Going into the 2017 NFL Draft, Leonard Fournette felt like one of the few sure things. People thought it was going to be a class heavy with big defensive stars like Myles Garrett from Texas A&M and Fournette’s LSU teammate Jamal Adams weighing down the front end of the draft. But Fournette was expected to be the first offensive guy picked, because, well, he’s been The Guy since he was a kid. Watch any highlights from high school in New Orleans, where he scored touchdowns for St. Augustine on his way to becoming the Number One recruit in the country in 2014. They say that defense wins games, but a guy like Fournette makes you want to watch them. He runs the 40 in 4.51 seconds. He’s six feet tall, 240 pounds and he doesn’t need his O-line to play Moses parting the Red Sea so he can show off his speed. Fournette is old school. He’s got talent, he’s got the strength and speed; he’s also the last guy you want running at you.
Another thing Fournette has going for him is a great smile. He’s doing a lot of that today because, in a few hours, some team is going to give him a jersey, a team cap and a max rookie contract. His life will change forever. The lives of his two kids, his two-year-old daughter, Lyric, and his infant son that he calls Four, the fourth Leonard in the lineage of Leonard Fournettes, will be set up. He’s smiling because this is the biggest day of his life. People are comparing him to Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson, and he keeps saying that he just wants to be himself. He’s smiling because there are cameras on him wherever he goes, but not for a second does he seem nervous. Maybe it’s the confidence that comes with being The Guy for so long. He’s poised. People ask him how he’s feeling, and he must say “I just want to get it over with” at least ten times when I’m around him. When I ask him what he wants to come away with today, he looks over at his mother, Lory, and says, “I just want to see my family happy.”
Fournette has his people all around him: his parents, his agent Ari Nissim, his longtime friend Corey Scott, and his barber since the age of 12, Frank Benoit, who’s decked out in a brown Stussy hat and white T-shirt. Benoit shaves the prospect’s head – “balding me up,” as Fournette puts it – and trims his beard as about 10 people, a mix of friends and strangers, watch on, cameras rolling and clicking.
Culturally speaking, we think we know about what goes on during Draft day thanks to movies like Jerry Maguire. The setting up, the wheeling and dealing, the sitting around in hotel rooms and the under-appreciated talent roaming around hoping to get signed. But then there’s also the moving. The pace is frantic. From one hotel to the next, Fournette gives interviews with the Met-RX logo behind him, a company he’s already signed a deal with. He’s decked out in Under Armour because, you guessed it. We run up flights of stairs, from one elevator that delivers us to another, through alleys and lobbies. And I’m out of breath after going up several flights of stairs that the future NFL player sprints up. I pause for a second. And while I do, a guy with credentials clipped to a lanyard around his neck passes me and laughs. “You need to train for this day,” he says as he pops into a hotel room. I collect myself, start looking for my party just as another guy in flip flops and a towel around his waist sprints past me, somebody – his agent, I assume – chases after him barking a room number at him. I can’t believe how fast that guy can run through a hotel in sandals. That is impressive.
In the lobby of the hotel, a guy projected to go in the later rounds gives an on-camera interview to a football blog with a rinky-dink setup in the middle of floor, while one of the bigger names get prepped for a live SportsCenter chat. Grabbing a drink of water, I find myself standing next to Ron Jaworski, a Rust Belt legend if ever there was one, from a steel town outside of Buffalo, to Youngstown State in Ohio all the way to Philadelphia to play for the Eagles. A few moments later, we’re both waiting for the elevator. “This is going to be great,” Jaws says with a smile before the elevator opens and a group of fans in hometown green freak the hell out.
What I find out throughout the day is that the running only intensifies the lower in the draft you’re projected to go. One agent lays out a scenario that sounds like a scene from a Wall Street trading floor. Nothing is certain in the draft besides the top team knowing they’re getting the first pick. Writers can do all the mock drafts they want, but even in Fournette’s case, just because he’s proven himself to be a beast on a field and a guy with a good head on his shoulders off of it, he could still go to any team at any time. It’s that uncertainty that makes people run around the draft. You run because you hope it will benefit you in the end. Sports are all about talent, sure, but you still need to sell yourself. There are 253 slots to be filled over seven rounds. You might have more athletic talent than 99.7 percent of the population, but you need to give Denver or Carolina a reason to think they need to draft you beyond just being some guy they can stick on the practice squad. There isn’t so much a sense of desperation in the air, but there is an odd energy that you’re moving around too much to get a chance to put your finger on.
Fournette’s head is shined up and his beard is sculpted perfectly as he leads us to the garment bag on the bed. He will probably own a number of suits in his lifetime, but this one is the suit he will be drafted in. Gospel music floats in from the next room where his mother is getting ready as he slowly pulls a Zegna suit from the garment bag. “Ain’t no baby blue,” he jokes. “That’s men blue.”
I head downstairs to the bar. It’s a sea of Eagles fans in green. A guy in a Jacksonville Jaguars jersey is nursing a beer, peeling off the label, acting like he has orders to not just kill his bottle of beer, but make it look so bad that its mother wouldn’t recognize it at the funeral. I watch him for a few seconds until a guy on the television says “Leonard Fournette.” He once again says that Fournette is the player of the draft, The Guy. A lot of good players, but the team that picks Fournette is getting the best the class has to offer.
I look at the beer bottle killer’s face, and he looks satisfied with what the guy has to say. Most mock drafts have the Jaguars picking Fournette. Somewhere behind me I hear another fan say, “I wish we’d get that guy.”
When I get back to his hotel room, Fournette is in his suit. It fits him perfectly. He looks like he’s going to go in and take over a company. He’s talking to somebody on the phone and he’s got that same intense focus he’s had everywhere he’s gone today. No matter what he’s doing, no matter where we are throughout the entire day, Fournette has that kind of look in his eye. When he has his back turned to us during his phone conversation with his old running back coach from his college days, I can still see his eyes in the reflection of the window. He’s focused on this conversation, but it’s just something on the way to the goal line. The coach is offering him last-second advice, telling him how proud he is of his student, and Fournette is listening. But you know he’s looking towards that goal line.
We walk down some more stairs to another elevator. We’re squeezed in with a couple of Eagles fans and a guy in a Vikings jersey. Fournette and his agent took the elevator before us, also squeezing into a sea of green, where I overheard one guy say, “Holy shit.”
We meet back up in the lobby, and it’s time for the walk. Suddenly, I’m part of Fournette’s official entourage as we walk through a tight hallway to the side exit of a hotel where we’re greeted by hundreds of fans. There’s a split-second of silence as Fournette hits outside, then, like a shot somebody says, “That’s Leonard Fournette,” and the fans erupt. “Go to the Pats” one guy calls out. “Fuck the Pats,” another responds as the crowd laughs together. Fournette waves as he gets on the bus that takes him and other future picks to the Draft. He turns around before he disappears onto it for good, flashes that smile and gets on.
As it turns out, he really was one of the few sure things in the 2017 NFL Draft. While the Cleveland Browns didn’t shock anybody by taking Myles Garrett with the first pick, leading everybody to believe that everything would go according to plan and defense would dominate the top 10 picks, with Fournette being the first offensive guy to go, that changed with the second pick. That’s when the Chicago Bears traded one spot to move up and grab Mitchell Trubisky, a mostly untested 22-year-old quarterback from the University of North Carolina. It shocked the hell out of nearly everybody, especially Bears fans, who between grumbling and rewteeting stuff he posted in 2011 like “I love to kiss tittiess” (which he later deleted), started to wonder why they just didn’t go for a running back like Fournette if they wanted to power up the offense and not beef up the defense like originally planned.
When it was time for the Jacksonville Jaguars to make their pick, Fournette went where everybody figured he’d end up. Jacksonville, the team that’s been around for over 20 years, hasn’t been to the playoffs in 10 and can’t count a Super Bowl trip or win in franchise history. Jacksonville: possibly the fifth or sixth most popular football team in Florida. Jacksonville: not really a huge market or the place you think of when you think of legendary players or teams.
None of that seems to matter to Fournette as he strolls up to the podium in that “men blue” suit. He’s been The Guy before, he’ll do it again. Doesn’t matter if it’s in Louisiana or Florida. The Jacksonville fans sure seem to feel good about it. You can sort of gauge how a draft sits with fans right away. There’s sometimes a split-second pause as they try and figure if they should cheer or boo, but with Fournette, it’s instant. It feels like they might have something to cheer about again. This may be the start of better days. Who knows? Maybe the team will build a winner around this fourth pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.