Ticats Richard Leonard: ‘Adversity is my story. And I have a lot to say.’

Please don’t tell Richard Leonard these games don’t matter. Don’t tell him all the things he’s overcome – the rough childhood, the start-and-stop college career, the close friend he lost to gun violence – are for nothing. He left his children behind in Miami to be here and if they have value then so does this game.

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats will take on the Ottawa Redblacks on Friday, the second of the trifecta of futility brought about by the elimination from playoff contention. But Richard Leonard has something left to prove because he’ll run out.

Leonard has been one of the Ticats’ best players this season and should be a top contender for the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie. He’s the only defensive back to suit up in every game, beginning the year at field corner before sliding over to halfback, where he’s matched up against slot receivers looking to take advantage of his inexperience.

It’s just the latest challenge in a lifetime full of them.

Leonard spent much of his early childhood in the care of his grandmother as his parents dealt with their personal demons. For three years, he rarely saw them.

“Growing up was real tough, there were a lot of family issues,” Leonard said. “It was really tough, worrying every day, seeing drug addicts, lots of violence. It made you want to get out of it, do the right thing.”

In high school, one of Leonard’s best friends was trying to break up a fight at a party when he was shot and killed. His name was Charlie Wilson.

“They didn’t like what he was doing so they shot him,” Leonard said. “Just like that he was gone.”

Leonard earned a scholarship to Florida International University but even that didn’t go as planned as academic struggles caused him to lose his eligibility after his freshman season. For a year, he worked to get his grades up to get back on the team. There are many crossroads in the life of Richard Leonard.

“I didn’t want to waste an opportunity,” Leonard said. “School has always been hard for me but that wasn’t a reason not to do it.”

He earned his way back on to the team and had two spectacular seasons: he was first team Conference USA both as a cornerback and a kickoff returner his last two seasons. That performance – and a 4.39 in the 40-yard dash at his pro day – was enough to earn him a three-year contract with the Houston Texans.

More adversity. A hamstring injury in training camp scuttled his chances and he was released in August, 2016. He spent months waiting for the phone to ring. The only calls he was getting were from the Tiger-Cats, who had Leonard on their negotiation list. He was reluctant.

“I almost called it quits. I told my family I wasn’t sure I wanted to come to Canada, I didn’t know how it was going to be,” Leonard said. “I felt like I had nothing left to lose so I just gave it a shot. And now I don’t want to leave.”

There have been other successes. His mother and father, after their initial struggles with the responsibilities of parenthood, returned to the picture and raised Leonard and his two siblings. His father, Raymond, runs a landscaping business and talks to his son after every game.

“Having a father in my life made a difference. I didn’t have him early but it was better to have him late than never,” Leonard said. “He’s my biggest critic and my biggest fan. I’m happy to have him in my life.”

Leonard has responsibilities of his own now. Daughter Riley and son Chase live with their mom back in Miami and he’ll go back there this off-season to spend time with him and mow lawns for his Dad in between training sessions.

He’ll also go back to his old neighbourhood and speak to kids about his journey. He’s come a long way and still feels he has so far to go. It will continue Friday against Ottawa, then next season, then for the rest of his days.

“Adversity is my story,” he said. “And I have a lot to say.”

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