Incoming University of Illinois freshman Meyers Leonard grew into the man and player he is - one that NBA scouts are already watching - thanks to the help of three hometown men who helped shape him after Leonard's father died.
It was one of those offseason workouts meant to find the limits of everyone in maroon and white on the Robinson High School basketball court. Pushed by athletic trainer Scott Rawlings, center Meyers Leonard reached his breaking point.
The pressure was finally getting to Leonard, a blossoming talent whose stock was soaring in recruiting circles. Leonard was 6 when his father died, and the future basketball star had grown up needing a helping hand to get by, both financially and emotionally. The intelligent, outgoing Leonard decided basketball was the fast track to happiness and prosperity.
"If I mess this up, I've got nothing,'' Leonard told Rawlings that day in the middle of his high school career. "I'm screwed. I'm going to be nothing. So this is it for me.''
Leonard, who committed to Illinois two years ago and will arrive on campus June 9, pulled it together after that experience and led Robinson to the Class 2A state title this year. That's a big deal to the 6,471 folks in Robinson, two hours southeast of Champaign and off the beaten path.
If a 7-foot, 236-pound body with those broad shoulders able to carry 30 more pounds doesn't make Leonard a high-level prospect, his ability to run and jump have already caught the attention of scouts at the professional level. Leonard is also coachable, making the upside more pronounced, and the hunger to succeed drives him.
He might not have made it this far if not for the guidance from three men - a surrogate father, the guy unafraid to tell him no and a demanding youth coach.
"He's had it rough,'' said Brian Siler, a Robinson insurance agent described as a step-father by Leonard. "When you lose your dad that young and mom isn't working and not healthy anyway, he's not had it easy. For him, getting a new pair of jeans was a big deal.''
Siler began as a mentor and a helping hand, then developed into a father figure for Leonard. He invested time and money in the project for more than a decade. Rawlings came to town four years ago, requiring some toughness and accountability from Leonard. Former Lincoln Trail College baseball coach Mitch Hannahs first pushed a group that included Leonard, Hannahs' son, Derek, and Siler's son, Austin, when the boys were fourth-graders.
"Without the people who took me under their wing, it's hard to say where I would be,'' Leonard said.
This is Robinson's version of “The Blind Side.”
A family tragedy
Unlike other towns in the area, Robinson's economy has remained steady for quite some time. The Marathon refinery employs 650. Lincoln Trail, a community college, sits adjacent to a state prison. And there's a Hershey candy factory.
But Leonard grew up the hard way. His father, James, a former golf pro at Crawford County Country Club, died from a head injury suffered in a bicycle wreck in the middle of town. After the death, Leonard's mother, Tracie, rarely left the house. She walks with a cane, and those close to her said she has chronic back pain. Through Leonard and Siler, Tracie Leonard turned down requests for an interview for this story.
Meyers Leonard rarely speaks about his father, but he craves the idea of a complete family. The image stretching across his back - a three-hour project in a Vincennes, Ind., tattoo parlor - has “Leonard” in cursive and a ribbon inscribed with ''family.'' His father's initials and “rest in peace” are there with the initials of his brother Bailey, who is 2 years older, and his mother.
Called a considerate people-pleaser like his brother, Bailey Leonard left home soon after high school graduation for the U.S. Marines. He's deployed in Afghanistan.
"The day he left, I sat in my room and cried like a baby,'' Leonard said.
Few residents in Robinson know Tracie Leonard, so they come to their own conclusions, but people who have contact with her said she has more influence on her sons than the gossip gives her credit for. She's straightforward and detail-oriented.
"People sit back and think Tracie turned those boys loose and didn't have a major impact in their lives,'' Hannahs said. "That's the furthest thing from the truth. She's done a tremendous job. They'd do anything for anybody. Those boys know right and wrong.''
His mother didn't see Leonard play basketball regularly until his senior season. Even though Leonard often spent time on the Illinois campus, the official visit became a big deal because Tracie made the trip.
‘He turned me into a good young man’
Siler's influence first began as something simple, like a ride to church or basketball camp for a young boy who just lost his father.
"I thought maybe it was time for me to do what I could do,'' Siler said.
The compassionate, Christian man showed an interest in Leonard a decade ago, well before the recruiters came calling. Siler, a Robinson High School graduate who returned home after college and several stops as a pharmaceutical salesman, overlooked Leonard's early behavior, what Siler called plea for attention.
"He was hyper,'' Siler said. "He was hard for a lot of parents and dads to take. It didn't bother me. He was like that. He was just Meyers.''
Then something clicked. Leonard likely sought a father figure, and he accepted the mentoring. The talks hit upon honesty, making good decisions, morals, self-control, how to respect a coach and teamwork.
Siler also introduced Leonard to Highland Church of Christ. Leonard became a regular and a year ago asked to be baptized. As the years rolled by, Leonard developed into another member of the Siler family that already included two boys and a girl. He stays at the Siler house most nights.
"When we go places, people say, 'Is that your boy?' '' Siler said. "’No, he's not my son, but he's like my son.' After I said that a few times, I asked Meyers if that was OK. He said, 'You are like my dad.' That made me feel good.''
Siler's son Austin and Leonard were in the same grade but never very tight until high school. Now they call each other brothers, and they will share a room at Illini Towers, an off-campus dorm. Austin Siler will attend Parkland College, the community college on Champaign's west side.
"This year, we started becoming a lot closer,'' Austin said. "He came over every day and stayed at our house almost every night. I was never jealous. I always kind of understood what was going on. He didn't grow up with a dad. My dad was trying to help him out. It feels pretty good to help him out.''
Imagine how much a growing 7-footer can eat. Brian Siler also made sure Leonard always had a ride, a good pair of shoes and something in his pocket on road trips.
"He's been grateful for anything we've done,'' Siler said. "I've done stuff for other kids, too. They've not all been like that. He really does appreciate it.''
Siler was "the roof over his head and the clothes on his back,'' Rawlings said.
"Brian was lending a hand,'' Hannahs said. "He was just doing what was right to do. Meyers has an admiration for how Brian treats his family. It's deep-rooted respect for Brian as a man. Truth be known, he's what Meyers knows as a father.''
Leonard joined the Silers on a family vacation to Destin, Fla., after high school graduation.
"He turned me into a good young man,'' Leonard said. "You never know where I would have went. A lot of people respect me because I'm a nice, courteous kid. Some kids in my shoes, they could be cocky and arrogant. I've got a little swag in my step, (but) I'm still opening doors for people.
"He took me in. That just shows a lot about him.''
Instilling some discipline
Rawlings went with “my way or the highway.” The old-school approach met resistance at first with Leonard, who was told by Rawlings to hit the door before the start of a speed and agility camp shortly after Rawlings moved to town four years ago.
While Siler had more patience, Rawlings filled the role of tough disciplinarian. Leonard liked it, because he didn't steer clear.
"He wanted that discipline,'' Rawlings said. "Otherwise, he wouldn't have come around. If he wants the truth, he knows I will give it to him. I don't think a lot of people here were like that with him. They knew he had it hard. It was always like, 'All right, Meyers. We'll include you no matter what.'
"Brian has been that positive influence, a great role model. Brian doesn't have that knock-that-(stuff)-off attitude.''
As the weeks went by, a trust formed between Leonard and Rawlings. When Leonard talked about quitting basketball and concentrating on baseball during his freshman year, Rawlings talked him out of it. Rawlings also contributed as the strength and conditioning coach, offering to meet Leonard in the gym whenever possible.
"It started with working on skills, getting some shots up,'' said Rawlings, a former junior college forward. "Then it was every Sunday night. Get an extra lift. Some shooting. Then one-on-one in the post for an hour. Pretty much every Sunday for three years.''
Before a trip in May to Champaign to check out dorm rooms, Leonard failed to inform Rawlings, who later wanted to know why he wasn't in school.
"Even to this day, I can't get anything past Scott,'' Leonard said.
The connection paid off. Midway through the second quarter in the Class 2A state title game against Peoria Manual, Leonard drew his third foul, then nearly had another foul and technical. Pulled from the game, Leonard pouted. At halftime, Robinson coach Bob Coffman asked Rawlings to speak with Leonard. It wasn't pretty.
"I tore into him at halftime,'' said Rawlings, who also sat on the bench for games. "For whatever reason, he'll respond to me. I said, 'All you're worried about is what people think of you. Let's go out now and for 16 minutes show you can take over a game. Show everyone why you're playing at the next level.' ''
Leonard scored 11 of his 16 points after halftime in the 76-68 overtime win for the championship. He also finished with 15 rebounds and six blocks.
"I was flipping out on the bench,'' Leonard said. "Coach Coffman nudges Scott or gives him a wink. He told me to get my head into the game - in somewhat of a mean way. That's what he does. I respect that.''
A smart, all-around athlete
Surprised to learn there was no structured youth program when he arrived in Robinson nearly a decade ago, Hannahs, the juco baseball coach who was promoted to Lincoln Trail interim president in May, wanted to form a team. Siler knew the kids, and Hannahs could run a baseball or basketball practice.
"You knew that he knew what he was talking about,'' Leonard said.
Hannahs was the boss, and he kept everyone in line. When the team was being built, the chatty Leonard was sent to the other end of the court by himself. When Hannahs allowed Leonard to return, Hannahs thought he would have to spend more time teaching the offense that the other players already knew.
"He knew the offense better than any other kid,'' Hannahs said. "I was expecting to walk him through everything. He was pointing to other kids, telling them where they needed to be. I was floored. I remember scratching my head. You stick me under that other basket, I wouldn't have known the offense.''
Hannahs' direction also helped this group win Babe Ruth state baseball titles in 13- and 15-year-old divisions. Had Leonard not reached 7 feet, he would have been a Division I college pitcher. Or better. Leonard considered returning to the diamond this spring, and major league scouts wanted to see him pitch, Robinson athletic director Terry Roche said. The thought is intriguing - a 7-foot right-hander with a blistering fastball and such a long stride.
"I would have been untouchable,'' Leonard said.
More than anything, Hannahs taught Leonard a work ethic.
"You're talking about a kid who spent his whole life truckin' and getting out of this tough situation and climbing,'' Hannahs said. "Nothing will hit him that's worse than what he's already been through.''
'My ticket to life'
Leonard wore a target the past two seasons as he became more well-known. On the road, there were disparaging signs and foul language from the bleachers. On the court, there was always an elbow in Leonard's back and a double- or triple-team. By Leonard's count, he rang up 10 technicals as a senior as he struggled with the coverage.
"The goal was to push him, shove him and take him out of the game,'' Roche said. "He was under the gun right off the bat.''
No matter what out-of-towners say or think, the Robinson folks still love him. Kids and adults all want to talk to him. And the autographs. You'd think by now everyone in Robinson had a “Meyers Leonard” on a shirt, napkin or ball.
"He's got a chance at greatness in basketball. Before that, it was just Meyers. Smiling, goofy, enjoying people Meyers. It's a combination of this that people see today. It's been the Meyers that they approach. There has never been a formalness about him. He just smiles at the world,” Hannahs said.
"Watch all the people that suffer tragedy in their lifetime. They're usually some of the best at smiling and enjoying days.''
That attitude doesn't change when he relaxes in Illinois coach Bruce Weber's office.
"He sits in my office for an hour and a half,'' Weber said. "I'll tell him, ‘Meyers, you have to go. I'm on the phone.' He'll say, 'That's OK, coach.' So I have to tell him again he has to go because he can't listen, and then he looks at me like, ‘Why?’''
Leonard already has a head start on his college classwork by taking classes at the hometown community college, and he has made headway on his three big goals: earning a college scholarship, winning a state championship and playing in the NBA.
"He's a pretty good student and has a good head on his shoulders,'' Rawlings said. "Without basketball, he could have been something. This is a fast track to getting out and making something for himself and his family. That's why he puts so much pressure on himself. He wants to be successful and take care of his mother.''
Basketball is also a way for Leonard to give back.
"This is my ticket to life,'' Leonard said. "This is putting food on the table. It's buying a house for my mom. It's making my mom proud. It's making everybody in this town proud. It's me.''
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.