Players have all sorts of reactions after they reach the Super Bowl for the first time in their lives.
Some exult. Others reflect. Leonard Fournette wept.
“I was crying for like 30 minutes,’’ Fournette said after the Buccaneers outlasted the Packers 31-26 in the NFC Championship game. ‘’I was on the phone with my mom and dad just [talking] about my journey.
“I think it’s a wonderful story how it’s playing out.’’
The story continues in two weeks at Raymond James Stadium, where the Buccaneers, wild-card playoff entrants with three consecutive road victories in the postseason, face the favored Chiefs in Super Bowl 2021. The closest Fournette had come to advancing to a Super Bowl was after his rookie season, when the upstart Jaguars made it to the AFC title game, only to be eliminated by Tom Brady and the Patriots. It is somehow fitting that it was Brady, in his first year with the Bucs, who helped Fournette reach this destination.
Back in 2017, Fournette was a rising star. The No. 4 pick in the NFL draft out of LSU, he ran for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns in his first NFL season but he never fulfilled his promise in Jacksonville.
A hamstring issue limited him to eight games in 2018. He was suspended for the Week 13 game against the Colts for his involvement in an earlier on-field altercation. In the season finale, Fournette was inactive but was seen sitting on the bench the entire game, not engaged, as the Jaguars lost to the Texans. Afterward, Tom Coughlin, the team’s executive vice president of football operations — one year removed from his 12-year stay as Giants head coach — ripped Fournette and teammate T.J. Yeldon, saying they were “disrespectful, selfish and their behavior was unbecoming that of a professional football player.”
In April 2019, Fournette was arrested in Duval County, Fla., for driving with a suspended license and speeding; he was fined for the incident. He ran for a career-high 1,152 yards in his third NFL season, but his relationship with the Jaguars had soured. They tried to trade him and when they found no partner, Fournette was waived.
The Buccaneers, after luring Brady, went all-in, signing Rob Gronkowski, LeSean McCoy and Fournette, suppling the offense with former stars possessing varying amounts of tread left on their tires. Fournette, though, is only 26. He was given a one-year deal and served as the backup to starter Ronald Jones. Fournette had only 97 rushing attempts for 367 yards for the Bucs, but he did score six touchdowns.
“I come here and had hopes of being a starter; it didn’t work out,’’ Fournette said. “I had ups and downs this whole season.’’
Fournette said there were times during the season his head coach, Bruce Arians, asked “What do I want to be?’ Don’t get me wrong, I was upset plenty of times after the game when I wasn’t getting the ball or anything. He just sat down and had a real talk with me, and I just had to get my mind right.”
A quad injury has hampered Jones in the postseason. Fournette stepped in and in three games has 48 rushing attempts for 211 yards and two touchdowns, as well as 14 receptions for 102 yards and one touchdown. He described his first year in Tampa as “a humbling year for me — a lot of ups and downs.’’
In Green Bay, Fournette came up with one of the biggest plays in the NFC title game, turning a simple handoff into a 20-yard scoring run, spinning to get past two Packers defenders to put the Bucs ahead 14-7.
“It’s very, very hard when you’re a superstar and you’re the focal point of the offense and you come to a [different] team and you’re basically a role player for a while,’’ Arians said Monday. “It’s a very hard role to accept. I just told him, ‘This team is special and you’re a huge part of it. Embrace your role — you never know when your role is going to change.’ Then [Jones] got COVID and then he got hurt. I’m really, really proud of Leonard and the way he’s handled it.”