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Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Fournette stars at heralded St. Augustine

By Gary Laney

NEW ORLEANS -- There are probably a lot of kids at St. Augustine High School who can do an impression of Avery Johnson, the former NBA player and coach with the distinctive, high-pitched voice.

They could probably tell you their favorite play by the "Honey Badger," Tyrann Mathieu, and they've seen the exploits of BenJarvus Green-Ellis on NFL Sundays.

Indeed, St. Augustine, New Orleans' historically African-American all-boys Catholic High school, has a rich history of stars including the two mentioned above.

"But we've never had one like Leonard Fournette," head football coach Cyril Crutchfield said. "Never had one rated as high as him."

Fournette, the nation's top player in the ESPN 150, is a running back perhaps unlike any before him in New Orleans prep football history. Big and strong with speed, quick feet a sublime feel for the game, Fournette has been getting attention since his days as a New Orleans youth playground league legend.

For a player from that background, St. Augustine might be the perfect school to keep his feet on the ground.

Located in New Orleans' rough-and-tumble Seventh Ward neighborhood, St. Augustine was opened by the Diocese of New Orleans in 1951 as an all-boys school to fill the need for a Catholic education in the black community of one of the South's most Catholic cities. It's now operated by the Josephite Fathers and Brothers, who maintain a heavy emphasis on discipline.

To this day, students attend class in white, button-down shirts with tie and slacks, giving the school almost a prep school feel despite its location. Students are required to be respectful to their instructors, but in turn, teachers refer to the students as "mister," a tradition that goes back to the early days of the school, when the Josephites wanted to instill a stronger sense of respect for black students in the segregation era.

Though times have changed, the discipline has remained.

"There would be even more discipline, but they took away the paddle," said Crutchfield, referring to the school's recent decision to discontinue corporal punishment, per the wishes of the church.

There isn't much argument with the way things have been done at St. Augustine. The school has produced NFL football players (Mathieu became the 34th NFL Purple Knight when he was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals), NBA players (Kerry Kittles and Johnson), even actors (Carl Weathers) and a long-time New Orleans mayor in its long list of notable graduates.

All these men wore the ties and learned respect at the Seventh Ward school. And the football players learned how to do more with less.

St. Augustine, like many things in New Orleans, is land-locked, surrounded on all sides by New Orleans' signature shotgun homes, leaving nowhere for the Purple Knights to practice.

"We take the bus, every day, to (nearby Hardin Park) to practice," said Crutchfield, whose office leads out to a the school's courtyard, basically a concrete parking lot that gives teachers somewhere to park off the street. Grass on the campus comes in tiny squares, not enough to play catch, much less hold a football practice. "It's just how we have to do it."

This might leave the impression that St. Augustine is a poor school. It's not, so much as it simply lacks land.

In truth, there have been plenty of successful Purple Knights, both in sports and in other ventures, who support the school. Sit in St. Augustine's lobby and you'll see an article proudly posted on the wall about two alums who made large donations to help the school break ground on a new building. St. Augustine graduates pour into local stadiums to watch their alma mater on Friday and Saturday nights.

Recently, the school honored its 33 past NFL players in an event that also featured Rory Verrett, the NFL's vice president of talent management and a St. Augustine alum.

"That's why a lot of parents choose to send their kids here," Crutchfield said. "It's a great school and has been for a long time."

It's part of the reason why Crutchfield has accumulated so much talent for this year's team. A Louisiana Class 4A quarterfinalist a season ago, St. Augustine is a favorite this season in New Orleans' tough Catholic League, which features defending Class 5A champion Archbishop Rummel.

Already, St. Augustine's 2014 class has had four players commit to major programs with cornerback Jermaine Roberts and defensive lineman Courtney Garnett headed to Texas while offensive guard Joseph Paul is headed for Florida and defensive end Peter Woullard is bound for Tulane.

That's the tip of the iceberg, said Crutchfield, who is in his second year at St. Augustine after previously building South Plaquemines High into a small-school power.

"I think we can have as many as 16 players sign this year," he said. "You need to come to our games this year. There'll be some talent out there."