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How Bucs’ Leonard Fournette evolved from disgruntled to dynamic in one postseason

Tampa Bay Times logo Tampa Bay Times 1/25/2021 Joey Knight, Tampa Bay Times
a group of baseball players on a field: Bucs quarterback Tom Brady (12) and running back Leonard Fournette © 28 celebrate Brady's touchdown in the fourth quarter of Tampa Bay's 30-20 playoff win against the Sa... Bucs quarterback Tom Brady (12) and running back Leonard Fournette

As the revelry lingered inside the visitors locker room early Sunday evening at Lambeau Field, Leonard Fournette adjourned to solitude. In a deserted shower area, he phoned his folks.

The talk segued to tears. At some point in the conversation with Leonard and Lory Fournette, the Bucs tailback began weeping.

“I was crying for, like, 30 minutes,” he said.

“They understand me and they know how much I love football. When things weren’t going my way, my mom kept telling me, ‘God’s going to make a way for you.’ And that way wound up being the end of the season in the playoffs.”

A smorgasbord of personal journeys will be chronicled the next two weeks leading to Super Bowl 55 at Raymond James Stadium. Some are winding, others harrowing, even others full circle. Fournette’s was far from a straight line.

Befitting a sleek, sturdy ball carrier, it turned on a dime. In three playoff games, the former fourth overall draft selection has been rejuvenated and — to some degree — reborn.

“I’m really, really proud of Leonard and the way he’s handled it,” coach Bruce Arians said.

A backup to Ronald Jones most of the regular season, Fournette took over down the stretch when Jones was sidelined by coronavirus and quad issues and has found both his mojo and a moniker.

The 74 total yards amassed by “Playoff Lenny” in Sunday’s NFC title game were highlighted by a dazzling 20-yard scoring run in which he broke no fewer than four tackles, spun to elude a defender near the 10 and ricocheted off two defenders near the goal line.

“I just had to make a play, that’s all,” Fournette said. “God gave me these instincts, and I just used them. The (offensive) line blocked their tails off.”

He’s averaging 4.4 yards a carry in the playoffs and, while still far from consistent as a pass catcher, has 14 postseason receptions. His 313 yards from scrimmage in the playoffs is a Bucs record for a postseason, eclipsing the previous mark set by Michael Pittman (245) during the Bucs’ other Super Bowl run 18 years ago.

In Tampa Bay’s first eight games, Fournette totaled only 325.

“When you’re a superstar and you’re the focal point of an offense and you come to a team and you’re basically a role player for a while, it’s hard,” Arians said. “It’s a very hard role to accept.”

And a role completely foreign to Fournette, a Louisiana Mr. Football at the prep level and consensus All-American (in 2015) at LSU.

In three checkered seasons in Jacksonville, he managed only eight 100-yard rushing efforts and 17 touchdowns in 36 starts but did put together two 1,000-yard seasons. In 2019, he logged 83 percent of the offensive snaps (and ran for 1,152 yards).

But he reportedly drew the ire of management for his attitude and off-field behavior (including an April 2019 arrest for driving with a suspended license), and the Jaguars declined to pick up his fifth-year option following the 2019 season.

In late August of last year, he was waived. On Sept. 6, he signed a one-year deal with the Bucs. Soon thereafter, he found himself foundering, emotionally and statistically. A 12-carry, 103-yard effort against the Panthers in Week Two would be an aberration; Fournette wouldn’t approach that kind of total until the postseason.

In a Week 14 home game against the Vikings, he was a healthy scratch, and rumblings surfaced about his attitude.

“I come here, had hopes of being a starter, it didn’t work out,” Fournette said. “I had ups and downs this whole season, and with guys like (Tom) Brady, Shady (McCoy), Coach T-Mac (running backs coach Todd McNair), even Coach B.A. (Arians), we had our personal talks.”

The pivotal conversation, Fournette said, came with Arians.

“I just told him this team is special, and you’re a huge part of it,” Arians said. “‘Embrace your role, you never know when your role’s going to change.’ And then (Jones) got hurt.”

Jones was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Dec. 16, enabling Fournette to start the final three regular-season games. While his numbers were pedestrian in that span (158 total yards), he ran for three touchdowns as Tampa Bay won all three.

Then with Jones unable to go in the playoff opener in Washington, Fournette posted his best game as a Buc, running for 93 yards and a TD on 19 carries, and catching all four passes targeted to him for 39 yards.

Two weeks later, Fournette sat in a shower area, humbled by how his career had transitioned from bitter to sweet.

“I’m just thankful for my journey, this lesson, whatever the case may be,” he said.

“Hopefully whatever was out there on my name, hopefully it will change, because I’m not the a—hole that they say I was. I just love football and I love winning, that’s about it.”

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.


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