INDIANAPOLIS – Leonard Fournette refuses to brag about his prodigious exploits growing up in New Orleans, so
Fournette was a schoolyard legend as a child, the talk of the city by junior high, and earmarked for the NFL after rushing for more than 1,700 yards and 22 touchdowns as a freshman in high school.
As he stood on a podium at the NFL Scouting combine on Thursday afternoon, the LSU star was asked about finally getting to the level so many knew he would reach. A projected first-round pick and arguably the draft’s most talented running back, Fournette said he never took it as a given.
“It came fast, man,” Fournette said. “Not a second of a thought in my mind where I thought I would be in the NFL. Coming up from New Orleans, out the hood in Seventh Ward, it’s a dream.”
Mathieu, though, watched the Fournette phenomenon blossom early. They grew up in the same part of New Orleans -- Mathieu three years older-- and have known each other since childhood.
The Cardinals’ safety is the ultimate underdog story, becoming an NFL star despite a 5-foot-9 frame and the lack of elite measurables. Fournette is the classic prodigy, a five-star recruit who was drawing comparisons to Adrian Peterson as a teenager.
“He was bigger than me when I was in the eighth grade,” Mathieu said. “He was in sixth grade or something, and he was already a full-grown man. He couldn’t even play Pee Wee ball. Parents were always petitioning against him. I was able to play Pee Wee ball because I was always smaller. He had to play All-Star league. He couldn’t play with the regular kids. He had to play with travel football leagues.
“Once he got to high school, he was physically better than everybody else. New Orleans is a place where we have a lot of players in the NFL from that area. It’s not like he’s playing against scrubs, but he was already physically better than everybody in the eighth grade.”
There’s little chance the duo plays on the same team this season, as the Cardinals already have a star running back in
Fournette first believed he had a chance when his coach at St. Augustine High School, also named David Johnson, sat him down as a freshman or sophomore “and told me I had great ability, great talent to play this game. From there on in I took it serious.”
It became easier to believe as he watched Mathieu transform from local dynamo to a full-blown superstar at LSU, mesmerizing the country as the Honey Badger. Fournette followed his path and played for the Tigers in college, watching closely as Mathieu moved on to the NFL with the Cardinals in 2013.
“When Tyrann made it, he kind of made it a reality for everybody that’s from New Orleans to make it to the league,” Fournette said.
They think of their home city a lot, a place haunted by poverty and crime. For those without genetic gifts, it’s hard to escape. Fournette and Mathieu want to use their platform to inspire.
“Where we’re from, kids don’t have that motivation,” Fournette said last summer from a youth football camp put on by Mathieu in New Orleans. “We’re surrounded by drugs, violence each and every day. Friends are getting killed. Family members are getting killed. So you don’t have that support that you really need.”
Mathieu is determined to be that helpful voice as Fournette prepares for his professional life to begin. Mathieu sends Fournette text messages every day reminding him to hang with the right crowd and avoid the pitfalls of stardom.
Mathieu knows the downside all too well after marijuana usage got him kicked off the LSU football team.
“He’s seen the highest of the highs,” Mathieu said. “For the most part he’s kept his head on straight. He’s got a lot to look forward to. He doesn’t have any baggage, anything that will scare teams off. So I tell him to just stay humble. The world is yours.”
The world, maybe, but Mathieu is holding tight to the title of New Orleans’ football king. While gushing about Fournette’s accomplishments, he couldn’t help but add a caveat with a mischievous chuckle.
“He was not a better running back than me growing up,” Mathieu said. “And that’s a fact.”
When the claim is relayed to Fournette at the combine, he smiles but doesn’t argue. He stays humble.