Brian Leonard is ignoring every roadside flare in his path.
His brother's college career ended prematurely because of a combined five surgeries on his knees and shoulders. Leonard himself takes on tacklers like they've just broken into his house.
|Last season, Brian Leonard helped Rutgers to a 7-5 record and the school's first bowl since 1978. (Getty Images)|
"I wanted to make history," said Leonard, a 6-foot-2, 235-pound fullback who might be the most unique player in the game.
Name a better college hitter with or without the ball in his hands. Name the last fullback to lead his team in scoring (102 points in '05). Name a fullback who can catch like Leonard (169 passes in three seasons). Name a fullback with as many career yards (2,352).
First, you have to name a fullback. The position is pretty much dead except, maybe, when the ball gets close to the goal line.
"He's a player who hasn't been in college football in quite a while," said that brother, Nate, who's now in commercial real estate in New Jersey. "I never saw John Riggins, but he's like him."
Or Mike Alstott. The comparisons are already out there. If Brian stays healthy -- always a question since Johnny Knoxville would blanche at his hurt history -- he could be better. The NFL loves his ability to run, catch and block. But, for now, Brian is too in love with Rutgers.
We're talking about a guy who blew off Penn State, Notre Dame and Syracuse four years ago for a weird, strange, odd reason. Loyalty. Rutgers was good enough to honor its commitment when Nate blew out his knee as a high school senior. So Rutgers was good enough for Brian.
"I didn't want to be part of a team that already had success," he said. "I didn't want to go to Penn State where you know you're supposed to win every game and supposed to go to a bowl game every year. I wanted to go to a school where it was (a surprise) to go to a bowl, turn that program around."
The turnaround is in progress. A 7-5 season last year marked the Scarlet Knights' first bowl since 1978. Depending on who you talk to, coach Greg Schiano barely stuck around to enjoy it after going 12-34 in his first four seasons before the breakthrough.
Leonard stuck it out with him. In the process, folks realized that he -- and Rutgers -- can play.
"I don't see it heading back down any time soon," Leonard said. "Greg is going to win a BCS bowl or a national championship bowl."
We've checked him for hallucinogens. Leonard is clean.
When you're 22 and able to defy death -- or at least serious injury -- optimism is a given.
At a young age, Nate accidentally clocked his little brother in the head with a golf club. At age 5, precocious Brian snatched the tie off Mickey Mouse at Disneyland. The large mouse chased down the small kid and got back his neckwear.
At age 10, Brian decided to slide down a ladder face first.
"I had blood coming out of my face in every spot and scars on my lip," Leonard said. "My mom said my lip was quivering but I wouldn't cry. For some reason I don't, no matter what. I never cry."
He was the whipping boy who was never whipped.
"Even my friends talk about it today," Nate said. "We would beat on him, he would start laughing."
Nate knew it was time to quit messing around with little bro' four years ago when, as a Rutgers freshman, Brian asserted himself.
"It was the first time I knew I couldn't take him anymore," Nate said. "He picked me up and threw me across the room. He was just joking around, but I knew I couldn't mess around anymore."
When things were going badly at Rutgers, Brian, 22, could have transferred or hung his head. But he looks at Nate, 25, and sees a career that was ruined by injuries and refuses to back down.
"I live through him a lot," said Nate, whose Rutgers' career was limited to two years. "My dream was obviously to go to the NFL."
Barring a catastrophe, Brian is going. He calls himself a "hybrid" back, playing in the same backfield with tailback Ray Rice. On any given carry, Leonard can choose to clock a tackler or leap over him. Try breaking that down on film.
"Against Pittsburgh, I saw guys just sitting on their heels," he said. "They weren't even ready to tackle me. You put your shoulder down."
But the flares are burning. Warning: The average shelf life of an NFL back is something like four years. Warning: Leonard's tread already is wearing thin. Rebut: A warrior pose is key.
"I've been doing yoga the last three months," said Mr. Shoulder Down said. "I recommend it. I felt faster, I love it. I'm dripping with sweat when I'm done."