Jim Leonhard might have grown up in Tony, Wis., but the veteran Jets safety never had any Packers fever.
“I was never a big Green Bay fan,” he told me this week during a taping of “Four Quarters.” “My parents were, so I gave them grief growing up.”
You can get from Tony, a small town 200 miles northwest of the Packers’ home, to Lambeau Field in less than 3½ hours by car. However during his childhood, Leonhard idolized a 5’8” running back who happened to be employed in the Motor City.
Wisconsin, he said, is “a huge football state with very dedicated, passionate fans, which is great for an organization. It was fun growing up and seeing the history of the great players and they had some very exciting games,” Leonhard said of the Pack. “I had to cheer against them — I was a big Barry Sanders fan. I was a Detroit fan.”
Late Sunday afternoon, Leonhard hopes that most of Wisconsin will be mourning a loss by their favorite pro sports team after the Jets and the Packers battle. This will be the second time Leonhard, a six-year veteran, will face the Packers and the first time as a Jet and a defensive regular.
“I have a lot of family and friends that are torn who to cheer for this week. It will be fun and hopefully we get a win,” he said. “Then I’ll have bragging rights for an entire year. I’m looking forward to it. Even though I was never a Green Bay fan, just knowing the history of that franchise, it would be big to get a win this week.”
The 5’8”, 186-pound Leonhard returned to Tony during the bye week to watch his younger brother, Tyler, play his last regular high school game at Flambeau High School. It was the first time Jim had seen his brother play a high school game in person as Tyler lined up at QB and S just like Jimmy did in high school.
A two-time captain at Flambeau, Leonhard captained his HS team as both a junior and a senior. He earned team MVP honors as a senior after collecting eight interceptions and 120 tackles before walking on at Wisconsin.
“Growing up in a small town with just over 100 people — the high school is made up of a bunch of different communities that come together to make the high school,” he said of Flambeau. “If I played in front of 2,000 or 2,500 people, that was a huge sellout, a standing-room-only game.
“Going from that and to Madison and playing in front of 75, 80 thousand every week in the Big Ten was a huge adjustment. But it was great, having to walk on, having a great experience and finally getting a scholarship after a couple of years. It was a lot of fun. I have some great memories at Wisconsin as well and some pretty good teams. Going to Wisconsin, my friends and family were huge Badger fans, so a lot of people got involved in my career and I had a lot of support.”
Leonhard, still giddy over the Badgers’ big road upset over the Iowa Hawkeyes last Saturday, was one of the most productive players in the history of the UW program. His 21 interceptions tied a school record while ranking fourth-best in Big Ten history, and his 1,347 punt-return yards (three of his returns went for touchdowns) also established a conference mark.
“I got experience as a freshman, played special teams and didn’t redshirt. I made a few plays and then for the first time in my life — growing up a three-sport guy in high school — I got to focus on football year-round,” he said. “Going to spring ball and focusing on football 12 months a year really took my game to the next level. I ended up starting my next three years and having a very productive career. It was great, it really was fun. I have a lot of memories. A fun university. There is a lot more outside of football that you’ll remember and I had a great time and met a lot of great people.”
A well-known name throughout Wisconsin, Leonhard is a giant in tiny Tony. According to city-data.com, Tony had a registered population of 88 in July of 2009 (it was 105, according to the 2000 Census). And when you enter, there’s that famous sign that reads “Hometown of Jimmy Leonhard” and “Walk-On to All-American.”
“I have a lot of pride and a lot of support in my hometown and people love to say they know me or they grew up from where I’m from. It’s fun to get back and just see the reception you get. I try to get back as much as possible,” he said. “It is a little weird. When I see that sign, it’s like, I’m not that important. But you see the effect you have on people, especially kids, and you can’t help but be proud and enjoy giving back to the community.”
Leonhard knows loyalties will be divided in many Wisconsin households on Halloween. So Jimmy’s wife, Katie, has designed a specialty T-shirt that reads “Green Bay Fan By Birth” and “Jim Leonhard Fan By Choice” that can be found at jimleonhardfootball.com. Leonhard loves where he’s from, but he’s never been a fan of the Packers and that won’t change this weekend.
Tags: Green Bay Packers, Jim Leonhard, Tony WI, Wisconsin
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