Kickin' back with Bucs running back Brian Leonard
Bucs running back Brian Leonard has carved out a successful niche for himself, now in his seventh season in the NFL as a backup running back. The former Rutgers standout came back to Greg Schiano this fall and talked with the Times' Greg Auman about his New Jersey ties, his one career NFL touchdown and how he responds to criticism of his longtime coach.
Q: Your relationship with Rutgers actually goes back to before Schiano was there. Your brother Nate had a bad knee injury as a high school senior and Rutgers was the school that stuck with him and honored its scholarship offer, and you remembered that loyalty ...
A: That was basically my whole decision. When Schiano came in, it made it easier, turned the whole program around. We grew up in New York, wanted to go to Syracuse, and Syracuse took his scholarship away because of a torn ACL. I really appreciated that Rutgers kept his scholarship and it got me to go there and play with my brother.
Q: What was your first interaction with Schiano?
A: He came to watch my brother play, and he found out my 40 time and offered me a scholarship on the spot. It was an amazing feeling. You dream your whole life to play Division I football. My first scholarship, junior year.
Q: What's your favorite memory of playing for him at Rutgers?
A: Every Rutgers guy would say this, but the '06 game against Louisville. It was an awesome experience. Sold-out crowd, we put up bleachers on the open end; it's closed now. Ended up winning the game at the end and the fans rushed the field.
Q: People outside Rutgers don't understand it, but this is a really close group of players and alums, no?
A: Some of my best friends still are guys I played with at Rutgers. We have that family foundation there. To have a group of guys like that to change the program around, you remember those guys forever. To this day, I have a charity bowling event in New York City at Chelsea Piers. There's about 25 NFL guys there, and about 20 of them are Rutgers guys. We all hang out and work out together in the offseason.
Q: How do you like Tampa?
A: I'm liking it a lot better now that the weather is starting to cool down. It was tough at first. I'm not used to that type of weather. I'm starting to like it a lot. The fans are great. I wish we could turn it around and get some wins, not only for us but for the fans and this whole program.
Q: Is it hard to hear the criticism of Schiano, fans asking for change with where the team is right now?
A: The guys in this locker room, they know Coach Schiano, know who he really is. He's not throwing anyone under the bus. He's honest, and some guys might not like that, because he might be too honest. I like that in a coach. It's sad to see some of these people are saying about him. They're not true. I wouldn't be here today, playing in the NFL for seven years, if it wasn't for him. You see all these Rutgers guys in the league, and it's not like they go in and play one year. They last in the league. Not every team has that many guys in the league, and it has to do with the preparation we had at Rutgers.
Q: What's the key to sticking around and carving out a role as you have?
A: You go back to Rutgers: stay focused, keep chopping, keep doing your job. That's what I got most from Coach Schiano at Rutgers: Do your job. Whatever job you have, if it's not football and it's something else, you go to work every day and be the best you can be. Some guys take for granted they're in the league, they make all this money, everyone loves them. They forget they still have to play football. It's their job. Knowing my role and doing my role.
Q: You've had hard luck with touchdowns: One in 300-plus touches. Tell me about that score -- 2010, playing for Cincinnati at Cleveland.
A: Just a little shovel pass up the middle. I was basically wide-open, scored a touchdown. It has a lot to do with my opportunities. Right now, it's a lot of pass protection, catching the ball out of the backfield on third down. There aren't a lot of routes designed to go to me, but a little checkdown and you get a first down doing that. Preseason games don't mean a lot, but I've probably scored 12-13 touchdowns in preseason in the NFL.
Q: You were limited by injuries and surgeries early on, but you've had good luck with your health. What's the key?
A: Foam Roller. It's literally saved my career. I started using it about three years ago. You always see guys rolling on it -- just a hard piece of foam. Basically it's a deep-tissue massage. I do it every day and it's done a lot for me. Eating healthy, staying away from alcohol during the season, that's helped too.
Q: At Rutgers and even early in your NFL days, you were famous for the "Leonard Leap," hurdling over would-be tacklers. Still have it in you?
A: Absolutely. I've done it probably eight or nine times in the league, just not here yet. People from North Jersey, from Rutgers, they see me on the street, and it's "Leaping Leonard!"
Q: Some quick word association, and we'll do it Rutgers/Jersey style. Ray Rice?
Q: Jeremy Zuttah?
Q: Coach Schiano?
A: Mentally tough.
Q: James Gandolfini?
A: Jersey guy.
Q: Chris Christie?
A: President. Eventually.
Q: Is there a guilty-pleasure TV show you'll admit to watching?
A: I'm not a big show guy. Discovery Channel, History Channel, Animal Planet. All that kind of stuff.
Q: Peter King nominated you for Sportsman of the Year back in 2006, and people really liked the everyman aspect of who you are. Your mom was an accountant, dad a cable guy. Both still working?
A: Dad's retired now, retired just last year. My mom's still an accountant at the paper mill.
Q: What's one thing you've been able to do for them, making a living in the NFL as you have?
A: Just a few weeks ago, I bought them a lake house in upstate New York. It's called Selby Lake in upstate New York. They're loving it, they're up there right now. They have their old house, but it's a beautiful lake in New York. Places rarely go on sale up there and everyone wants property up there. My parents called me up and said a place went on sale, they looked at it and loved it. They sent me a couple of pictures. We got it. It was awesome. It's for me too, eventually. It's for them, but when I have kids, I want them to be able to go up to Grandma's house at the lake.