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Prep football: East's Leonard may forego football to pursue dream of becoming a surgeon

Duluth East junior Elijah Leonard runs through a defensive drill on Monday at Ordean Stadium. The Greyhounds, led by their running back, open the Section 7AAAAA playoffs by hosting Andover tonight. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Most high school football players would kill to play the sport in college, especially at the NCAA Division I level.

Elijah Leonard could forego the opportunity because he wants to keep people alive.

The Duluth East junior intends to be a surgeon. For that, he has “Grey’s Anatomy” to thank. Leonard was a pre-teen when he started watching the wildly popular doctor drama. At an age when young athletes normally dream about professional stardom, Leonard decided he wanted to become a cardiothoracic and orthopedic surgeon.

He realizes the long-running “Grey’s Anatomy” is part fantasyland, but it nonetheless got Leonard scheming for the future.

It won’t be easy. But it will be worth it.

“The schooling that it takes is very rigorous, but then you get to help people and save lives,” he said before practice Monday at Ordean Stadium, where the Greyhounds were preparing for tonight’s Section 7AAAAA playoff opener against visiting Andover (6 p.m. kickoff).

Leonard, as usual, will be a big part of the game plan. That’s because he’s built like a heavy-duty pickup and moves like a muscle car. His teammates further the analogy by referring to Leonard as “Bus” or “DTA,” sometimes both.

Once he gets going, it’s hard to slow the running back down. At 5-foot-10, 255 pounds, Leonard looks more like a defensive tackle, which he is. But he’s playing fewer snaps there as his ball-carrying workload on offense increases.

A player of Leonard’s size typically gets the ball down around the goal line, and that’s it. He’s not a typical player, though.

“There haven’t been too many 250-pound running backs that I’ve ever had the privilege of coaching,” East’s Joe Hietala said.

After a slow start in which Leonard was trying to find a rhythm, and the Greyhounds were trying to determine how best to use him, he’s come on in the second half. Leonard has rushed 121 times for 684 yards (5.7 average) and six touchdowns. Many of those are after-contact yards, the byproduct of Leonard lowering his shoulder into an unfortunate defender.

“When he gets a couple steps going, I wouldn’t want to be one of those guys trying to tackle him,” Hietala said. “But he’s kind of got a little shift in gear, too, where he can make some people miss.”

Leonard’s combination of size, athleticism and power is tailor-made for college football. He’s already been contacted by Division I coaches from Princeton, Harvard, Massachusetts and Yale. It’s no surprise three of those four schools are in the Ivy League, not when you consider Leonard’s grade-point average (3.921) and extracurricular involvement at East.

Underneath all the football armor resides a busy brainiac.

“He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met,” Greyhounds junior quarterback Caden Edwards said.

The list of clubs to which Leonard belongs, or plans to join, includes: Executive Board, the mentor group Hound Pack, Crochet Club, Math Club, Chess Club, Student Forum and ABO Hounds, which assists in blood drives.

In other words, his penchant for time management — “I just like to get stuff done,” Leonard said simply — will come in handy should he decide to play football while attending medical school.

Hietala said Leonard focuses on and excels at whatever he commits to.

“I don’t think he’s got himself pigeonholed into one thing,” the coach said. “It’s fun to see that he has the wherewithal to follow that interest and those passions.”

Sometimes, the most ambitious goals — like being a surgeon — require sacrifice. Leonard, a two-year starter, loves football. A cerebral player, he’s not prone to rah-rah outbursts or fiery speeches in the huddle, Edwards said. But Leonard’s quiet confidence is contagious.

On offense, he’s become the focal point, an oddity for an East club that still likes to spread it out and let the talented Edwards go to work. Defensively, he can disrupt plays by wreaking havoc at the line of scrimmage. Opponents have to know where Leonard is at all times.

All that aside, it will take the perfect fit to lure him onto the field after high school. He’s not averse to continuing his career in college, but he knows precisely where his priorities reside. For the 17-year-old, it’s books before backfield.

“Academics go further than football,” he said.

Playoff notes

While top-seeded Cloquet is favored to win a third consecutive Section 7AAAA title, the bracket features as many as four viable contenders. No. 3 North Branch, section runner-up in 2017, defeated the Lumberjacks 18-14 on Sept. 21. In successive weeks, No. 2 Hermantown downed the Vikings 16-6 and needed a late TD to slip past fourth-seeded Duluth Denfeld 14-8.

  • It was a bit jarring to see the bottom two seeds in Section 7AAA. No. 6 Proctor and No. 5 Esko have combined to win the section five of the past six seasons. Since 2012, the Rails have been to state three times and the Eskomos twice. This time around, Two Harbors, vying for its first state tournament berth since 1977, is the No. 1 seed and Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin, section champ in 2016, is second.
  • If Barnum can get by Mesabi East in a Section 7AA first-round game tonight, it would set up a rivalry reunion with Moose Lake-Willow River in Saturday’s semifinals for the second straight year. The Rebels were victorious, 48-6, last fall.
  • With Chisholm forfeiting its season, Section 7A has been reduced to five teams.
  • Despite a higher state ranking, Nine-Man Cromwell-Wright is seeded second behind South Ridge in Section 5. That’s likely the result of the Panthers’ strength of schedule, which included wins over Cook County and Mountain Iron-Buhl. South Ridge is led by senior Joe Janke, who according to Minnesota Football Hub is the state’s leading rusher — regarding of classification — with 1,736 yards.
  • In Section 7 Nine-Man, No. 1 seed Cook County seeks its first trip to state since 2007, and its first as a nine-man squad.
Final News Tribune Rankings

LARGE SCHOOLS

(Class AA through AAAAA)

  1. Cloquet 7-1
  2. Northwestern 9-0
  3. Hermantown 7-1
  4. Duluth Denfeld 5-3
SMALL SCHOOLS

(Class A and Nine-Man)

  1. Cromwell-Wright 8-0
  2. South Ridge 8-0
  3. Cook County 7-1
  4. Deer River 6-2