Lenard Tillery III walks down a residential street that was hit by the recent flooding in Baton Rouge and surveys piles of furniture, clothing, building materials and personal items still piled high in front yards a month later.
The summer of 2016 featured a rebirth of athletes attempting to assert their influence upon social issues—from quiet, long-awaited advocates like Michael Jordan and more unauthorized T-shirts on the basketball court to Rio and the ESPYs and Colin Kaepernick and on and on and on. But stars like Tillery and Fournette are the non-silent generation, with responsibility heaped upon them in their teens, attempting to lead by standing up—and standing out.
“I’m not going to say that I wanted to be in the middle of it—it’s just something I felt was my responsibility,” Tillery said. “Sometimes, you’ve got to step up and do it for yourself. I don’t really need anybody to tell me what I need to be a part of and what I need to do and what I shouldn’t do. I appreciate their advice, but sometimes, you just have to step out of your comfort zone.”
✦ ✦ ✦
The advice from Lenard Tillery’s father was inescapable: Don’t ever pass a cop car. They are the authority. Push pride aside. You may be right, but it’s better to let them be right now than not be alive to tell anybody.
The night during his senior year of high school had been a good one and neared its end. Tillery remembers driving to drop off his girlfriend at her house in his Nissan Maxima when he started trailing a police car on Evangeline Street. The officer’s car slowed. He did, too, because he remembered: Never draw unwarranted and unwanted attention.
The cop’s lights blared, he recalled, signaling to pull over. Tillery said through his window that he simply did not want to pass, but the officer prodded. To Tillery, it seemed like the cop was baiting him, waiting and wanting this teenage black man to show some type of aggression or defiance. Don’t give him anything to feed on, Tillery thought, answering questions quietly and quickly before the officer finally departed.
Tillery got a ticket that night for $395 for following the officer too closely. He missed meals paying off that ticket, and finally has paid it off—more than two years later. Still, he considered himself fortunate: Some of his friends and family are in law enforcement, providing protection and positivity. He reconciles that against his own experiences, this one and others, that suggest a system wherein he, this 22-year-old black man, can mindfully try to be in the right and yet outwardly get cast in the wrong.
Tillery's father says Alton Sterling's death "brought everything to the top and really divided the city."
“In Baton Rouge, it’s hit or miss with the police,” Tillery said. “Sometimes, you’ll get a good one; sometimes you’ll get a bad one. You’ve just got to hope for the best.”
Tillery’s father came to Baton Rouge to attend LSU, forced out of New Orleans by pressure on both sides—to either use drugs or sling them. Lenard Tillery Jr. decided to stay after college and a couple of years in the military, figuring Baton Rouge was an ideal midsize town and not too fast, the kind of city to raise a family in.
The elder Tillery had always loved football—he wanted to be a running back—but never really played organized sports as a child. His summers were filled helping at the family concrete business, his years spent working hard enough to provide his own kids with the athletic opportunities he’d missed out on. He and his wife would have six children: five girls and Lenard III. Weekends at the Tillery house were for watching football—the Bayou Classic between Southern and Grambling was appointment viewing—and the only son seemed to be studying the game, predicting which gap a running back would hit next.
Young Lenard was coached by his dad for much of his youth, then played varsity all four years at McKinley Senior High School. Approaching his senior season, fans bemoaned having to face him again: He ran straight, and he ran hard, and it was like facing him forever. Chad Germany, who coached against Tillery before becoming Southern’s chief recruiter, remembers him returning a kick to beat his Capitol High team in the city’s annual rivalry game. Beforehand, Tillery had arranged for the teams to pray together in church.
"In Baton Rouge, it’s hit or miss with the police."
— LENARD TILLERY III
Germany said he recruited Tillery to Southern for his leadership abilities as much as his football skills. But Southern had no scholarships available. “That was the toughest part, when you have a kid that’s done great in the classroom,” Germany said. “But he was committed. He wanted to come to Southern.”
It is the kind of place worth committing to, in the kind of city where black people could, for a long time, stay and prosper. “No matter how many pages had been lost out the book or wasn’t in the book, nobody got a better education than a young black girl or boy,” said Greg Handy Sr., a Baton Rouge resident of six-plus decades now running for city council. “We had it all, and we didn’t know we had it in the palms of our hands.”
Then Katrina swept through in 2005, and an influx of people came into town. Seemingly overnight, Tillery’s father recalled, Baton Rouge changed into the big city he had attempted to leave behind in New Orleans.
“You’re seeing a lot more of these young men trying to stay in the drug game in order to be able to make extra money, but the dynamics have changed,” he said. “When that shift happened, you have bigger people in the game now, and I’m seeing a lot more of my former players getting killed by your drive-bys and other violence. This is the South. There’s dynamics in the South that I guess you’ve just got to learn to live with.”
Kip Holden, the mayor-president of East Baton Rouge Parish, fought against the city’s shift. “We do not want to inherit the looting and all the other foolishness that went on in New Orleans,” he said. “We do not want to inherit that breed that seeks to prey on other people.”
Out-of-state authorities arriving to help in the immediate aftermath of Katrina accused Baton Rouge police of discriminatory enforcement against blacks. In recent years, a portion of the more affluent southern area of the city has sought to split from Baton Rouge and form its own town, St. George.
To Tillery’s father, “there’s an undercurrent” to today’s unrest. “On top of the surface, the city has done a wonderful job where you don’t see the waves and you don’t see the ripples on top of the surface,” he said.
But then there is the same mayor who didn’t show up at Alton Sterling’s funeral, and the fact that Sterling felt the need to sell CDs outside of the Triple S Food Mart to support his family in the first place. “You’ve always had, to me, a racial divide in Baton Rouge, not just in the communities, but also among the people, different races. But now that this has happened, it brought everything to the top and you really divided the city.”
"I'm seeing a lot more of my former players getting killed by your drive-bys and other violence. This is the South."
— LENARD TILLERY'S FATHER
The divide remains as the football season begins. Tillery III led Southern in rushing as a sophomore—only for an influx of talent to drop him to fourth string the following season. Injuries opened another opportunity, and Tillery has not looked back. The difference between success and failure, he’s learned, is how you respond when confronted with a wall.
That is the mindset Tillery has taken in attending protests of Sterling’s killing. There is a process, he tells people. You may be right, but there will not be a rally followed by overnight change.
Many teammates echoed Tillery’s original reaction—that something like this could have happened elsewhere. “He told all the athletes to try to get out there and try to do something for the community, but to get out there and be safe as well,” Southern linebacker Roshaud Turner said.
Tillery attended his first of several rallies on the third day of protests outside of the convenience store. For much of the protesting, Tillery was anonymous. No one knew he would soon return to the football field and attempt to break a conference career record. Instead, he tried to calm people. He picked up discarded fliers and littered bottles.
Fournette's picture is everywhere around town. But Tillery thought it was "amazing" when the LSU running back posted a photo in an Alton Sterling T-shirt. "A lot of people are looking for him to lead. That’s definitely something that we are going to look forward to when he's in the league."
But he saw the tension, the anger, the confusion—the trapped emotions pouring out like the city was a soda can on its side. Tillery’s high school classmate, Jo Hines, spray-painted a mural of Sterling outside the Food Mart that became a celebration of sorts. “It’s been f--ked up, you know?” she said. Most people did not know how to react, and Tillery said that while it was easy to yell out obscenities at the cops, “the police are actually here to protect and serve us.” So he tried to ensure protesters stayed behind the lines drawn by law enforcement, “because the cops were out there arresting people if they so much as even stepped on the line.”
“If you have people that are coming out there with just emotion and they don’t actually know how to process words, then that’s when a protest probably would get out of hand,” Tillery said. “But as long as you have people out there that knew what they were doing—that knew how to protest and knew how to be respectful—that’s why none of the protests actually became violent, I believe.”
Tillery became the leader he did not see. The protests began crowded, when many saw Baton Rouge police and state forces arresting people indiscriminately, when an image of a woman standing powerfully—upright and calm in a dress, as heavily clad officers simultaneously charged her—started reverberating across the country. Then the rallies quieted down, and though the reasons for the protests remained, Baton Rouge was a community rising together, even in the bleakness, even in the rain.
"The police are actually here to protect and serve us."
— LENARD TILLERY III
“Nothing like that has happened in our city to where people have just come together in the hood like that, for everybody to just come together and it’d be peaceful for days,” said Hines, the artist who painted the mural. “Nobody got hurt. Nobody got robbed, killed. That’s a street where just on a regular day, you might find a dead body just out the blue. People get killed on that street all the time, and for someone to get killed by the cops and for it to be such a gathering, that’s something that we’ve never seen before.”
Austin Howard, Tillery’s quarterback at Southern, said: “Just to see the different races that were out there, it was a beautiful thing to know that we can come together without the guns and violence.”
Tillery attends the Apostolic Restoration Church on Beechwood Drive, and whenever Bishop Benjamin Harrison Jr. needs the star running back to talk to some young students, Tillery is there. “He showed a level of maturity in that he had a presence at the rallies, but the presence was not one of negative or really not one of too much taking sides,” Harrison said. “For the magnitude of what had happened and the emotional side of it for everybody, he took the time to level himself and to get out of all of the emotions. That for me was huge. To get out of the emotional side of it to say, ‘What can I do?’”
A couple of weeks on, when the floods came, Tillery did what he had to do: He helped remove some soggy carpets and replace a bunch of destroyed drywall. When Katrina had hit back in ’05, family members fled New Orleans to stay at the Tillerys' in Baton Rouge. “It’s an experience that you don’t want to feel twice,” said the running back. He ran straight, and he ran hard, because it had been facing him forever.
✦ ✦ ✦
LSU's athletic complex became an emergency facility after Katrina, with choppers on campus. Eleven years later, the floods came again. (Getty Images)
Les Miles had been waiting and waiting to coach his first football game at Death Valley. He had left Oklahoma State to replace Nick Saban, who had left for the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. But then Katrina slammed up the Gulf, and LSU’s campus became a much-needed emergency hub for the coming migration—a shelter in the field house, a triage unit on the basketball court, helicopters landing in the middle of the athletic complex. Eventually, after the season opener was postponed and a Top 15 matchup against Arizona State was transferred to Tempe, the 2005 Tigers got Baton Rouge its victory—a comeback “home” win at Sun Devil Stadium on a two-minute drill gone right, on a fourth-down bomb 1,400 miles from home.
“I always felt that in life, it wasn’t the days when you were leading 21-0 with the wind at your back and preparing to substitute the next team into the game,” Miles told reporters after the win. “I never thought those were the days when football was that important. It was always more important at times when you really struggled and there were issues greater than the score.”
At that same time, his future star running back was struggling with his family for their lives. Because when Leonard Fournette finally began evacuating from his childhood Slidell home in earnest that September, there was no more time left to wait.
Fournette was 10 years old, helping to carry his grandmother to safety. The family lived on an Interstate 10 overpass bridge for days, rummaging for food at a flooded convenience store. “We saw a lot of dead bodies,” Fournette told the Times-Picayune. “I saw a guy take a watch off a dead man.”
The Fournettes made their way to Baton Rouge, then Texas, before returning to Slidell, where Leonard developed into one of the most exciting running backs in the nation. Last season, as a sophomore, he rushed for 1,953 yards in 12 games. Alabama held him to just 31 yards on 19 carries, although Fournette still finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting. At Lambeau Field on Sept. 3, he ran for 138 yards, more than the entire opposing Wisconsin team combined.
Leonard Fournette finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting last season. (Getty Images)
Fournette has talked often about how living through Katrina molded him. Last season, he spearheaded the auctioning of a game-worn jersey to aid victims of the October 2015 deadly floods in South Carolina. “On the jersey thing, with Katrina we really didn’t get any help in New Orleans,” Fournette said at this year’s SEC media days. “So, I figured why not be that difference-maker in your generation?”
His message returned this year: Fournette posted the image of Sterling to his 175,000 Twitter followers less than two days after the July killing. “I figured I have a voice in the city where I’m from, especially Louisiana, and my whole meaning for that was just praying for change to come,” Fournette said. “That’s not just for [Baton Rouge], but everywhere in the world.”
The demands on a player of Fournette’s stature—the top-ranked position player in America—are ceaseless. He has a young daughter. His picture is everywhere around town—even more now, as the summer ends, than that of Alton Sterling. As Miles says: “A football player, he’s injured, he’s nicked. He’s got to get up early to go to treatment. He’s got to get up early and get to study. He’s got to stay up late to get the paper done. He’s got to do a bunch of stuff. There’s a bunch of stuff in academics—and then there’s a need in the community.”
It is impossible for Fournette to be a spokesman for all, let alone be a leader like Tillery, invisible and yet at the front of the march. Always standing out, Fournette waits for his moments to stand up. After August’s historic downpour in Baton Rouge, he was the first Tiger off the bus to greet flood victims at Celtic Studios, normally a state-of-the-art movie studio, according to the Times-Picayune:
Throughout everything that's going on right now, we needed this. Not just us, not just the team, but the whole of Baton Rouge. I think just the state, period. I believe we can be that change—LSU football. When coach gave us the opportunity to come out just to see everyone, speak to everyone, I wasn't going to pass up this opportunity. Maybe just shaking these guys’ hands, giving them some hugs, you never know how their day was going until they met us.
✦ ✦ ✦
In mid-July, on the day law enforcement officers Brad Garafola, Matthew Gerald and Montrell Jackson were killed and Baton Rouge got turned upside down again, Warrick Dunn took to Facebook. “We can’t just sit around and talk about how horrible all this is—we have to do something,” he wrote. “And that means it ALWAYS starts with the individual.”
The killings struck close to Dunn. In 1993, armed robbers murdered his mother, Betty Smothers, two days after his 18th birthday. Smothers was a Baton Rouge Police Department officer corporal, escorting a woman to make a bank deposit. Dunn went on to care for his siblings while starring at Florida State and becoming an NFL Pro Bowler. For years, he has helped provide homes for single-parent families. Now, he’s pleased to see a rising generation of athletes stand out on social issues, early and often and on and on and on.
“They’re a part of the community,” Dunn said. “It’s important that they do it, and they’re using social media the right way. In Lenard’s case, the running back from Southern, I think he’s being active by going out and being visible. It makes the individuals real. Most times, people think that you're athletes—that they’re above and beyond. Now, there’s a lot of guys who want to stand up for different social causes. You have great athletes that have shied away from that, and I think now this generation wants to be engaged in the future of their rights and their responsibility toward making the community a better place. I salute those guys for what they're doing.”
Summer’s almost gone, and now those guys will try to focus on the gridiron. Barring injury, Fournette’s NFL future is assured. Tillery is hoping for an opportunity at the next level. “After that, I want to come back to school and finish my engineering degree,” he said. “And then, I don’t know. The sky’s the limit. There’s a lot of things I actually want to do. ”
"We can’t just sit around and talk about how horrible all this is—we have to do something."
— WARRICK DUNN
Tillery’s immediate aspirations include mentoring children in school. He can spot the kids tuning him out with dazed expressions. He can also recognize when his message—of responsibility and the value of an education—gets through to just one person.
“A lot of people, they want to talk about it, but a lot of people don’t really want to do it,” Tillery said of being a leader. “They say that they want to be a part of things, but when it actually comes down to it, a lot of people don’t know how to do it. They let their emotions take over instead of sitting down and thinking about the best logical way to do things. It’s taught me that we definitely need leaders that think for everyone and not for themselves.”
Handy, the family friend and Baton Rouge lifer, joked that he considers himself the starting runner in a relay race. Economic opportunity, police reform, flood relief, housing development, new football fields—there are a lot of issues here, in this wounded place, that a would-be politician might hope to address. But if elected to city council, he doesn’t want to hold the baton too long. He wants to pass it to someone younger, someone who runs straight ahead, because this is Lenard Tillery’s Baton Rouge, too.
“Maybe,” Handy said, “he’s the kid for these times.”
Additional reporting by Christopher Walsh in Hoover, Alabama.