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Devoted to the cause

Illinois' Leman is about much more than being a football player, but his persistence and his on-field play have been keys to the Illini's successful season

December 26, 2007|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

Raw eggs and messages from God.

If you could spend a few minutes with J Leman, see him grin, listen to his stories one after another, then what you are about to read might not seem so outlandish.

Tarzan hair and one short leg.

If you could hear his laugh or watch him joke around with teammates, it might be easier to understand.

"That's all right," he says. "I don't need people to think I'm sane."

At the very least, Leman can hit you with some concrete football reality. As middle linebacker for Illinois, he averaged 10 tackles and wreaked havoc against the likes of nationally ranked Missouri and Ohio State, earning All-American honors.

As team leader, he all but willed the 13th-ranked Fighting Illini to a Cinderella season and a Rose Bowl berth against sixth-ranked USC on New Year's Day.

"You can just feel his confidence," USC Coach Pete Carroll said, adding: "He's tough and runs all over the field and makes plays everywhere."

But football is a small part of the narrative with this 22-year-old hometown hero from Champaign, Ill. For the good stuff -- the olive oil and the infomercials -- you have to sit and chat awhile.

Start with a couple living a few hours south of Chicago in the late '70s.

Happy Leman (pronounced Lay-man) sold insurance and Dianne taught school. Doctors told Dianne that she could not get pregnant.

An acquaintance suggested they pray, so they did. And they began having kids. Five in a row.

"The joke is, once we got started, we didn't know how to stop," Happy said.

Which brings us to J's unusual name. Jeremy Jacob Leman was the fourth-born and the family shortened his name to a single initial. As a boy, he did not know whether to put the period before or after.

"Then I put it underneath and that was just altogether wrong," he said. "So I got rid of it."

By then, his parents had quit their jobs to start a church in Champaign, preaching a laid-back, come-as-you-are brand of Christianity. They home-schooled the kids through fourth grade, Mom teaching them to be kind and Dad, the disciplinarian, teaching them to set goals.

Those goals often involved sports. Among a family of athletes, Leman stood out because of his stubborn work ethic, his eagerness to practice dribbling or partake of some other daily training.

"I always tried to get him to think in terms of, 'Do the right things, do them long enough and things will turn out well,' " his father said.

Everyone figured Leman for a basketball career, but in high school he stopped growing and filled out, looking more and more like a linebacker.

At that point, he says, God promised him that he would play for the Illini. His mother pitched in, fasting and praying before games.

But halfway through his senior season, only Illinois State had offered a scholarship.

"You're running out of time," he recalled. "You think, God, is it going to happen?"

You've seen it on television a thousand times. A reporter asks an athlete about the game and the athlete starts his answer by praising God.

Leman doesn't do that.

"If someone asks me, 'How'd the game go?' I'll never say 'I just want to give thanks to God' because the question had nothing to do with God," he said.

"Some athletes do that a lot . . . and that just loses its meaning," he said. "Goes in one ear and out the other."

But ask him specifically about his faith and you'll get an earful. His favorite topic -- no surprise -- is the power of prayer.

"My life, my birth, is evidence of that," he said.

Leman says that when he prays, thoughts pop into his head and he parses them to discern if they are his own or a message from God.

God promised he would go to Illinois and that's what happened, the Illini offering a scholarship a few games before his high school career ended. When he suffered back pain heading into his freshman year, the result of one leg being slightly shorter than the other, he asked others to pray for him.

"I got prayed for 30 times and nothing happened," he said. "Then a guy said 'Let me try one more time.' I checked my leg length, and it was the same length. It took a couple of months, but, since then, I've been fine."

These stories roll out of him excitedly but not the least bit heavy-handed. There is no ulterior motive because Leman does not demand that you believe; the young man is merely telling you what he believes.

Last winter, he underwent ankle surgery and could not seem to heal, the pain causing him to sit out spring practice. Finally, Leman says, God told him to ignore the injury. Just run.

He did. And it hurt. But over the next few weeks, he says the pain subsided and by summer training camp, the ankle had recovered. The team trainers "just wrote it off to me coming around and finally healing up," he said. "But I knew."

One more thing: Leman says he was passing the football stadium one day when God told him to expect something special this season. Expect the impossible.

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