The Bucs' Brian Leonard has carved out a niche for himself, now in his seventh season in the NFL as a backup running back. The former Rutgers standout, who came back to Greg Schiano this fall, talked with Greg Auman about his New Jersey ties, his one career NFL touchdown and how he responds to criticism of his longtime coach.
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. Rutgers was the school that stuck with him and honored its scholarship offer, and you remembered that loyalty.
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.
What was your first interaction with Schiano?
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.
People outside Rutgers don't understand it. But this is a really close group of players and alums, no?
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.
How do you like Tampa?
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.
Is it hard to hear the criticism of Schiano; fans asking for change with where the team is right now?
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 what 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.
You've had hard luck with touchdowns: one in 303 touches. Tell me about that score, 2010, playing for Cincinnati at Cleveland.
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.
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?
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!"
Some quick word association, and we'll do it Rutgers/Jersey style. Ray Rice?
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?
Dad's retired now, retired just last year. My mom's still an accountant at the paper mill.
What's one thing you've been able to do for them, making a living in the NFL as you have?
Just a few weeks ago, I bought them a lake house in upstate New York. It's called Selby Lake. 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.