Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 4. Below are some personal choices for that honor by SI writers.
11/28/2006 04:59:00 PM
My Sportsman: Brian Leonard
Rutgers RB Brian Leonard returned for his senior year and gave up the spotlight for the good of the team.
By Peter King
Last year, my Sportsman pick was Tom Brady, the three-time Super Bowl winner, and he went on to win the award. This year my pick is Brian Leonard, the second-best running back at Rutgers. I don't like my chances, quite frankly, to go two for two.
I choose the 6-foot-2, 235-pound Leonard because he has many of the same character traits as Brady. Honor. Stick-to-itiveness. Grace under pressure. Leadership. Team guy. And he gets my vote because he knows the meaning of money in life. Kids coming out of college today -- I have had one daughter graduate and another soon to be -- are bombarded with so many images of wealth, from Google billionaires to smart kids making a living at poker to Paris Hilton making a living doing God-knows-what.
Sometimes, the message of why you go to college is forgotten: It's to prepare you for the rest of your life, and to find something you're passionate about. It should not be a race with your friends to see who can buy the first BMW.
Leonard had a chance to declare for the draft last NFL Draft last April, and was told he'd be a second- or third-round pick. "The NFL's good, money's good, but I never had money growing up," said Leonard last month.
He decided to come back for the college experience and the fun of playing a fifth college season. In the process, he devalued his pro prospects, barely touching the ball for games at a time. In 2005, he totaled 1,308 yards from scrimmage, with 17 touchdowns.
With one game and a bowl left this year, Leonard has this miniscule yards-from-scrimmage numbers: 658, with four touchdowns. Now, he might be a fourth- or fifth-round pick. He's a big back and great blocker, but not much of a runner. So the kid who grew up with no money lost several hundred thousand dollars by coming back to a history-less college football program.
After Rutgers upset Louisville in front of a packed home stadium on Nov. 9, I asked Leonard if he had any regrets about potentially missing out on big money.
"My mom's an accountant," Leonard said, in the middle of a locker room full of joy. "My dad's a cable guy. They don't care that they weren't rich. They're the two happiest people on the planet. Money doesn't buy happiness. People thought I was nuts for staying here instead of going to the NFL, but no money can buy this feeling I have right now. None. This is the happiest day of my life."
If you live in this world, you worry that people like Brady -- who took $6 million a year less than Peyton Manning in a 2004 contract to allow the Patriots to sign more players in free-agency -- and Leonard don't exist anymore. Luckily, they do. Lucky for Rutgers, too.
"You could not have a better leader and a better team player than Brian Leonard," coach Greg Schiano said. "Guys like this are pretty rare in sports today."
Rare? Pretty close to nonexistent. I realize it's silly to pump up a guy for Sportsman averaging 58 yards a game for Rutgers. But what I love about this award is that it's often an iconoclastic one.
Remember the Sportsman choice in 1987? "Athletes Who Care." Great concept. Try this one this year for Brian Leonard: "Athlete To Be Emulated."
how about someone that actually makes a real difference off the field. I believe NO ONE in College football, or sports for that matter (not including Warrick Dunn) has contributed more than Ray Ray McElrathbey, to take in and adopt his younger brother and juggle his schedule as a student, a parent, and as a football player, Brian Leonard has NOTHING on Ray Ray. Mr.McElrathbey should be the sportsman of the year.
I found it interesting that the story posted just below Mr. King's article was one on Terrell Owens criticizing Bill Parcels for firing his place-kicker. Talk about two opposites ... one, a young man who epitomizes teamwork, and another who doesn't even know what the word means, nor cares to.
It is a great story. I can't believe that everyone is forgetting Paul Thompson from Oklahoma. He went to reciever last year because he wanted to be on the field, then amidst a scandal that saw the starting QB kicked off along with a lineman, he happily moved back to quarterback knowing that he won't play there at the next level. I take nothing away from Brian Leonard, his sacrafice is encouraging, but Paul Thompson embodies what "team" means. He has led his team to a 10-2 (really 11-1)record. That is my vote.
No. Not a chance. Being a good white running back on a cinderella team does not mean you deserve to win Sportsman of the year, especially in a year when you have a guy like Ronnie Turiaf coming off the scare he had, or a player like Johnson at Boise State playing with a COLLAPSED LUNG. Sorry Pete, but you are wrong.
I can't lie when I read the name I thought who is that?!?! After reading the story I wish him nothing but the best. The Patriots have shown that you can win without a superstar team but rather a team team and I sure hope someone will value this kid and give him the shot he deserves (maybe the Broncos!) Either way with an attitude like that, NFL or no NFL, I am sure he will do great things in life whether the media notices or not. Way to bring the spotlight to a deserving kid!
I have no problem with your pick. Brian Leonard and his story shows us how sports should be played and life in general should be lived. Hopefully, an NFL team will look past the stats and draft him for the person he is...
But I don't see how his draft stock will fall that much. It is not like he forgot how to run. Ray Rice just took some of the spot light away from him. If anything he silenced any doubters that questioned his blocking ability. He will still be drafted on day one come April. Guaranteed. (Probably by the Pats, who love character guys)
While I feel Leonards on field prodcutivity doesn't warrant him for Sportsman of the year, I found his story to be very inspiring. As a young man myself, I know how easy it is to get caught up in the haste...........from starting a career, to relationships, to getting your feet under you. Sometimes you forget to enjoy and appreciate the moment. Leonards story reminded me to appreciate all the wonderful things I have, and to take a step back from the madness and enjoy the ride. Thanks.
No one who doesn't follow Rutgers can truly understand what Brian's mere presence means to our team and to the family that is the long time core fans of Rutgers Football.
He is the hero of the parents as well as our children. I swell with pride when my 4 yr. old runs around the house with a football under his arm pretending to be #23.
Our BCS Bowl victory will be Brian's ultimate triumph as that was his goal for coming back. That happiness will be tempered only by the fact that it will be the last time Brian is in a Rutgers uniform. If there is honor at Rutgers, and there is, it's the last time any football player at Rutgers will wear #23.
Thank You Peter for your pick. He deserves it. And thank you Brian Leonard... for everything.
The greatest Brian Leonard image I will have engrained in my mind is that of him conducting the Rutgers band with a sword in one hand and a game ball in the other, leading 45,000 people in the singing of "On the Banks of the Old Raritan". Simply classic.
Great article Peter! Only one disagreement however. You state that Leonard is'nt much of a runner and I disagree. He is one of the best running fullbacks ever. Obviously everyone knows about the patented Leonard leap, well if you have seen the sheer athleticism he possesses and his running ability when he gets in open space, you would not state that he isn't much of a runner.
In fact, Mel Kiper before this season started ranked Leonard the 4th best running back, not fullback, running back in the upcoming draft. He can run.
Thank you for acknowledging what we Rutgers fans have known for a long time now. Brian Leonard is a treasure. It's not always about numbers. If I was an NFL owner, I'd draft Brian 1st overall. They do not get any better than Brian Leonard.
It is a great choice for Sportsman of the year. Here's a kid whose priorities are a little more admirable than just a money-grubber. The good news is that he will still be drafted, probably higher than his stats deserve due to the warm-and-fuzzy the scouts will feel. (Especially in comparison to the high-talent/high-risk guys like a Chris Henry) And he will play for somewhere around the league minimum salary, which is still an awful lot more than most university graduates make. Even if Brian only plays the length of the average NFL career, he'll still be well set for life financially. As sacrifices go, it's not the hardest one I've heard of.
Great story, very true...right down to the comparisons with Brady. However, I think whenever you mention that Brady took less money so that Pats could sign more players it should be mentioned that in return they failed to sign Givens and Branch, his top 2 recievers, and that they let Vinaterri and McGinnest walk this year.
I loved what Brady did and why he did it, but the way the Patriots have taken advantage of him for it makes it look like taking the money might be the only way to get treated fairly.
I am 100% behind you, Mr. King. While many of your colleagues seem to miss the point of sportsMAN of the year, you could not be any more correct. Mr. Leonard, at roughly the same age as fellow nominee LeBron James, has already done much more to exemplify his leadership skills and maturity then has James, despite the fact that an NBA superstar has many more opportunities to do so than a college fullback.
To quote an earlier post, "the award is about character, not yards per game." Well-thought out pick.
No offense, but how is Leonard an example of morality for choosing Rutgers over the NFL? Is being poor more moral than being rich? Is some charity currently receiving the funds that would otherwise be allocated to Leonard's salary? Sorry, but I fail to see how Leonard playing football for free makes him a better dude than if he was playing professionally.
Heatwarming story, but would Peter be writing about Rutgers if he was a sportwriter who lived in Idaho? Montclair to Piscataway nj is 27.8 mi. This is a regular kid who did nothing special. He went back to school, was part of a big game and had a nice quote. Next thing Peter will be suggesting Thomas Tapeh of the Eagles for NFL MVP for surviving a civil war in Liberia and coming back from Hip surgery.
Great story but Peter said [He's a big back and great blocker, but not much of a runner????] Peter, did you catch the Illinois game last year when he leapt over and cleared a defenisve back? Impressive enough but the run after was more impressive, the way he out-ran another defensive back who had the angle on him...and still scored without being touched? This Leonard kid can turn on the jets like few others.
Great story. Brian Leonard makes me very proud to be a Rutgers alum, not only because of what he's meant to the football program, but due to his exceedingly high character. I still think he will be drafted in the 2nd or 3rd round, hopefully by the Giants. Given their current state it sure seems like they could use some more character and selflessness on that team
thought I had a novel idea in nominating Ray Ray or Brian Leonard, and was glad to see someone else beat me to the punch.
The pro athletes get enough praise and press; these two guys are the absolute epitome of sportsmen; love of the game, the team greater than the player, and total family guys.
I don't envy your job of picking the winner, and it's probably already done. While no one would argue about Agassi getting picked, these two champs would make the best pair since Bradshaw and Stargell.
Brian Leonard didn't do anything unheard of last year when he bypassed the NFL to play one more season, but he did do something uncommon. Last year Rutger's was as big news as anyone, and he had a great season, the smart decision (at the time) seemed to be leave the team (which was graduating a few linemen, a 4 year starter at QB, and had a rising sophomore that was already taking the bulk of the carries), and take his chances at the draft. He came back because he had unfinished business with the team, and the school, and wanted to be part of taking them to the next level. They have done that, and the entire state of Jersey can thank Brian for setting a great example. As far as him not being an athlete... Watch him outrun cornerbacks, run over linemen, and jump over linebackers, then blow up a block in the hole, and turn a swing pass into a 25 yard gain, then tell me he's not an athlete.
There may be players just as worthy as Mr. Leonard none, however, are worthier. Before he turned down pro money he rejected football powerhouses for a no account Rutgers program because they took his older brother when other schools ignored him after an injury. Loyalty is a two way boulevard that’s difficult to receive when you haven’t given it to others. I suspect a tall, large, strong runner with sure hands, quickness and speed will do better than just fine in the National Football League. And, the man knows the definition of teamwork; what's a sportsman of any year without that?
First of all, I cant believe that people are coming on here attacking Peter King's choice of Sportsmen of the Year. Maybe there are other people more deserving but don't there is no need to attack Brian Leonard. Brian Leonard is a great choice for this award. For all Yankee fans, please do not compare him to Derek Jeter. If Derek Jeter was such a great teamate, he would have come to A-Rod's side when he is getting blasted by fans and media alike.
Went to my first Rutgers game last weekend, and hearing/seeing the people around the program respond to Brian truly makes you understand how much this guy means. The fans chanted his name for the entire 4th quarter, you don't see that kind of story every year...great pick!
I have a picture of my two daughters (both college aged and neither attending Rutgers) wearing Brian's #23 jersey before our tailgate on Saturday. I get choked up every time I look at it. To say that BL is an icon doesn't even tell half the story. He's a true hero and will leave Rutgers as its most important athlete of the modern era. They should raise his number to the rafters asap. Thanks, Peter, for telling his story.
To Tom from Clemson, do you have any recommendations of any black players rather than the "white running back" that was picked. This isn't about black or white. Its about sportsman. Coming back from a medical scare does not constitute sportsmanship Tom. Get a clue. Leonard is a true team player and one of the most down to earth people I have ever read about. For us fans who have witnessed Brian Leonard for the past four years, we have something special and he will be missed. GO RU!!!!
Just read a few more comments that make me laugh. For the non-Rutgers and non-Big East fans you really haven't got a clue who Brian Leonard really is. One guy wrote "he went back to school, had a big game and had a nice quote"..big deal. Another said "I don't see how Leonard playing for free makes him a better dude than if he played professionally". You just don't get who he is.
His brother was recruited by Rutgers and never played a down because of an injury. Rutgers still honored is brother's scholorship. Out of loyalty to the people who were taking care of his brother, he signed with RU as well. He had many, many other D1 schools clawing after him? Why did he chose Rutgers? Because he is a good moral person and loyal to the people who were loyal to his family. When he came back for his last year instead of going pro. It was because the job at Rutgers was not finished yet. He didn't run for the hills like most very good players in their junior year. It wasn't about the money. That's what makes him a better person by not going pro "dude". When he was up there leading the crowd with a sword in his hand for the Rutgers alma mater, everyone in the stands wished they had a son, or brother, or friend like him. When the students were camping out for Louisville tickets, who was in the crowd? Brian Leonard!!! Why? He wanted to be in the midst of it all knowing that he helped create some of it. Its not about the money. Read up on him a little bit for those who don't know him. Does he deserve to be the sportsman of the year? I say yes, but there are others who might deserve it as well. Having a punctured lung or being a certain color does not make you a sportsman, you have to earn it. Brian Leonard has earned it.
My choice hands down would be Tony LaRussa,World Series Manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. He took a team that had plenty of late injuries...and brought the best out in either rookies or has been players to beat the formidable Mets and Tigers to go all the way. That is what winning sports is all about.
I could not agree more with the theme of your column. Brian Leonard is a FOOTBALL PLAYER in the John Madden sense of the word. Having gone to Rutgers football games since the mid-seventies with my father, I have never seen a better Rutgers football player. All the more compelling is Brian's leadership which he showcases by being the ultimate team player. I do take exception to one of your comments: Brian is a helluva runner.With all due respect to Earl Campbell, I have never seen a college runner with a nose for the endzone that can run around through, and over defenders (The Leonard Leap!)
Usually I find myself upset by your comments Mr. King. I often disagree with you, and think that, like many sportswriters, you are way to quick to bandwagon (particularly in football where greatness is determined over the long hall, not one game, not five games, not even a season. cough...tony romo...cough...
But this was a cogent, well reasoned article, showing the world how much you truly do know and appreciate about sports. As a Rutgers Football fan, I salute you, and as a Football fan in general, I applaud you. cheers.
Peter King is probably right he will have no shot to repeat and pick the winner this year, but he has captured the essence of team player & leader who has helped to show his teammates what can be achieved through hard work and an unselfish attitude that puts team above all else, great pick Peter King, I am so tired of negative journalism, your choice is a breath of fresh air!
Great pick and great story. As a North Country (Northern New York) resident since 1989 and Rutgers Alum, I am so proud that Brian has brought honor and integrity to both of my loves. My son played against him in 2000 and 2001 and I knew then that he would be great football player but I am even happier that he has become a greater person.
Peter, Keep up the good work. Good story about a kid who seems to have his priorities in order. Sportsman of the Year is so insignificant but some people care more about who wins it than the kids down the street who don't get enough to eat or the scores of people across the globe dying each day due to disease, malnourishment and civil war. Our thinking is flawed in this society. Too many of us believe it's all about outdoing each other; oneupsmanship. Everytime a young capitalist is sent out on to the playing field, they believe they're playing a zero-sum game. In order for someone to win, someone has to lose. People suffer as a result. There is more than enough to go around for everybody. We can all do better.
Brian Leonard is the "gold standard" for not only what is great about sports,but for EVERY human being.
Last years stats are no fluke.He is not just a great blocking back and receiver,he is also a great runner.Just ask any defender that has ever tried to tackle him low.He does his trademark "Leonard Leap" and hurdles right over them.Since he is such a great blocker Coach Sciano took advantage of his tremendous skills to blow open holes for Ray Rice.Brian has been slowed by a hamstring on and off this season as well but do not underestimate his running ability.
Brian is the living,breathing definition of SPORTSMANSHIP.What a truly wonderful world this would be if we ALL had even some measure of Brians attributes.
If you think for even one second that Brian Leonard doesn't contribute off the field as well then you just aren't paying attention.
Brian Leonard has given all of us a reason to believe. As a recent RU grad I have seen the best and worst of 137 years of Rutgers football. As a student at RU and as a high school teacher I have seen the joy and the difference Brian has made about football in New Jersey and about our state university. He truly is the king of the Knights! Go RU!!!!
P.S. If you read this please as an Eagles Fan Andy Reid draft Brian Leonard!!!!
Brian leonard is a one of a kind leader. He carried the Rutgers program on his back for 2 yrs before more talent arrived. He will forvever be the favorite son at Rutgers. By the way he can still run on the NFL level. We just have not needed him as much and Ray Rice is a natural star TB. Good luck Brian.