Katrina barreled toward the Gulf of Mexico in 2005. New Orleans came in its crosshairs and the wake of devastation that followed has stained the conscious of many of its residents, including children Fournette's age. To hear him recall the moments leading up to the hurricane, and the days after, is a testament to the value of disassociation. The words shoot out of Fournette's mouth like a spicket being opened and closed. There's almost a hollowness to his response to what he saw when his family moved to higher ground, into a hotel off Canal Street.
"Dead bodies," Fournette said, as if the description needed no qualifier, no back story. "I saw a man get shot in the head. The hotel caught on fire. Elderly people were dying. I saw a man take a dead man's watch off his wrist."
Fournette was 10 years old at the time. His grandfather died in the storm and his family was forced to move to Texas. When he returned to the Seventh Ward to see what happened to his neighborhood, he couldn't bring himself to look.
"I kept my head down. I didn't want to see it. When I was younger we used to play around when it stormed --" he said, stopping abruptly, lowering his eyes and holding that thought a moment longer. "... Life's short. When I was growing up I never expected anything like that to happen."
Cyril Crutchfield has tutored hundreds of kids with similar stories. He's been a head football coach in the area for 12 years, most recently at St. Augustine High, where Fournette has started at running back since his freshman year. Crutchfield has seen kids with talent comparable to Fournette's forsake football for drugs and violence, and battles those distractions on a daily basis.
"I've known some that have been put away 6 feet under," Crutchfield said. "[Fournette] sees that. His dad talks to him all the time. It's easy to go astray. It's hard to stay on that narrow path."
For now, the football field has been Fournette's haven, his shield from the drug game and the violence that has engulfed so many. It's been the place he's thrived and, most likely, the place that will hold the key to his future. The rising junior has more than 100 scholarship offers. He ran for more than 2,500 yards and 30 touchdowns his first year at St. Augustine and became the first-ever freshman to earn a scholarship offer from LSU. His sophomore year ended with 1,900 yards rushing and 27 touchdowns, and the line of suitors grew even longer. University of Alabama running backs coach Burton Burns, a St. Augustine alumnus, is Fournette's main recruiter. On the other side is LSU running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Frank Wilson, another St. Augustine alumnus. Scores of other coaches are hot on Fournette's trail as well.
Crutchfield, who has coached a slew of SEC players, called Fournette "a young man you see every 20 years or so."
"He's one of those rare combinations," Crutchfield explained. "He's 6-foot-1, 232 and he's a 4.3 guy. And he has that get-it-and-go. He can change directions, cut on a dime. He's very elusive. They don't realize [it] until he gets on top of him. He can run you over, run around you, or have you grasping for air as he puts the shakes on you. He's a young man that has it all."
"I think he's the top running back in the country now," Crutchfield said. "But me, I'm biased. You show me a running back that's that big, that fast, that elusive. You'd have to prove that to me time and time again."
Watch his highlight reel. Marvel at the brute strength, the pirouettes around defenders and the supreme burst once he hits the secondary. Fournette is all of those things and more. You see the determination in his runs, but that's only half the story. Sit down and talk with him, and the determination in his spirit all but knocks you over. He's got the game physically and mentally. He's seen the sorrow of a wasted opportunity and is not willing to let that happen to him. The pain around him -- the drugs, the violence, the anger -- fuels him.
"That's something that's going to catapult him into the young man he'll end up being," Crutchfield said. "It's what drives him. When you see that type of violence, environment, culture around you, you have to make your mind up that, 'OK, I'm going to be a product of this environment or I'm going to do better.' "
Fournette need look no further than his own father in making that decision. He credits his father, Leonard Fournette II, with keeping him out of trouble. The former star running back at Kennedy High in New Orleans has a checkered past of his own, a former acquaintance of Darrin Hayes, the biological father of LSU star Tyrann Mathieu who is in prison for second-degree murder.
"[Mathieu] grew up in the St. Bernard projects," Fournette said. "His father knows my father. His father's name is Cornbread. His father had life in jail, too."
Said Fournette Jr: "The streets are terrible. I just tell him to stay away from all that."
Learning from his father's mistakes, Fournette has stayed out of trouble. His focus is on football, and getting to a program where he can start right away. He'll have two more years of high school and he doesn't plan on wasting any time when college rolls around. Said Fournette, "I'm not trying to back anybody up."
But Fournette isn't selfish. There's no sense of entitlement when he says he wants to play as a freshman in college. It's a goal. Really, it's what he feels he has to do. The more he waits, the more the long, suffocating shadow of New Orleans closes in around him. The more time passes, the bleaker it gets.
"Where we grew up at, we never had the best neighborhood," Fournette said. "We've seen people get shot right in front of us. That's why when you talk to everybody, they say they've got to grind. They're trying to get their momma out the position they're in. You can't take it anymore. That's why you work out as much as you can.
"You want your momma to kick her feet up and drink -- I don't know what she drinks -- but drink something, anything good."
At that, Fournette smiles. He looks up from his feet. He's thinking about his future again, his eyes glinting in the light. He's thinking about a life somewhere else, somewhere he won't have watch his every step. He's thinking of a future he can wrap his arms around and never let go.