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Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Meyers Leonard shoulders plenty

By Dana O'Neil
ESPN.com

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- The shoulders are broad, symmetrical support beams designed to sustain the 7-1 frame Meyers Leonard calls home.

Like Meyers himself, a straightforward 19-year-old whose cropped haircut and intense gaze let you know he doesn't suffer fools or slights well, the shoulders are strong and unflinching.

They don't buckle or waver, not with the weight of Jared Sullinger bearing down on them.

Meyers Leonard
Meyers Leonard went toe-to-toe with Ohio State All-American Jared Sullinger during the Illini's win over the Buckeyes on Jan. 10.

Not even with the weight of the world sitting atop them.

Rare is the young adult on the cusp of his 20s not worrying through some sort of crossroads. They are far from children, not fully bloomed adults.

But Meyers stands at a life intersection that is especially confusing.

He is, thanks to a late growth spurt, a fairly new 7-foot center wrapped in a guard's body. The Illinois sophomore is impressive one day, vexing the next.

His game is not entirely ready for the NBA, but his body is.

His heart would love to remain a college kid, "stay a kid a little longer" as he says, but the responsibilities of his life -- an ailing mother, a brother in Afghanistan -- dictate a more mature path.

He still misses home. His town, population dwindling and worn down by a worn-out economy, needs a hero.

He wants his college degree, but his family needs the paycheck.

It is a pack mule's burden borne by a man-child, heavy enough to topple most people.

That's where those shoulders come in. They don't belong to most people.

Meyers Leonard is a lot of things -- talented and stubborn, smart and starved for praise.

Above all, he is responsible.

"I want to be a kid for as long as I can be," he said. "But there's a lot on my shoulders. My mom is in a lot of pain. My brother is overseas. All of these people, these fans, they want us to be good. People ask me if I'm going to the NBA. There's just a lot of stuff right now."


There always has been a lot of stuff in Meyers Leonard's life, a bag of misfortune handed to a family that certainly never asked for it.

James Leonard was only 46 when he died, killed in a freak bicycle accident in the middle of the small town -- Robinson, Ill. -- the family called home.

Meyers was just 6 when his dad died, and his memories are only those he's been given -- snapshots of a life that read more like a magazine bio than an actual person.

Golf pro. Laid-back. Tall. That's James Leonard to Meyers.

Bailey Leonard remembers a little more. He was 8 when his father was killed, old enough to collect and cling to his own stories, young enough not to fully grasp the gravity of the situation. Bailey has his dad's ring and wears it everywhere, even in the Afghan desert, where he's serving his second tour as a Marine.

"That is my memory strongpoint because I remember him wearing it as a kid," Bailey wrote from his base in response to questions asked on Facebook. "Most are faint, but some stand out more than others. And I do not tend to talk to Meyers about him, because I feel that we both have a sense of 'what if' when it comes to him passing away."

Meyers Leonard
Despite some trying times in his life, Leonard still has "Forever Blessed" tattoed across his arms.

What if. That's the mystery, isn't it?

What if James Leonard had lived? What would have happened then? It's impossible to answer and impossible not to wonder.

Maybe life would be better for Tracie, his wife. Once an athlete herself, a woman her son said would run more than 10 miles a day, she instead has been more or less housebound since James died. The one-two combination of an old horseback injury and disk surgery has left her with chronic and crippling back pain, delivering her a new double blow of cruelty -- she can't work because of the back pain but can't afford surgery because she can't work.

Tracie is not a complainer, but her son knows his mother and knows her agony. It is physical and emotional, the aches of a back that won't let her move and the heartache of being unable to see either of her boys -- one because he is overseas, fighting for his country, the other because she can't stomach the two-hour ride to Champaign.

"She's been through a lot," Meyers said. Tracie declined an interview for this story. "She's a fighter, so she tries not to let me worry, but, every once in a while, she'll break down and tell me how bad it is. I know how hard it is for her. It's hard on all of us. It was different when I was in high school, when I could see her every day."

Maybe if James Leonard had lived, his eldest son would feel less compelled to please, to try to be the man of the house. Instead, Bailey, a good student who didn't have an easy high school experience as an outlier to the popular crowd, enlisted.

He is, his younger brother said, "good at his job," which is both a prideful boast and Meyers' way of assuring himself that Bailey is OK.

The truth is, Bailey's leaving was hard. Meyers isn't a crier, but the day his brother left for training, Meyers went to his room, shut the door and bawled.

"It was difficult, but it wasn't as difficult as getting my mom to accept the fact that I was joining," Bailey said. "I told her my recruiter was coming to the house. I hadn't told her beforehand. I could tell she knew it was what I wanted, but I can never understand what it is like for a mother to hear her son say he wants to join the Marine Corps, especially during a time of war."

But then again, if James Leonard had lived, maybe Meyers Leonard wouldn't be Meyers Leonard. Maybe he wouldn't be so tough, maybe he wouldn't be so strong, maybe he wouldn't be so stubborn.

And maybe he wouldn't be so lucky.


Brian Siler remembers the moment he decided to change his life. He was at the baseball diamond, watching his son Austin play, when he spotted another boy, another second-grader, on the field.

Siler didn't know Meyers Leonard, but he knew his story. Robinson isn't a big town, and the 6,000 or so people there celebrate the good news and mourn the tragedy. Siler vaguely remembers James Leonard leaning on an outfield fence, watching his boys play, hollering like dads do to their kids. Siler knew Leonard had died, leaving his boys without a dad.

"I just thought, 'This kid looks like he could use someone in his life,'" Siler said. "Honestly, I just felt led at the time. I didn't know I was going to do anything. I didn't know what I was going to do. But I wanted to do something."

It started out simply. Austin and Meyers are the same age, so when Siler took his son to practice or a game, he'd bring Meyers. If Austin needed gear, Siler bought some for Meyers, too.

Meyers Leonard
The Silers have been a second family to Meyers.

Eventually the taxiing became dinners and the dinners turned into sleepovers. Soon Meyers was accompanying the Silers -- Brian; his wife, Tarita; sons, Austin and Aaron; and daughter, Abby -- to church and on family vacations, posing in the pictures like a beanpole superimposed in the back.

He never called Siler dad but says he is "like a dad," and Siler always respected his boundaries -- "You treat him like a son, but he's not my own," -- but offered support, guidance and discipline when needed.

Looking to shoehorn the relationship into a convenient box, outsiders have called this Meyers' version of "The Blind Side," but the comparison is inaccurate.

The book and subsequent movie tell the story of Michael Oher, a boy who was homeless and didn't have much of a family life.

Meyers Leonard has a family. It has not abandoned him.

On the contrary, Tracie loves her son, loves him so much that she was willing to accept help.

"I know there is a lot of talk about their relationship, but there shouldn't be," Siler said. "They talk daily. They're very close. He knows the situation she's in, knows the daily pain she's in, but she wants him to succeed and he wants to succeed for her. She has done an amazing job with those boys."

What Tracie couldn't do, the Silers did. They are not filthy rich -- Brian is an insurance agent -- but they are comfortable, and, more, they are Christian, holding fast to the notion that, by helping someone else, they will be rewarded 10 times over.

"And boy, has that ever been the case here," Siler said. "We've had so many blessings having Meyers in our life."

It hasn't been without complications.

Meyers is not the easiest kid to discipline, even now. He is stubborn yet needs to be cajoled, a kid who needs structure yet requires praise.

And then there was Siler's own family.

Siler had to have a talk with Austin, negotiating the awkward tap dance of raising two boys the same age, one his son, the other not, both getting equal treatment.

"I give Austin so much credit," Siler said. "There was never any jealousy, never any negative feelings toward Meyers. He knew in his heart that what he was doing was right, and he let that lead him."

What the Silers have gained pales in comparison with how Meyers has prospered.

He has a mother who loves him, a brother he idolizes and now a family that can buoy him. Everything Meyers wants to do for Tracie and Bailey, the Silers already have done for him.

"They are unbelievable people," Meyers said. "They didn't have to do what they did. They did it out of the kindness of their hearts. I am so thankful for it and so, so lucky."


And now it is Meyers' turn.

At least that is how he sees it. A one-time pitcher turned guard turned big man after a six-inch growth spurt between his freshman and sophomore years in high school, Meyers is something of a basketball anomaly. He gained all that height without losing his coordination or his fast-twitch muscles.

Leonard
Bruce Weber didn't know what to expect from the small-town player, but found out that Leonard is a big-time player.

He can shot-block and skyhook, but can also dribble and shoot.

"You come to our practices and watch at the end," Illini coach Bruce Weber said. "He'll knock down 50 3s in a row."

Weber admits he was skeptical when people told him to drive to a small eastern Illinois town to see this big kid turning heads.

"I mean, he was dominating in Robinson, Ill. How good could he be?" Weber said.

Turns out: very good. Folklore good. Meyers is the Paul Bunyan of Robinson, the gentle giant who led the tiny town to its first state title. It bought him a lifetime of adoration and free drinks in his hometown and unexpected attention from college scouts.

He chose to stay home, close to his mom, close to his roots.

But tall tales don't always stand up so well in reality, and Meyers' freshman year was a serious reality check. He averaged just 2.1 points and 1.2 rebounds per game, trying to find his way in the college game.

His confidence was so shaken that, this past summer, when he was invited to attend the USA Basketball U-19 training camp, he initially went to his coach to decline.

"I said, 'What do you mean you don't want to go?" Weber said. "First of all, I'm on the staff and we get to bring someone along, so you're going. Second of all, why not? He didn't want to go because he didn't think he was going to make it. And I told him that's why you go, to figure out what you need to work on."

Meyers went and made the team, using that experience to fuel his confidence and his play this season.

He is far from a finished product. Like the Illini, Leonard is good some nights, bad the others. His numbers are incredibly improved -- 13.3 ppg and 7.8 rpg now -- but he is his own worst enemy, his basketball growth slowed by his mental concentration. Meyers knows his flaws and owns them, but he still makes them, which only exasperates his coaches more.

"He'll do something and the next day come in and apologize," Weber said. "And I appreciate that, but I also want to say, 'Stop apologizing. Just do it right.'"

But although Meyers might not be ready for the NBA, there's a chance the NBA will be ready for Meyers and his 7-foot-1, 245 pounds of chiseled muscle. He is quintessential upside, a package of potential that, if tapped, could soar.

Meyers is thrilled and terrified at the thought because it puts him dead in the middle of an impossible decision.

He needs to do what is best for himself.

He wants to do what is best for everyone else.

"We talk about that all the time, probably every day," Siler said. "He's had to grow up quickly because he's always had so much responsibility, and now here's more. This is his decision, but it's not about him. It's about his mom and his brother and even, to a point, the people of Robinson. He wants to do well for so many people."


The Leonard home sits across the street from a car dealership.

When Meyers was in high school, he remembers his mother staring out the door and across the street at a pearl Cadillac STS sitting in the lot.

"Her eyes lit up," Meyers said. "She said, 'Wow, if I could ever have one of those.' She's never had much. She's never asked for anything. Everything she had, she gave to us. I want to be able to take care of her. I want to help my brother."

It is a lot to wish for, a heavy load to carry.

But it sure seems as though Meyers Leonard has the shoulders for it.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter @dgoneil1.