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Upstate upgrade

Posted Oct 1, 2009


Brian Leonard

Posted: 5:40 p.m.

There are only about four high schools in Section 10 that have football fields with lights. Gouverneur High School isn?t one of them.

When Nate Leonard played running back and linebacker, about 100-200 people showed up for the Saturday afternoon games. But when his kid brother Brian came along a few years later, the crowds ballooned to about 1,000 even in the daylight.

?Very few kids go Division I around there,? Nate Leonard said this week. ?And when one shows up, everybody wants to see him.?

If you want lights, you have to go to Massena or Ogdensburg, or Indian River, the larger outposts in the upper reaches of New York State sprawling between the Adirondack foothills and the Thousand Islands perched in the St. Lawrence River.

But Brian Leonard put Class C Gouverneur on the map long before he saved September for Bengaldom with a DVD 11-yard run-and-catch on fourth-and-10 with 36 seconds left during a game the Bengals needed a touchdown to survive Pittsburgh?s annual tempest.

Or, it?s more like Gouverneur put Leonard on the map. If you drive into town on its one main street, Main Street (yes, really), it is also Route 11 and there is a sign that says it is the home of Brian Leonard, complete with the helmets of Gouverneur, Rutgers and the Bengals.

The same sign is on the other way into town, Route 58. And if you miss it and it is Sunday you can go to the Four-by-Four Country Club and catch him on the TV, where about 50 to 60 people are still watching Leonard ply his trade as an NFL handyman.

Or you could try the Casablanca, the postgame football hangout where Devlin and his coaches commiserate and mingle with the community and parents.

?They like their sports up here, no question,? Nate Leonard said. ?No matter how small the town is.?

Want to know why the newest Bengals hero is as unassuming as your neighbor and just as reliable? Check the sign.

?Great place. Great place to grow up and to raise a family,? Brian Leonard said the other day. ?I love to go back and visit. It?s beautiful in the summer and the people are so nice. But there?s not much to do.?

It is nice enough that most people who grow up there stay there. Leonard?s parents did. His father works for the cable company Time Warner. His mother is an accountant for Cellu Tissue, the paper mill that is the main source of employment in a town where the other top industry, the talc mines have taken an economic beating.

But the last couple of Sundays have been uplifting.

One of Leonard's high school coaches, Sean Devlin, class of ?94 and now the head coach/offensive coordinator also grew up and stayed. There are about 6,000 people and it seemed last Sunday all of them were in Devlin?s house watching the NFL Ticket.

There was his wife. His brother-in-law and his wife. Justin Young, one of Devlin?s assistant coaches who brought his wife, was Leonard?s quarterback when they lost to Peru, 21-6, in the North Country Super Bowl in front of the biggest crowd they ever saw at St. Lawrence University. About 4,000.

?Oh yeah, we were all off our feet,? Devlin said of those last hectic seconds Leonard also caught the two-point conversion to make the final 23-20. ?I thought he could make it. I know he can outrun guys.?

While Devlin?s house exploded, the play touched off arguably the greatest celebration in the decade of games at Paul Brown Stadium and it spilled into downtown for hours later. But the one thing quarterbacks Carson and Jordan Palmer remember besides the crowd raising its arms in unison for the points was the deadpan Leonard trying to juke teammates mobbing him as he ran back upfield to line up to cover the kickoff.

Devlin had to laugh because he had seen it all before.

?He would score a touchdown for us, hand the ball to the ref, run back to the sidelines, take a drink of water, and run back out to kick the ball off,? he said. "He shows more emotion off the field than on it."

Devlin saw that a lot because Leonard set the New York State scoring record with 107 touchdowns and 696 points. Plenty of Division I scouts found the place with a graduating class of about 100 that had a big back (6-1, 230) with soft hands and hardcore speed.

?Great three-sport athlete. He was a good basketball player and I coached him in track,? Devlin said. ?He placed in the states in the 100 and 200.?

Smart enough to win the 2006 academic Heisman, the Draddy Tophy, and good enough to become what is believed to be the first player in Section 10 history to play in the NFL.

?Brian?s so humble. I think a lot of that is growing up in a small town,? Nate Leonard said. ?We always know where we come from.?

On Sunday, Nate Leonard, now a commercial realtor near the Rutgers campus, was invited to his buddy's house to watch the game. The guy happened to be a Steelers fan wearing a Ben Roethlisberger jersey. Nate Leonard wore a regular Bengals T-shirt his brother left behind on a visit.

?Don?t tell him I?ve got the shirt,? Nate Leonard said.

Devlin has had Leonard over to the school and to talk to the team and he gets a kick out of it when Leonard sinks easily back into his routine from high school, as if he never left.

?I remember on Draft Day when he got the call from the Rams," Devlin said of the second-round pick. ?He came out and said, ?I?m an NFL player now.? ?

How good of an athlete up there in the North Country, two hours north of Syracuse?

?Probably,? Devlin said, ?once in a coaching career.?

If you want to know why he just goes about his job as if he?s got a blue collar and ?Brian? scripted above his shirt pocket, read the signs.

?It?s a small town; everybody knows everybody,? Brian Leonard said. ?You can?t act like a jerk. Someone is going to find out.?

You can throw in some loyalty, too.

Nate Leonard was no slouch and the Division I recruiters showed up first to watch him play. When he ripped up his knee his senior year (ACL, MCL), it allowed Brian to get into the starting lineup as a freshman and have a 140-yard game the next week. But it also made Syracuse freeze out Nate in the recruiting process and Brian never forgave the Orange.

While Leonard followed his brother to Rutgers, the ?Cuse faithful were left to get physically sick over the backfield of Brian Leonard and Ray Rice that ended up starting in Piscataway, N.J.,  instead of the Carrier Dome.

?There?s a lot more going on down here than back home, that?s for sure,? Nate Leonard said of his Piscataway address. ?This is where a job like this is.?

Brian Leonard likes his new digs, too. On Tuesday he ventured to Hyde Park to help safety Chinedum Ndukwe raise money for his foundation at Whole Foods by signing some autographs. His place at the table was reserved with his name written on a piece of paper. Underneath the name, one of Ndukwe?s friends wrote, ?Playmaker.?

?I hope it sticks,? Leonard said.

There was a good crowd that wanted his signature and he admitted that while not many know his face, they know the name and the play.

?They ask about the little dive at the end,? Leonard said. ?Whatever it takes. I?m enjoying it. I just want to make enough plays to help us win a championship.?

The ?little dive? is a relative of ?The Leonard Leap,? a play he made famous when he stunned Louisville with it on a third-and-15 that won a huge game for Rutgers. Leonard showcased it in the preseason at the end of a long run when he hurtled over a defensive back, but Devlin thinks he was among those that saw the first one Leonard's senior year at Gouverneur.

?At home against Ogdensburg,? Devlin said. ?He leaped over the corner and I?m thinking, ?What are you doing?? because we teach our kids to stay on the ground so you don?t lose the ball. But he cleared the kid by several feet. I guess he was able to run away from guys and run over them, but he?d never tried to jump over them before.? 

Leonard leaped into Cincinnati via one of those rare transactions in the modern NFL. A straight player-for-player trade. Leonard was in first grade the last time the Bengals pulled it off with
Jim Skow to Tampa Bay for Rod Jones on Sept. 1, 1990.

With the draft a week old, management felt the roster lacked a younger, bigger, durable backup for Cedric Benson and with no one enticing on the market, director of player personnel Duke Tobin was dispatched to eye the rosters of other teams.

Word was already out with a coaching change in St. Louis that Leonard was on the outs and could be had. Tobin, as well as others in Bengals player personnel, had liked Leonard coming out of Rutgers, and the thought was that at 230 pounds he was a good enough blocker and good enough receiver to help on third down as well as spell Benson if the club needed somebody over a stretch to carry the load.

While subbing for Steven Jackson as a Rams rookie Leonard had a 100-yard game against Arizona and caught 30 balls before a rotator cuff injury limited him to two games last year.

Tobin called the Rams to see if the word was right and offered them to take a look at the roster to see what they would like in return. They chose defensive tackle Orien Harris, who played 14 games in ?08 primarily on special teams. Harris has since been traded again and cut.

Leonard would have to prove his worth to the coaches and he did with what running back Jim Anderson calls his reliability and competitiveness. Just like on fourth-and-10. The last progression underneath the zone by the last running back on the depth chart was right where he should have been at the last instant.

?We were happy with the trade; we thought he?d get more playing time and the Bengals have more talent,? Devlin said. ?It had been pretty tough in St. Louis the last couple of years.?

A good fit, as they say.

As he signed autographs and said hello Tuesday evening, Brian Leonard couldn?t ever remember meeting a Division 1 or pro athlete while growing up. Nate thinks the first two Brian met were probably guys that met him during his visit to Syracuse: Donovan McNabb and Dwight Freeney.

?If I did, I can?t remember meeting someone like that before I ever went to college,? Brian Leonard said.

Cameron Leonard, 10 years old from Hyde Park and no relation, wanted to meet him for obvious reasons. The name and the play and Brian Leonard admired his No. 40 jersey, Leonard?s number, even though it was really a Madieu Williams from back in the day.

?He told me,? Cameron said, ?it was a good jersey to have right now.?

   

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