Brian Leonard's first taste of varsity competition was on the track and field team at Gouverneur Central School.
Leonard ran sprints as an eighth-grader. But once he joined the varsity football team as a freshman, a more promising athletic career started to take off.
A series of firsts led to Leonard's ascension as one of three Section 10 athletes to play in the modern NFL. As a junior, his late touchdown run led Gouverneur to its first state tournament victory — a 22-21 first-round win over AuSable Valley in 1999. That season, he briefly held the state's single-season record for points and finished with 1,813 rushing yards.
Prior the start of his senior season, Leonard committed to Rutgers University, spurning scholarship offers from Syracuse and Penn State for the chance to play with his older brother, Nate, who would be in his final season at Rutgers. Before he left for New Jersey though, Brian solidified his stature at Gouverneur.
The 6-foot-1, 215-pound running back established four state records in his last high school season. Leonard tied a state record with eight touchdowns in a nonleague win over Cornwall. For a short time, he was the state's all-time leader in career touchdowns (107), points (696) and most consecutive 200-yard rushing games (nine).
For a moment, Leonard even trumped his brother. Brian set the Section 10 single-game rushing record with 354 yards in a win over Ogdensburg Free Academy on Sept. 30, 2001, beating Nate's old total by two yards. Brian was chosen as a first-team, all-state selection twice and is still ranked in the top five all-time in five statistical categories.
Then, the legend of Brian Leonard filtered into Piscataway, N.J. He was the quintessential fullback Rutgers always wanted. He gradually compiled all-purpose yards, touchdowns and All-Big East Conference honors. Ye,t nothing compared to his senior year.
Leonard was at the center of Rutgers' greatest season. He smashed the school's all-time scoring record in a blowout win over Syracuse on Nov. 25, 2006. He left school as the program's career leader in points with 272. He helped catapult the Scarlet Knights to an 11-2 campaign and a convincing victory over Kansas State for their first ever bowl win.
The records, awards and hype such as the famous "Leonard Leap" sold the St. Louis Rams on picking Leonard in the second round of the 2007 NFL draft. He signed his first contract — a four-year deal — and scored a touchdown in his first preseason game.
Leonard made seven starts and appeared in 16 games as a rookie for the Rams two years ago. He rushed for 303 yards and finished with 30 receptions. But he was limited to two games last season due to a shoulder injury.
St. Louis traded Leonard to the Cincinnati Bengals in May. Now a healthy running back, he'll have a shot to secure the backup job behind starter Cedric Benson. The Bengals opened training camp last week.
To read about previous selections to the Times' list of The North Country's Greatest Athletes of All Time, log on to www.watertowndailytimes.com.