Sept. 26, 2007
by Jeff Smith
Talking with Illinois fifth-year senior linebacker J Leman is just simply fun. It's a breath of fresh air. Too often today, we find professional athletes in the news for doing things we cannot even comprehend.
But in talking with Leman you get the other side of the coin. While his long hair might not be straight-laced, his image certainly is. He is a family man both on and off campus. He doesn't smoke and even though he is old enough to do it responsibly, he doesn't drink either. He is a man of faith, yet still the local boy from Champaign, Illinois.
He is also a linebacker, and a pretty good one at that. Cross him on the field and you might not get up.
Born Jeremy Leman and the youngest of five kids, he quickly shortened his name to an initial so he wouldn't be confused with his older brothers J.D. and A.J. The son of Happy and Dianne, both of whom are ministers at the Vineyard Church in Urbana, Leman has spent his entire life working hard not to just be a model citizen, but one who does the right things. If someone is in need of help, rest assured Leman will be there.
And for the past couple of years, the Illini football program has been in need of resurgence and luckily, Leman too, has been there.
Illinois is coming off its first Big Ten opening win since 1993, a convincing 27-14 victory at Indiana. The Illini are also 3-1 for the first time since 2001.
"We are feeling pretty well right now," Leman said. "We lost a heartbreaker in St. Louis to Missouri, but we have rebounded with three straight wins, including two consecutive road games."
But not all has been worth celebrating in the past. With three victories in the first four games of the year, Illinois has already captured more wins than in each of the past two seasons, having won just a pair of games in 2005 and 2006.
While the wins have not come as often as he and the Illini would have liked, it has not stopped Leman from hitting people.
A candidate for the Butkus Award, given to the nation's top linebacker, Leman currently ranks eighth in the country and leads the Big Ten with 12.3 tackles per game and 49 total stops. In 2006, he led the conference with 12.7 tackles per game, which ranked third in the country, and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors. He went from a virtually unknown to a force to be reckoned with late in the year, when he was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after registering 19 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss against top-ranked Ohio State. One week later in the season finale at Northwestern, he followed up his performance with 22 tackles and 2.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage.
Much like a highly-decorated running back gives credit to his offensive line, Leman is quick to commend his defensive line for his success. He also attributes much of his personal glory to Illinois head coach Ron Zook and linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator Dan Disch. Zook was the first to put him at linebacker and Disch, he says, refined his skills.
But it has been Leman himself who has been responsible for his high-energy, fast-paced attack on the field. When asked if there was an animal that closely represented his play on the field, Leman responded with an unusual answer.
"A hyena, because they are a very defensive animal" he said. "They can't take on a lion one-on-one, but a pack of them can. And that's what I feel we are on the field."
Leman has been just as fierce in getting this program back near the top of the Big Ten. He is quick to dismiss the individual accolades that have come his way and notes he has had only one chief goal.
"You can have all the individual success in the world, but the seniors and fifth-year seniors on the team have had a goal to get this program back on track and winning games," he said. "It's been tough. It's the toughest thing I have had to deal with in college football. We were improving, but it just didn't show up in the win column. It's been a long road coming."
But it's been a long road that has not been traveled alone, as the senior captain lives with six other teammates. He calls the group of friends that he first met in the dorms his other family. His real family has been something very central in his life, just as his faith has been. Leman first started learning the game of football when he was playing in the backyard at age three with his older brothers. What he learned from birth, and what has stayed with him to this day, is the game of life.
"My faith and my family have always been important to me," Leman said. "My dad always taught me if you put the Kingdom of God first, the rest will follow."
At the age of eight, Leman and his family began a lawn business in Champaign and mowed up to 70 yards in the area. He admits that he learned the importance of hard work and it has helped him maintained that ethic throughout his life.
He graduated with a degree in communications in just three years at Illinois. Taking advantage of being a local kid, Leman took several hours during summer school while he was on campus lifting weights in the offseason. He never took fewer than 15 credit hours in a semester and once took 20 hours to stay on course for a three-year diploma. Leman is currently on pace to graduate with a Masters in human resources this winter.
"You don't find many guys like this in this society," said Zook. "What you see is what you get with J. He's a person that has got his priorities in order. He loves to play the game and plays with a lot of excitement. He studies the game and plays hard."
Leman plays hard, but he always plays fair. That's simply the kind of guy he is.
Zook agrees: "I doubt that J has one enemy."
Except of course, that guy with the ball.