Meyers Leonard shoulders plenty
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.
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."
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dana on Twitter @dgoneil1.