BEMIDJI, Minn. — Senior tight end Brian Leonhardt has earned All-Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference honors in each of the last three seasons and was named an All-American after his junior year, but looking back, considers his redshirt season as the one that defined him.
“You just have to realize that each practice and the scout bowls are your games,” Leonhardt said. “You take the little things you enjoy about practice and consider them a win in your column.”
All-American dreams were far from his mind as a freshman coming off a high school football career at Spring Lake Park where he wasn’t even all-state, but Leonhardt, maybe without knowing it, had the foundation of becoming an All-American being built by an All-American teammate and former BSU All-American as a coach.
“My coach was Bryan Stoffel and he was a former All-American at Bemidji State. I remember hearing that and wondering how is that even possible? How could I become an All-American?
“I always played against Jake Anderson, who was an All-American outside linebacker. We battled everyday and I always got beat. But there was one play, where I beat him pretty good. Even playing in games, I don’t remember many plays as vividly as that my redshirt year. That is what kept me going as a redshirt was getting those little wins each day.”
A true blocking tight end in high school, Leonhardt had to work extra hard during the fall and spring of that first year to not only learn the entire Bemidji State offense, but to learn receiver routes outside the simple up the seam route he ran in high school.
“In the spring they threw the whole playbook at me. I remember just staring at it, trying to figure it out, and I couldn’t,” Leonhardt said. “I was playing every single rep, getting broken down and the coaches were on me constantly. It was a rough time and a struggle getting through that spring, but it really all paid off.
“That spring might be my favorite because that grind and that competition level. Nothing came easy and that is what makes it stand out the most.”
A first year like Leonhardt’s would make the best of us quit, but that word isn’t in his vocabulary. His dedication to Bemidji State football has been evident the past five years and his teammates rewarded him when they named him captain this season.
“They see that he is producing in the classroom, is well-respected in the community and on the field he has a strong work-ethic, is always going hard and producing. They see that and want to be like Brian,” said head coach Jeff Tesch.
“He has been a joy to work with on and off the field. He is one of those players that is always on time, he never missed weights or been a problem off the field,” Tesch said. “As a football player he has been extremely valuable as a blocker, his pass catching improves every year and he is a good leader.”
Leonhardt’s complete package on and off the field has earned him some looks from NFL scouts this past offseason and early in the 2012 campaign. A preseason All-American from multiple publications, Leonhardt has had about a dozen visits from the big leagues, an experience he is taking seriously.
“That is the next step in my goals, I want to get to the point to be able to compete at that level and it’s something I have set my mind on,” Leonhardt said. “The best part about it is hearing them tell me what I need to work on, it’s like having another coach and that has helped me out a lot.”
“Scouts like a Division II player that is a good student with no problems on or off the field,” Tesch said. “They say the tight end position is a spot where you can gamble on a small school player. They also say good blocking tight ends are hard to find. The teams that want to run the football, they want a run blocking tight end. Scouts say Brain has a good upside.”
As exciting as the possibility of playing pro is, the humble Leonhardt knows that even if he gets that opportunity, it can’t last forever.
“I just take everything as a challenge and as a competition. Competing in the classroom is just like competing on the field. I take it very seriously and it’s important to me. If this thing somehow works out where I could get paid to play football, it’s not going to last forever and I know that I need to prepare for a career afterwards.”
The 2011 Academic All-American owns a 3.7 GPA in business administration and has cemented his spot in Bemidji State football lore on and off the gridiron. With more than half his senior season yet to come and a promising off-season in the near future, Leonhardt will be a player to watch down the stretch, but none of it would even exist without the mental toughness operating the 6-5, 263 pound frame.
“My desire, drive and work ethic are the only things that have gotten me anywhere. I’m gifted physically, but as far as an athlete I’ve worked for everything I’ve had. Now I’m at the point where all that hard work has paid off.”
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Nestled in Northern Minnesota’s wooded region and located on the shore of Lake Bemidji, Bemidji State University sponsors 15 varsity athletic programs with NCAA Division I men’s and women’s hockey membership in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, while its 13 NCAA Division II programs hold membership in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (NSIC).