EACH WEEK, WE'LL TAKE A LOOK BACK AT A MEMORABLE MOMENT IN ILLINI HISTORY, THANKS TO THE WORDS OF THE NEWS-GAZETTE
This week: With Big Ten football media day on tap, there was a time that Illini linebacker J Leman stole the show.
Date: Aug. 5, 2007
Headline: Mr. Personality
By BOB ASMUSSEN
CHICAGO — There is a buzz in the interview room, the kind normally reserved for Joe Paterno. Or Barack Obama. Or Jessica Alba.
Not the kind usually associated with a linebacker from a 2-10 team. A guy who had a single I-A scholarship offer as a high school senior.
But J Leman defies logic. Leman refutes stereotypes. He's a walking, talking, quipping answer to the question: 'What's right with college football?'
You'll get no argument from reporters covering the Big Ten media event. He surprises and impresses them with his class and sass. His 'Rocky' impersonations. His self-deprecating humor. His unbending conviction about the pending success of his team.
'He could have his own TV show,' says Corey McPherrin, sports anchor at Chicago's WFLD. 'I don't know that I can recall another kid in college being quite so comfortable, natural, charismatic. It's the first time I've seen him at length. His comfort level with the media is just ridiculously high. It's as if he's been doing it for 10 years.
'Obviously, he's a very good player and it wouldn't really matter if his personality was any good. If all things are equal, his personality can raise his level of notoriety tremendously. To have a guy like him, who seems to really like it, is good for the team, too.'
From across the room, Leman looks like a fit for 'The Program.' His hair is long and, at times, in desperate need of a combing. His neck is tree trunk-sized. His body is 38 pounds heavier than when he arrived on the Illinois campus in 2003 as an underappreciated local recruit.
This is no caveman-type football player, grunting and huffing and waiting to crush some unsuspecting tailback. Inside Leman's head there is heavy lifting being done. He long ago earned his degree and will complete his master's in December. If he isn't the smartest guy on the team, he at least makes the starting five.
'He's kind of a Renaissance man,' McPherrin says.
And he understands it.
'I still catch some people offguard,' Leman says. 'Sometimes when you say a witty comment, they do a double take. That just comes with the territory. You don't want to come off as 'Football, football, ugh.' '
From the moment he arrives at the Big Ten's annual kickoff event, Leman is having fun and making friends. While he checks in at the swanky Hyatt Regency Chicago, a woman asks Leman, 'Who are you?'
Without hesitation, he shouts back, 'Matthew McConaughey.' He has made her day, although you're pretty sure she doesn't believe him.
For the 30 hours he is in Chicago, Leman will room with Illinois sports information assistant Derek Neal. The other Illinois football players on the trip, offensive lineman Martin O'Donnell and defensive tackle Chris Norwell, share another room.
Wearing a T-shirt and shorts, Leman tugs his heavy bags to room 1419 in the West Tower. Soon, the clothes will be in a pile on the floor.
Leman's media obligations start an hour after his arrival. On their way in, Norwell and O'Donnell fix Leman's tie.
He has individual interviews set with Fox Sports, ESPN and the Big Ten Network. The first stop is ESPN, where interviewer Mike Flash asks, 'Would it be a disappointment if the team didn't turn it around this year?'
Leman is ready.
'It's been a goal of mine and my class,' Leman says. 'If we didn't accomplish that this year, it would be hard to take.'
After a few minutes with ESPN, Leman waits for his next stop. A veteran of the Big Ten event (he attended last year), Leman finds a seat. Rest is important during media day.
In the Big Ten Network room, lead announcer Dave Revsine handles the Leman interview. They chitchat for a few minutes, Revsine mentioning his Champaign roots. Leman doesn't realize it at the time, but he's one of the first guests for the fledgling network.
During the interview, Revsine asks about the mix of veterans and a highly touted incoming recruiting class at Illinois.
'We've become like a hybrid car,' Leman says. '(The veterans) are the gas.'
Historically, which player fits Leman's image of Big Ten toughness?
'Dick Butkus,' Leman says. 'That's the top of tough guys.'
When Leman's hair starts to fall over his eyes, one of the producers asks him to pull it back.
'I've got to get a 'do like you,' Leman says, pointing to a hair-challenged cameraman.
The interview is supposed to go 15 minutes, but it's running long. And that's a good thing. One of the producers echoes McPherrin's words. When Leman takes off the mike, there are congratulatory handshakes and pats on the back, as if he has just won a big game.
The most grueling media session starts in a large ballroom. Six stages are set up, with four to seven cameras at each. There are microphones from the different stations.
Stage 1 includes Chicago's WGN, WLNS and WMAQ, Decatur's WAND and stations from Iowa and Wisconsin.
Leman joins Norwell, O'Donnell and Illinois coach Ron Zook on the stage. Unlike the individual interviews, not every player will be talking during each 15-minute session. The players try to stay attentive, but it isn't easy.
A reporter from Wisconsin asks Leman about 'almost stealing a game from the Badgers.'
While trying to be respectful, Leman fires back, 'Well, I thought that game was up for grabs. I didn't know Wisconsin owned it.'
Leman calls it a correction and it isn't meant as a jab to the interviewer.
At Stage 4, one of the reporters has clearly done some homework. Noting Leman's love of the movie 'Rocky IV,' the linebacker is asked to do his best Sylvester Stallone voice. It's a struggle, but draws a big laugh.
At another stop, a reporter asks about Leman's penchant for eating raw meat and wonders if he might try some before the game at Iowa.
'No, but I might stop at a pig farm on the way up,' Leman says.
When the 90-minute shift ends for the Illini, there are more interviews in the spacious hallway. Leman talks to the three Champaign-Urbana area affiliates, giving them all the answers they want.
The Big Ten provides lunch for the players and coaches in another ballroom. Leman fills up his plate and takes his time eating. Except for a radio spot on WDWS, his media responsibilities are mostly over for the day.
He winds his way through the Hyatt Regency maze, finds an elevator and presses 14. Within minutes, Leman is back in his increasingly cluttered room.
How is it going for Leman?
'I don't necessarily enjoy it,' Leman says. 'I don't really despise it. It's somewhere in the middle. It's nowhere near playing football. Let's just go play football. This stuff is necessary because people have to know what's going on.'
While Leman is flattered by McPherrin's comments, his intent isn't to put on a show.
'It's just me being me,' Leman said. 'I feel good that he said that.'
Leman's interview prowess will help him when it comes to making All-Big Ten and All-America teams. Or being a finalist for the Butkus Award. There are real people voting for the honors. And they like players with personalities.
'You've got to make a good impression,' Leman says. 'Like Coach Zook says all the time, 'Perception is reality.' Whether you like it or not.'
There were times during the 2006 season when the media requests were starting to wear on Leman. He was taking a heavy load of classes as part of his master's program.
'It was tough,' Leman says. 'It wears on you as much as you let it. If you've got an attitude like, 'Ahh, I just don't want to talk to these guys today,' it's going to be like that. If you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all. It's the old 'Bambi' rule, isn't it? Didn't Thumper's mom say that to him?'
Leman's depth of knowledge goes far beyond football. He can go off the normal path during an interview and not get lost.
'Football relates to life so well,' Leman said. 'You can tie in a lot of stuff. People think that they see a football player and all they see is him playing in the game. There's so much more to somebody's life. Just like there's so much more to your life than being a reporter. There's the faith. There's the family. There's the school. What you do outside? What you do for fun?'
There's even more to Leman's life now than before. Earlier in his Illinois career, The News-Gazette quoted Leman talking about his unsuccessful search for a girlfriend.
'It might be my looks,' Leman said in August 2005. 'I think I'm struggling in that department. I need to groom better. Maybe I need to change my toothpaste flavor or something because I'm scaring people off.'
Leman isn't scaring off Katy Pratapas. Leman and the former Illini volleyball player have been dating for about nine months. Pratapas has been a positive influence for Leman.
'She's very sharp,' Leman said. 'She keeps you on your toes. And she's beautiful. Gorgeous.
'Obviously, she's good for me. With some of my sharp remarks, when I maybe take it too far trying to be funny, she can call me out on that. The great thing is she lines up with me in what she believes.'
His teammates provide additional balance. Leman hangs out with the players at parties and will drink a beer. Just not to excess. He enjoys being with the rest of the Illini no matter what the setting.
He still eats a less-than-conventional diet. For the trip to Chicago, he brings a large bottle of olive oil, which he downs with a water chaser.
'Want me to do some for you?' Leman says. 'That's the jumbo size from Wal-Mart.'
Why olive oil?
'It's got great fats for you,' Leman says. 'For me, it's all about making my body burn fat because fat is a more efficient fuel than carbs.'
In the Barry Bonds era, Leman hears plenty about steroids.
'That's a legitimate question in this day and age,' Leman said. 'There have been some people who asked or have questioned it under their breath. I take it as a compliment because I know I'm not using them. I know that I've made sacrifices in the way I trained and in the way I eat.'
The media requirements ease up for the players on the second day. Except for the early hour.
The session starts at 8 a.m., which is fine if you've spent the previous night holed up in your hotel room. Some of Big Ten players took in a few of the local sights and it shows on their weary faces.
Leman, O'Donnell and Norwell spent a quiet night near the hotel. There are no sagging heads or constant yawns from the trio, who sit at three consecutive round tables in a Hyatt ballroom.
Illinois isn't the star of the show, partly because of its own open-door media policy. With the players and coaches available at Camp Rantoul and throughout the season, there isn't a rush to do interviews. That isn't the case at Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, where media access is limited.
Still, Leman and friends face a steady stream of reporters. Rarely are their tables empty.
All the media types have an agenda, a story plan to fulfill. The reporter from Wisconsin asks Leman about the joys of Camp Randall Stadium (Leman loves it). From an Iowa writer, there are questions about the Hawkeyes offense.
As the session winds down, the players are reminded to hurry across the hall. In an adjacent room, tables are set up for each school. The players and coaches sign autographs for fans attending the pricey Big Ten Kickoff luncheon. Time to be a role model, which is easy for the guy who places high value on his family and faith.
'People put athletes on a pedestal,' Leman says. 'I'm no better than anybody else. But I do try to live a life that is representative of what I think Jesus would do.'