Meyers Leonard: A road less traveled
Tell Klee what you think about his story here
The American flag whips high above the front entryway at Robinson High.
We'll get back to that. For now, turn out of the parking lot, Meyers Leonard says.
That's his church on the right.
It's where, as a 10- or 11-year-old, he found God. Changed his life, really, as God does. Highland Church of Christ is where four of five starters from his basketball team go on Sundays. Soon after Meyers led the Maroons to the Class 2A boys' basketball state title in March, the congregation watched a slide show with photos of those boys growing up.
"I looked out and saw grown men with tears in their eyes," says Shane Bopp, the youth minister.
It's where Meyers bumped his head on a doorway. That was inevitable. Best friend Austin Siler had joked, "Pretty soon you're going to have to duck." Meyers grew 6 inches between his freshman and sophomore years. He's now 7 feet tall and has to duck.
"I wasn't really churchgoing until I met some of the people at the church," Meyers says. "They were really nice to me."
It's where Meyers learned he would have to be strong for his mom. She's on medication for chronic back pain – the result of a horse-riding accident at 16 and a herniated disk at 30 and countless complications – that limits her mobility. Watching her youngest son play basketball was a comfort, especially when his older brother, a Marine, was deployed overseas in January.
That American flag soaring above the high school? Bailey Leonard sent it back from Afghanistan.
"Since he's in a big convoy, the problem is the roadside bombs," says Tracie Leonard, their mom. "Every convoy there's a roadside bomb. Every convoy they're shot at."
Take a left here, Meyers says. That's No. 3. It's a par 5, one of the longest holes at Quail Creek Country Club. On empty days he goes to the driving range to blast golf balls into the country sky. "I love that," he says.
It's where his dad was a golf pro. James Bailey Leonard believed he could make anyone love golf. It just takes one great shot, he would say, to bring them back.
"If someone had a lesson with Jim, he could always make sure that golfer left knowing that he learned something," Tracie says. "Meyers is the same way with basketball. He wants to see his teammates get better. He has his dad's optimism."
Bailey has his dad's facial features. And when Bailey pours a glass of milk – "Jim loved drinking milk," Tracie says – it reminds her of Jim. When Meyers smiles and flexes his biceps - "He calls them his guns" – it reminds Tracie of something Jim would do.
Meyers was 6 when his dad died.
His brother was 8.
"There's just not a lot that Meyers really remembers. You have to go by what people tell him," she says. "Bailey was old enough to know what it meant when they put that casket up there."
Take a right here, Meyers says. Let me show you my town.
On a weaving drive through Robinson, Meyers Leonard uses restaurants as landmarks.
"That's the best Chinese in town," he says, pointing to Yen Ching, where he opts for beef and broccoli.
"That's my spot right there," he says, nodding to Dairy Queen, where he cures a sweet tooth with a Cherry CheeseQuake.
"That's probably my favorite place to eat," the tour guide says, pointing to the corner of Main and Jefferson. "Great Mexican food."
When he swings open the door to Los Jardines Mexican Restaurant, Meyers is greeted like a king in reign. "Kiko!" the owner shouts. "They call me by my Spanish name," Meyers explains. After taking four years of Spanish in high school, he returns the favor by ordering his customary chicken quesadilla or fajitas en espanol.
Robinson sits about two hours southeast of Champaign and a Sunday drive from the Indiana border. It's a place with yellow ribbons taped to telephone poles: Travis James Snow, U.S. Army; Jesse Stephens, Army National Guard, and on. Two of the town's biggest employers serve as bookends on the west side (a Hershey candy plant) and the east side (a Marathon Oil refinery). In between is small-town America.
Thanks to a ferociously talented and fun-loving 18-year-old, Robinson has become known for something other than petroleum and chocolate: Meyers Patrick Leonard, the basketball player. The 7-foot, 230-pound center begins freshman orientation at Illinois on June 9. He has as good of a chance to reach the NBA as any player to enter the basketball program.
"The first time I saw him, I came away thinking he had more skills and more potential than any true big man I had seen at Illinois – maybe ever," says Dave Downey, an Illini basketball legend and a member of the All-Century team, who has followed the program since the 1950s. "Part of the reason was because he passes so very well. He reminds me of a little bit of Bill Walton. He's a long way from that skill set yet. But he reminds of that."
On this day, the 120 students in Robinson's Class of 2010 are going through a dress rehearsal for their graduation ceremony. Meyers is the only senior wearing a USA Basketball warmup. Soon after, he scrunches his long legs back into the front seat of a blue Ford Ranger. He fits, just barely.
"Keep going straight. We'll come up to the Hershey plant."
That's where Illinois coach Bruce Weber became familiar with this town. As a Purdue assistant, he was befriended by two die-hard Purdue fans from Robinson. They would send boxes and boxes of Hershey products to Mackey Arena.
"My wife figured out every way possible to make different desserts with Heath bars," he says. "We had Heath bar desserts for weeks."
Turn right at the stop sign, Meyers says. Over there, those are the baseball fields where he gravitated toward sports. Meyers and Bailey were baseball players first; Meyers a BB-throwing right-hander, Bailey a smooth southpaw. This spring was the first time since Meyers can remember he skipped a baseball season.
"See that over there?" he says.
A water slide climbs high above the community pool. When Meyers and Bailey were kids, it was a rare summer day that didn't involve the pool: "Every day I was there, man."
Meyers was at the pool in swim trunks, in fact, when Weber called to offer him a scholarship. "Maybe the greatest day of my life," says Meyers, who averaged about 19 points, 11 rebounds, four blocks and four assists as a senior. He canceled plans to attend elite camps at Ohio State and Florida and committed to Illinois within a week.
"I remember our last game in (Las) Vegas that July. I looked up and saw Roy Williams, Ben Howland, Rick Pitino, Coach Weber, (Matt) Painter," Meyers says. "It was crazy because people say, 'Why wouldn't you even look at North Carolina if maybe you could've gone there?' But U of I is just where I've always wanted to go.
"I can't explain it. I was just waiting for the offer, like, 'Man, I don't care about these other schools. I just want an offer from the U of I.' Then I just ended it."
There's a common thread as Meyers tours Robinson. On the main drag, on each side street, on every corner, he has a memory or a story or a connection.
And it's hard to say if Meyers is more important to Robinson – or if Robinson is more important to Meyers.
After the graduation rehearsal he signs an autograph for a girl he's known since the fifth grade. ("Her aunt is an Illinois fan," he says.) Seven-year-olds have invited Meyers to their birthday parties. The basketball state title was Robinson's first.
"You know what that did? It filled driveways," says Todd Weber, the owner of Weber Jewelry & Gifts near the town square. "The next day every kid in town was in their driveway shooting a basketball."
The whole town knows Meyers' story.
Meanwhile, the life he's lived hardly has been easy, but the community tried to make it that way. He doesn't pay a greens fee at Quail Creek Country Club. He was given his first job, moving pipe and sweeping a storage space, down at Bradford Supply Co.
Residents like Les Wilson, an assistant basketball coach, drove Meyers through an ice storm so he could sit behind the Illinois bench for a Braggin' Rights game. The Siler family introduced Meyers to Sunday school. "Ever since his dad passed away, Brian Siler has been like a father to Meyers," Tracie says, and Meyers will room with best friend Austin Siler in Champaign in the fall.
"Robinson is the only home he's ever known," she says. "When Jim passed away, and with my back pains, it was hard for them. This community, it's been wonderful to him."
"When you lose your father it's not an easy thing," Bruce Weber says. "What I take from the whole thing is the community has done a great job of helping his mom to raise him."
Maybe that's why he's so willing to tell the whole story of his town.
"People in Robinson are forever connected with Meyers Leonard – and vice versa," says Bob Coffman, the boys' basketball coach.
The only year of his life Meyers didn't spend in Robinson was the first. He was born in Woodbridge, Va., where his father was a car salesman and his mom worked for the federal government. He was born six weeks premature, at 6 pounds, 11 ounces, and 20 inches.
"For a premature baby, he was huge. The doctor was shocked how big he was," Tracie says. "If he hadn't been a premature baby, he might have been a Yao Ming-sized baby."
Tracie says her husband spent his days at home with the boys when car sales went in the tank. The family soon moved to Robinson, where Jim worked as the golf pro. It wasn't long before Meyers started growing ... and growing ... and growing. In a fifth-grade basketball league, officials put a cap on the tall kid's point total. "Once he scored 20 points, his points didn't count anymore," Tracie says, in order to even the playing field.
Mom is 6 feet. Bailey is 6-4. "They told me my dad was 6-4," Meyers says. The youngest boy went through 10 pairs of shoes – he now wears a size 17 – when he sprouted 6 inches between his freshman and sophomore years of high school.
"He was probably 14 when he started lifting (weights) at the high school. I remember one time he was on the bench (press) with maybe 100 pounds," says Coffman, the coach. "He brought the bar down to his chest and couldn't get it back up again. I said, 'I'm not going to help you. You've got to get strong.' He thought I was joking."
Last week, with 185 pounds on the bar, Meyers put up 15 repetitions, a personal record. In Weber's tenure at Illinois, then-upperclassman Brian Randle set the record with 23.
"There's my house," Meyers says. "Pull in on the side."
This is where every morning his mom makes a shake for Meyers: one large banana, two vanilla yogurts, one cup of frozen strawberries, one cup of strawberry-orange Sunny Delight. Their meats are grilled, and there's no soda in the house.
"To those boys," says Robinson High Principal Troy Hickey, "their mother walks on water."
This is where the brothers were driving when they saw the smoke. "My first thought was, 'Please don't let that be our house,' " Meyers says. Mercifully it wasn't. It was Bill's Garage, an automotive repair shop just down the street.
"The whole thing burned down," Meyers says. "I felt bad for them. But if it was our house ..."
His voice trailing off, the message was clear: Please, not another hardship.
Their father died of injuries suffered in a bicycling accident on Aug. 11, 1998. He was one month from his 47th birthday.
"It was harder for Bailey because he knew what was going on," Tracie says.
Meyers knows his father through photos and stories. He used to ask questions; Tracie would answer best she could.
"It was not a good time for us," she says.
"Everyone I've talked to said he was a really nice man. They said he was really good at golf," Meyers says. "They said my dad was a really laidback guy. Everybody liked him. He was always smiling at people and saying hi to everybody."
Take a left onto this street. Slow down for a minute.
"That over there," he says. "It used to be a hospital."
The brick building is abandoned now. A sign reads, "No Trespassing." Windows are busted out and doors are covered with bars.
"That's where my dad was born."
Striding toward his seat for the graduation rehearsal, Meyers stands nearly 2 feet above some of the girls in his class. Freshmen watch from the bleachers, waiting their turn.
It was here, in the Robinson gym, where Bailey went through the same rehearsal two years ago. Tracie's hope is that he returns from Afghanistan before summer's end. The placard in their front yard – "Bailey Leonard, U.S. Marines" – is like a campaign sign lobbying for his safe return.
For Tracie, the most emotional part of a basketball game in this gym wasn't the fourth quarter with a tight score. It was during the national anthem.
"By the time we get to the end of it – 'The land of the free and the home of the brave' – I had a hard time keeping my composure," she says. "Meyers is free to pursue his dreams and his goals. My other son is the brave. He joined the military at a time of war.
"Trying not to sob and break down was really hard."
Meyers and this tour is about to leave the town's limits. If you're willing to stray from the interstate, he says, there's a quicker route from Robinson to Champaign.
Head west. Pass the North Fork Bait Shop and cross into Jasper County. A hard rain puddles the farmlands around the u-pick-'em strawberry farm on Illinois 33. Go north toward Charleston. You'll see Crooked Creek Antler Art on the right.
Meyers says, "Champaign's not too far," and he can make it to the University of Illinois in under two hours.
It might be the easiest road he's traveled.