NYTimes: Where Big Talent Comes in a Small Package

You must check out this article at the New York Times
Published: September 19, 2009




TONY, Wis. — To find where Jim Leonhard stands tallest, drive east from Minneapolis on the country road Route 8. Enter Packers country, past fields of corn and oats, past the “Population 105” signpost.

Near the Tony Depot, in the center of this speck of a town in northwest Wisconsin, stop at the billboard that makes Leonhard blush, painted with his likeness and adorned with his college accomplishments. The one that says “Walk-on to All-American.”

Here, Leonhard is not an overachieving 5-foot-8 Jets safety. Here, Leonhard is a catalyst for change, a reason to remember, a source of inspiration.

“It’s like a cult following,” said his mother, Debbie Leonhard.

In his parents’ living room, next to trophies and pictures and scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings, four men sat in a circle last month. Each grew up in the area and still lives here. Each has coached, or watched, local high school sports for more than 30 years.

Don Leonhard (Jim’s father), Corky Van Doorn, Darrell Gago and Carol Heath used reverential tones to reel off at least two dozen stories about their town’s most famous athlete.

“He’s the best football player I’ve ever seen,” said Van Doorn, who coached against Flambeau High School, where Leonhard played. “He’s the best basketball player I’ve ever seen. And he’s far, far and away the best baseball player I’ve ever seen.”

Leonhard dominated in three sports while growing up in Tony, where his parents nicknamed him Jumpin’ Jimmy, and where as a child he refused to leave the gym until he hit 100 3-point baskets.

His exploits for Flambeau are legendary. The time Leonhard gained more than 500 total yards in a game. Gago, the football coach, swears no one put a hand on him. The time the offense never took the field in the first half because Leonhard ran every kickoff and punt for a touchdown.

Van Doorn remembered the time Leonhard leaped from behind a 6-4 center on the basketball court, his tiny paw of a hand snaring a rebound. Don Leonhard, Flambeau’s basketball coach, remembered the night his son drained 10 3-pointers in one half.

But the Leonhards have always been a baseball family, and some still believe Jim chose the wrong sport. He hit home runs that cleared the fence by a hundred feet. He struck out 19 of 21 batters in one game. He chose football only because the doubters said he should not.

“He heard that more from football than anywhere else,” Don Leonhard said. “That he couldn’t play, or wouldn’t last, because of his size.”

The turning point came before his senior year of high school, at the University of Wisconsin football camp. Leonhard ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash, prompting Barry Alvarez, then the Badgers’ coach, to ask him to run again. After Leonhard ran another 4.4, he said, “I knew that I belonged at that level.”

Leonhard entered Wisconsin as a preferred walk-on. Alvarez called these players his erasers for recruiting mistakes, and a former walk-on served as a captain for each of his three Rose Bowl teams.

Alvarez said Leonhard never complained. Not when he led the nation with 11 interceptions and ranked second in the Big Ten in punt returns as a sophomore. Not when he broke his wrists before starting in a bowl game. Not when booster clubs made him the most requested Badger. Not even when an opposing coach sized him up in an elevator and said, “Our water boy is bigger than you.”

This pattern continued in the N.F.L., where Leonhard made Buffalo’s roster as an undrafted free agent and started last season for the Baltimore Ravens, who played in the American Football Conference championship game, before Coach Rex Ryan lured him to the Jets.

People ask Alvarez all the time to explain Leonhard’s rise.

“He looked like an altar boy,” Alvarez said. “Behaved like one, too. But on the field, wow, he was something else.”

In Tony, everyone took notice. His jerseys and pictures are displayed all over town. At Mickey’s, the sports bar where a steak costs $5 and the sporty burger comes with heaping helpings of grilled onions, mushrooms and cheese, Leonhard’s jersey hangs on the wall. High school memorabilia and the billboard assure that no one forgets.

Tony started as a logging town. Leonhard’s relatives worked for the Hein lumber mill after settling here more than 100 years ago.

Eight Leonhard families once lived on Leonhard Lane, a quaint stretch of mostly gravel road that now leads to Don and Debbie Leonhard’s house. It is the kind of place where Don teases visitors who lock their car doors.

Farming eventually replaced logging as the dominant industry. Dick Leonhard, Jim’s grandfather, once raised 50 dairy cows. As a boy, Leonhard baled hay and swept barns and shoveled manure.

“It’s one of those hard-working, prototypical blue-collar towns,” he said. “It’s that typical small town that you always hear about.”

But Tony had never seen anyone like Jim, the middle child of Don and Debbie Leonhard’s three sons. He played with toughness handed down from his mother, who grew up with 10 siblings, mostly brothers, and who once coached while pregnant. He played like the son of two coaches, a point guard like all the Leonhard boys.

Athleticism rendered his size irrelevant. Leonhard first dunked as a high school freshman, and he won two dunk contests against his Wisconsin teammates, once defeating a player a foot taller.

“That Jimmy Leonhard is something else,” Gago said. “I used to tell people I was from northern Wisconsin. Now, I just say Tony, and they know exactly what I’m talking about. ‘That’s where the Leonhard kid is from.’ ”

The athletes at Flambeau changed the school’s culture, forcing coaches to add off-season conditioning programs and to enter more tournaments. This led to four recent state championships in girls basketball and better athletes in all sports.

Ted Alberson, who runs the Depot convenience store and coaches girls basketball, said that athletic experience, led by Leonhard’s class, changed the town.

“It was unifying,” he said. “A winning team in a small town is probably as good as it gets. And when one of those guys makes it, everybody does.”

Leonhard has never changed. They love that about him here. Neighbors call his parents continually and fans travel hours to seek autographs. Others stop at Tony Lumber and Supply, where Don Leonhard works, to ask about his son.

This summer, Leonhard asked his parents why people cared so much.

“Around here, that’s what people have,” Debbie said she told him.

The small guy from the small town now plays in the nation’s biggest market. Teammates say he looks 18, even at 26.

People here laugh at all the jokes and watch Jets games on satellite television. Leonhard remains their proudest export.

“No wonder he goes back there,” his teammate Bart Scott said. “That’s the one place where that little dude is huge.”

Thank you Greg for a great article on Jim!

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