TAMPA, Fla. — The lights went out, the flood waters were rising, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Leonard Fournette, then 10 years old, and his family had to get to the Claiborne Avenue overpass of I-10 in his hometown of New Orleans quickly during Hurricane Katrina.
The Grand Palace Hotel on Canal Street, where they chose to ride out Katrina, one of the most catastrophic hurricanes to hit the continental United States, had caught on fire.
Fournette was with his parents, Lory and Leonard Sr.; his grandmother, Lorraine Tyler; his sisters LaNata and LaTae and younger brother, Lanard.
“The water was so high, we couldn’t really carry our grandparents through the water, because the water was up to our necks,” Fournette told ESPN.
“One of my father’s good friends, they stole a boat, and we put our parents and grandparents on the boat and carried them to the bridge from there. … I don’t know where the hell he got that boat from, to be honest.”
There are things that Fournette, now 26, witnessed that still haunt him to this day — things in the water that he cannot unsee — the weight of it all in which he still holds onto, with every step and every carry, even now as one of the NFL’s top running backs trying to help lead his team to a second consecutive Super Bowl.
Only this year, he’s doing it wearing the No. 7, a nod to the New Orleans’ Seventh Ward and the city he cherishes so deeply, whose namesake, the New Orleans Saints, he faces Sunday (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC) at Raymond James Stadium with the NFC South title on the line.
“It shaped him,” Lory told ESPN.
“I’m just a testament to where I come from,” Fournette said. “So of course I’m gonna carry that.”
For four nights he and his family slept under a rain-soaked sheet on that bridge and recited scripture. The one Lory remembers most? Ecclesiastes 11:1. It reads, “Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.”
They took trips to Lory’s sister-in-law’s house and the Circle Food Store at the bottom of the ramp on St. Bernard Avenue, where they sought out food and baby formula. They located a barbecue grill and cooked for several survivors, although Lory didn’t eat. She couldn’t.
“If it wasn’t for our faith, I think we would have had a nervous breakdown,” Lory said. “It was that bad.”
Inside the Superdome — home of the Saints — Lory’s nephew, who’d just enlisted in the Air Force, stayed up all night watching over Lory’s mother, two sisters and their husbands and her other nephew while they slept.
The family was forced to relocate to a shelter 540 miles away in Portland, Texas, near Corpus Christi, for a year while Fournette’s father and grandfather built their new home in Slidell, Louisiana — which is about 30 miles outside of New Orleans. Of the 1.5 million people who fled their homes from the Gulf Coast region, about 600,000 evacuees, mostly from Louisiana, could not return to their homes, according to the Center for American Progress.
The medical treatment they gave Fournette, designed to help him and other survivors exposed to various pathogens and diseases common in natural disasters, made him throw up for days.
“We had to get the shots to clean us out and most of us was sick for like the first two weeks of school,” Fournette said.
“It was traumatic. It really was,” Lory said. “You just can’t take things for granted. You really have gotta be thankful for people, for water, lights, a roof over your head. You just have to be thankful. I think it’s really grounded him.”
‘We had to grow up faster’
Fournette credits football for being one of the few constants in his life, helping him through the turbulent aftermath of Katrina and navigating his childhood in the Seventh Ward, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the United States.
“It was like a safe-haven,” said Cyril Crutchfield, Fournette’s coach at St. Augustine High School. “That was the only normalcy that those young men had.”
It’s like that for many of the children who, like him, grew up playing park ball at Goretti Playground and later Hart Park, where the first thing they learn isn’t how to take handoffs, catch passes or tackle: It’s how to drop in the event of a drive-by shooting.
“That’s the first drill we do in the practice fields,” Crutchfield said. “Every now and then, we’d have gunfire, so the first thing we do — kinda like in school, a fire drill — we had a gun shot drill.”
In 2019, there were 4,516 incidents involving violent crime among the 394,498 residents in New Orleans, according to the FBI’s most recently released data, making it one of the most violent major metropolitan cities in America. According to the Metropolitan Crime Commission, 50% of New Orleans’ violent felony crimes over the last three years has happened in the Fifth and Seventh Wards.
“We had to grow up faster than everyone else,” Fournette said. “It’s not normal for a kid my age [to see that]. Growing up in the Seventh Ward — we’re used to murder, used to guys getting killed — things like that. Like you witnessing that, [right] before your eyes. … We had the cops chasing guys in our practice. We had to get down. It was all types of stuff going on.”
Those experiences didn’t harden him, and his football accolades and recognition didn’t change him, even when everyone from the Manning family to rap mogul Lil’ Wayne came out to watch him play as the No. 1 high school player in the state of Louisiana before going on to be ESPN’s No. 1 recruit in the country. He cared more about carrying his team than individual honors.
In 2013, Fournette stunned the Greater New Orleans Quarterback Club when, in the middle of his speech accepting their Player of the Year award, he carried the trophy over to Eugene Wells, a quarterback at rival East Jefferson High School who guided his team to a state championship.
“He gave the award to him and said, ‘You’re more deserving than me,'” Crutchfield recalled. “He was shocked. Because who does that?”
‘He wears his city on his sleeve’
No question, Fournette was fortunate to make it out. But he hasn’t forgotten about home, where his family still resides. There are frequent visits back. Each time, kids clamor for a chance to meet him. It creates a buzz in the city.
“As soon as he touches down in New Orleans, it’s, ‘Coach, Coach, is Fournette home? Fournette home?'” Crutchfield said. “It seems like everywhere I go, the first thing [I hear] is, ‘I’m gonna be the next Leonard Fournette.'”
“It gives them a glimmer of a hope,” Crutchfield, said. “He’s the heartbeat of not just the city, but the state of Louisiana.”
Added friend Kenny Chenier, who produced a documentary on Fournette as a high schooler: “He’s from their neighborhood, so to speak. They look at him as, ‘Wow. If he can make it, maybe I can make it.’ There is very much that attachment.”
Fournette hosts a football camp there that draws anywhere from 300 to 400 kids. Crutchfield remembers two years ago, each camper was given a drone. But more importantly, he’s been generous with his time. Those closest to him feel he has a high degree of emotional intelligence and empathy.
“He’s the hometown guy, the hometown hero. He wears his city on his sleeve,” Chenier said. “He always talks about the city, always talks about the Seventh Ward, the whole thing behind the number change. He’s very much engaged in the city even though he’s been away for a while between Jacksonville and Tampa Bay.”
In the wake of Hurricane Ida this year, Fournette donated $50,000 to rebuilding efforts in the state of Louisiana, which friend and teammate Tom Brady matched. The NFL Foundation contributed $25,000 and the Buccaneers $15,000. He’s encouraged others to do so, too, whether it be through donations or gift cards.
“What don’t break us make us stronger at the end of the day,” Fournette said. “That’s how we built down there.”
He also donated 56,000 meals to New Orleans families in need at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and $50,000 when Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston.
“That’s the beautiful thing about Leonard. Even though he’s in Florida for his occupation, he never loses touch with what’s going on at home. He never loses sight of the platform that he has,” Chenier said. “[He’s got] his pulse on where the needs are and what’s going on. That’s where his heart is. … It gives a tremendous boost.”