In New Orleans, the legends of Leonard Fournette are as abundant as the city’s majestic oaks, brown swamps and fine eats.
The tales seem tall, the stories unthinkable.
Have you heard the one about Fournette breaking the leg of a fellow high school player during a collision on a toss sweep?
How about the one in which a 13-year-old Fournette nearly out-ran a college athlete?
Can you believe that Fournette scored eight touchdowns in one little league game? And that parents of other children eventually signed a petition to have him banned?
Believe what you want.
Maybe these are exaggerations. Maybe they are embellishments. Maybe they didn’t happen at all.
One thing is certain: The legend of Leonard Fournette began right here — on a dusty park in New Orleans East, surrounded by low-income housing, cracking streets and a rusty chain-link fence.
Locals call it Goretti Playground. It’s the birthplace of the current frontrunner for, arguably, the biggest individual prize in sports: the Heisman Trophy.
It’s the place where Fournette ran over, around and past players before he did it down the road at St. Augustine High and way up the road at LSU. It’s where he fell in love with a sport he previously hated and where he never lost a game in six straight years.
“I knew about him when he played parkball at Goretti,” said Marcus Delarge, athletic director at St. Augustine. “That’s where he got his foundation. He did it at Goretti. He did it here. Now, he’s doing it in the SEC.”
It took two games into his sophomore year at LSU for Fournette to surge atop the Heisman race. He has scored six touchdowns, run for 387 yards and led the 2-0 Tigers into the top 10.
Fournette is averaging more than 8 yards per carry. He would be the No. 1 prospect in the 2016 NFL draft if he were eligible, according to ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr.
It has been one whirlwind of a start to a year that’s on pace to barrel through expectations for the nation’s former No. 1 recruit.
“You could say that,” said Fournette’s father, Leonard Sr.
On a cool evening earlier this week, the elder Leonard watches a group of 11- and 12-year-olds during parkball practice at Goretti. He points toward the field when asked about his eldest son.
“He did it out here,” he said. “Same exact things you see on TV.”
‘He was terrorizing’
Alvin Armour has coached parkball — New Orleanians’ term for little league — for about a decade.
He’s never quite seen the outpouring from parents like he did Monday at Goretti. Armour is used to mothers chiding him for being too tough on their 11-, 12- and 13-year-old sons.
Two days after Fournette’s tackle-breaking, 228-yard performance against Auburn, those same moms arrived with a different message. Clearly, they had watched that game.
“Whatever you did with Leonard, do it to our son,” Armour said with a big smile and laugh. “We didn’t get the, ‘You’re too hard on him!’ Oh no.”
Parents of children who are a decade younger than Fournette know where the running back played parkball.
He’s not just a legend of the city and of St. Augustine. Leonard Fournette is a legend of Goretti, which is named for the neighborhood’s St. Maria Goretti Church.
Goretti consists of a football and soccer field in one. The yard lines are burned grass and the boundaries are metal barriers marked “NOPD” for New Orleans Police Department. The basketball court is two rickety goals on either end of a plain concrete slab.
A one-man tackling sled sits off to the side. Rusted and half-buried into the ground, a blue cushion barely hangs on to the sled’s metal support beams. Nine narrow, concrete light polls surround the park, and enough metal bleachers for about 100 people are entrenched in the grass.
“Goretti Saints” is tattooed on a 15-foot-high scoreboard overlooking the football field.
For six years, from age 7 to 12, Fournette was quite possibly, the biggest, hardest-hitting Goretti Saint in the history of the club.
“He was terrorizing,” said Eric Soublet, the supervisor at Goretti the past four years and, before that, a volunteer coach here.
Fournette’s reputation — which now has reached national levels — began here. But it almost never started. Fournette stopped playing football after age 5. He didn’t like it. He didn’t like running laps, didn’t like bear-crawling and couldn’t stand up-downs.
“I quit,” he said.
After a year away, Leonard told his father, “I’m ready,” Leonard Sr. said. “I brought him out to the park, and the rest is history.”
He was bigger than the other boys. It wasn’t only his girth or even his height, said Armour, Leonard’s coach his last year in parkball.
“He was all muscle,” Armour said.
Cyril Crtuchfield, Fournette’s high school coach at St. Augustine, puts it another way.
“When he came out of his momma’s womb,” Crutchfield said, “he was a lot better athlete than when others came out of their momma’s womb.”
By his 13th birthday, Fournette’s reputation began to build throughout the city. He was attracting “high school crowds to parkball games,” Armour said. “He might have touched it four or five times in a game, but he did something special.”
Dennis Dixon, later Fournette’s track coach at St. Augustine, remembers watching clips of Fournette playing parkball on the internet. Fans who flocked to see him play were already hammering Armour and Leonard Sr. to “get that boy to LSU.”
It had reached that level.
“He was so big and strong, bigger and faster than everybody else,” said LSU receiver Malachi Dupre, a former John Curtis star who played against Fournette in parkball.
At age 13, Fournette weighed around 170 pounds and stood about 5-foot-8.
The weight limit for skill position players in parkball was 155 pounds, Armour said. Fournette was relegated to playing on the defensive and offensive lines in his final year in the program. That lasted just a few games.
“The parents submitted a letter to have him barred from the playground. All the other playgrounds got together, and they barred him from the league,” said Kyle Gilbert, now an assistant at John Curtis who coached Fournette at St. Augustine. “He was too big to play running back. He was on the offensive and defensive lines. Nobody could block or contain him.”
On being banned, Gilbert said Fournette “took it hard.” The kid didn’t want to play on the line anyway, his father said. He belts out a laugh. “He wanted to run that ball,” he said.
He got the chance, joining the middle school team at St. Augustine as a running back and linebacker. That created quite the buzz around the city — a 13-year-old playing middle school football with the ninth-graders.
Two years later, Fournette entered St. Augustine as a freshman.
“I heard about it,” said current LSU defensive back Dwayne Thomas, a New Orleans native who played at O. Perry Walker. “We heard about him when I was in school. Like, (you’d hear) ‘St. Aug has a great running back, freshman kid, he runs the ball hard.’ ”
In New Orleans, parkball is serious business.
It’s run by the New Orleans Recreational Department. About 3,000 kids participate at about 25 different parks throughout the city, Soublet said.
Kids at each park are split into five teams based on their ages, from the 5- and 6-year-old team to the 13- and 14-year-old squad. Each of the five teams plays one game every week against a team from another park in its same age group.
There is a championship after the eight-game regular season, Soublet said. And, yes, there are rivalries.
“Harrell,” Soublet shouts out Goretti’s rival.
Harrell and its artificial turf field are nestled off South Carrollton Avenue, about 15 miles from Little Woods — the neighborhood in which Goretti resides.
The Little Woods neighborhood is large. It stretches like a banana across the northernmost section of what’s known as New Orleans East. Lake Pontchartrain creates the neighborhood’s northern border. On the southern side, I-10 separates it from West Lake Forest and Read Blvd. East neighborhoods.
According to city data released earlier this year, there were 18 murders in Little Woods in 2013 and 2014 — two of them in the same block as Goretti.
The neighborhood is mostly low-income, Soublet said, but that wasn’t always the case. Goretti and the surrounding area were flooded with about 6 feet of water after Hurricane Katrina roared ashore 10 years ago. Levies broke and water from Lake Pontchartrain swallowed the neighborhood. Goretti is just five blocks from the lake.
“A lot of middle-class people didn’t come back or, if they did, they’re renting out their homes,” Soublet said.
A middle-class neighborhood before Katrina has turned into one of the city’s most crime-heavy areas.
“We do have crime, but they don’t bring it to the park,” Soublet said.
He later said criminals stay away from the park while the kids are practicing. Practices run from about 6:30 to 8 p.m. Soublet said locals “flood” the park at about 9.
“We don’t have control of that,” he said.
Fournette didn’t live near Goretti nor did he live in the Little Woods neighborhood. He played at Goretti only because the park closest to his home closed.
“A coach was shot in front of children,” Leonard Sr. said.
The area around Goretti is moving in the right direction, folks said. There’s at least one big sign of that.
A 106,000-square-foot, $22 million elementary school is being built in the lot adjacent to Goretti. The new Robert Russa Moton Charter School is nearing completion.
The shiny concrete-and-steel mass sticks out next to its gray surroundings. A new black gate separates the school from Goretti, but that’s no barrier. Students at the school are expected to use the park, and parkball coaches hope they grow an already talented club.
The Goretti people fancy themselves one of the better parkball clubs in the city. Fournette isn’t the only big name to come through.
Lorenzo Doss, the former Tulane star and current Denver Broncos cornerback, and Dominick Jones, a defensive back at Louisiana-Lafayette, played at Goretti. So did Delvin Breaux, the former LSU cornerback signee who’s now with the Saints.
They remember the parkball version of Leonard Fournette.
Said Doss: “He was just like he is now.”
‘They’re talking Heisman’
At St. Augustine, Delarge’s phone has been active with calls from media outlets around the region calling for stories on the new Heisman frontrunner.
Kids are “beaming” up and down the hallways, said Dixon, now disciplinarian at the school. On the practice field, Dixon has caught junior-high players uttering the phrase, “I want to be like Leonard.”
There’s a buzz around the school, around the city, around the state.
“They’re talking Heisman here,” St. Augustine football coach Al Jones said. “Kids are excited. Honey Badger got close. Hopefully we can get this one.”
Tyrann Mathieu, known more so for his catchy nickname, also attended St. Augustine. His Heisman campaign hit a wall after he was booted from the team before his junior year.
Fournette said his focus is not on the Heisman. Teammates said the same.
Fournette has a photo on his phone of the College Football Playoff trophy. He flashes it to teammates often. His dad has seen it, too.
“He really wants to win his championship,” Leonard Sr. said. “That’s his main focus.”
The next stop on the trek to a possible championship is Syracuse, New York. The Tigers meet the Orange (3-0) at 11 a.m. Saturday.
Fournette can push his string of consecutive 100-yard rushing games to five. Just two other LSU players — Kevin Faulk (five) and Charles Alexander (nine) — can claim such a feat.
He can do it in a setting familiar to star running backs: Jim Brown (1954-56), Ernie Davis (1959-61), Jim Nance (1962-64), Floyd Little (1964-66) and Larry Csonka (1965-67) all played at Syracuse.
“They were RBU,” Fournette said earlier this week.
“I’m pretty sure he’s excited about stepping foot on that campus,” Thomas said.
The Goretti area is buzzing about the game. Leonard Sr. still coaches parkball along with Armour: They coach the 11- and 12-year-old team. That age division plays its games on Saturdays. Armour will take over head duties this week. “Big Leonard” — as some call him — plans to travel with wife Lory to New York.
Armour and his Goretti Saints kick off at 10 a.m. Saturday. LSU and Syracuse start an hour later.
“I’ve got it DVR’d,” a smiling Armour said. “But when we’re done, I’ll be rushing off.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter: @DellengerAdv.