LSU’s Leonard Fournette, celebrity daughter Lyric: How fatherhood transformed college football’s best player _lowres

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- 

HOOVER, ALABAMA – A family decked in purple and gold lingered in the third-floor atrium.

This wasn’t normal.

No fans are allowed on the third floor of the Wynfrey Hotel during Southeastern Conference media days. Most of them are confined to the first-floor lobby, where black ropes keep autograph-seekers a safe distance from players and coaches of the 14 SEC schools during this four-day event near Birmingham.

But, on Thursday, the family milled around the third-floor atrium, a few steps from a spacious suite, a holding room for players and coaches throughout the week. At 9:30 a.m. Thursday, the suite hosted a local media interview session with LSU coach Les Miles and the Tigers’ three player representatives: running back Leonard Fournette, center Ethan Pocic and defensive back Tre’Davious White.

The family – a black man, his wife and their 20-month-old son – peered from around a corner, watching reporters interview players. They carried with them a small LSU helmet and photos of Fournette – all ready for signatures from the Tigers’ Heisman Trophy hopeful.

At one point, Fournette slipped around a corner and disappeared into the atrium. He returned moments later.

“Who are those people?” he was asked.

Said Fournette: “He’s a police officer.”

For Fournette and LSU, this was not your normal media day circuit – not even close.

This was something else, something different, something expected but, still, noteworthy.

The Baton Rouge shooting of Alton Sterling, a black man, by a white police officer last week set off a chain of events that divided a nation on racial lines. A white officer shot dead a black man in Minnesota a day after the Sterling incident, and, then, a black Army veteran killed five police officers in Dallas.

Protests have swallowed Baton Rouge, leading to more than 180 arrests. Police officers in riot gear lined city streets, and protesters marched through downtown.

“I didn’t recognize what I saw,” Miles said Thursday. “I love Baton Rouge.”

“The world needs to find peace,” Pocic said.

Football questions were an afterthought for the group of LSU players and their coach. Miles spent hours Wednesday night refining a speech he delivered to reporters in the event’s main interview room.

Fournette, meanwhile, signed his first autographs Thursday in that third-floor atrium. Marcus Byner, an avid LSU fan and current member of the Hoover Police Department, was joined by wife Tiffany and son Maddox. Brian Hale, Marcus’ co-worker at the police department, was on security detail at media days and helped the Maddoxes reach the third floor.

Hale popped out his earpiece. “We’ve got to look out for each other,” he said.

“It’s trying,” Byner said. “It’s a point we have to get through together in America.”

Fournette says football will help heal the wounds of the past nine days. In fact, Marcus and Tiffany plan to travel to Baton Rouge for the Tigers’ game against the Tide in November, and they might even get tickets for LSU’s game at Auburn in September.

LSU begins preseason camp on Aug. 4 – just 21 days away.

During his four-hour tour around the Wynfrey, Fournette heard the football questions, too.

They asked about the loss to Alabama last season – the one in which he gained a season-low 31 yards. Fournette and LSU weren’t mentally prepared for that game, he said, and he admitted, again, to being “distracted” by the media coverage of LSU’s three-game losing slide.

“It can get to you sometimes,” he said.

They asked about quarterback Brandon Harris. Fournette called him a “new” quarterback. How so? “He has that new SWAG to himself,” he smiled.

Georgia running back Nick Chubb is still the best back in the SEC, a smiling Fournette said – the same statement he made at this event last season. The national title is Fournette's only personal goal, he answered to one question, and, to another, he said he was happy to see LSU’s administration keep Miles during a drama-filled November.

Miles was happy, too, Fournette said. The coach dabbed, a popular dance move, in the postgame locker room.

At one point, a reporter asked, “Is it important to you to win a Heisman since this is your last year in your college career?”

Fournette shot back, “I didn’t say it was my last year.”

Everyone laughed, including Fournette.

The guy they call “Buga” is closing in on graduating – a key, he said, in his decision to potentially return to school. He’s scheduled to graduate next August in business marketing. Could he remain in school next spring if he declared for the draft? Possibly, he said.

Fournette has dropped weight, sticking to a no-food-after-dark diet. Miles publicly criticized Fournette’s weight after LSU’s spring game. The running back has trimmed his frame from 230-plus pounds to 226.

“I only eat peanuts and yogurt after 7,” he said.

Fournette donned a navy blue suit, light blue checkered shirt and matching bowtie – a getup his 18-month-old daughter Lyric picked out from three choices he presented to her.

While waiting for interviews, Fournette listened to tunes from Kodak Black on one of his two smart phones. He scanned Twitter and Instagram, too, and ran into an LSU student who nearly hit him with her car.

Kamryn Stelly, an LSU student working at media days, nearly plunged her car into Fournette while driving out of the parking lot of a Baton Rouge restaurant over the summer. She apologized to Fournette on Thursday. He laughed and shook his head.

She retold the story to a reporter.

“I looked up and saw it was him,” she said. “Oh my gosh.”

It’s been quite the week for Fournette. He landed on the Doak Walker Award watch list Thursday, was named the top player in college football by Sports Illustrated on Tuesday and is almost certain to make the preseason All-SEC team released Friday.

Oh, and he's the namesake of a racing horse. Fournette, the horse, debuts Friday at Belmont.

“The horse is really in my family now,” Fournette laughed. “I’ve got to go see him.”

The owners of Fournette, Arkansas-based Staton Flurry, messaged The Advocate later Thursday saying they’d be “honored” to host the running back on a visit.

First, though, football – something that Fournette hopes will wash away the pain felt in Baton Rouge. Fournette tweeted a photo of himself last week donning a shirt with Sterling’s photo.

It went viral. The response wasn’t always positive, though.

Fournette doesn’t care. He wants to see change, something his coach discussed at media days, too.

“I did what my heart told me to do,” Fournette said. “I have a voice in the city where I’m from, in Louisiana. My whole meaning towards that was pray until a change come – not just in BR but everywhere in the world.”

Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter, @RossDellenger