By Todd Traub
Special to the Arkansas State Athletics Department from Todd Traub
Corey Leonard has directed finishes so thrilling, even his beloved Hollywood might not believe them.
Leonard, Arkansas State's fourth-year quarterback and an admitted movie nut, has engineered epic comebacks and upsets over major-college, non-conference opponents. He has played in pain, has completed thrilling last-second touchdown passes and taken the ball in himself for the winning score.
As they say in the Tinseltown pitch meetings: "Think ‘We Are Marshall' meets ‘Rudy.' "
But despite all the cliffhanger endings, Leonard is still seeking his team's version of the Academy Award - a Sun Belt championship trophy.
"Of course the end of my fairy tale, my perfect season, would be to win every game and get invited to a big bowl and win it," Leonard said. "But again, I wouldn't care if we went undefeated and went to the New Orleans Bowl. It's not the point of where we go at the end of the season, it's just the point that if we play to the best of our ability and stay healthy, we should be in every game."
Leonard enters this season with a chance to overtake the Red Wolves' all-time passing yardage leader Cleo Lemon, needing 1,804 yards to surpass Lemon's record 7,706 set from 1997-2000. Leonard also has 40 career touchdown passes and stands to break Lemon's record of 48.
Leonard, 6-1, 207 pounds, has been the team total offense leader the past three seasons and last year he broke his own record with 2,863 yards. He also tied his Red Wolves record with 16 touchdown passes and had a career best 2,347 passing yards, which placed him second in single-season yardage behind Lemon, who had 2,721 in 1998.
The numbers have come thanks to a lot of film study, but then, Leonard has never had a problem watching film. Movies are one of Leonard's favorite ways to pass the time, and he watches the awards shows with the enthusiasm some guys have for making out their NCAA Tournament brackets.
"I watch all that stuff. Any of the awards shows, especially in the movie industry," Leonard said. "I'll watch Nickelodeon's choice awards if there's people in there that I know. I get excited. I watch a ton of movies. It's ridiculous."
Leonard lists the Ray Charles biopic "Ray," starring Jamie Foxx, among his favorites, along with the more obscure "Boondock Saints," about a pair of Irishmen in Boston who take justice into their own hands.
When it comes to sports films, Leonard raves about "Remember the Titans." The movie, very loosely based on true events, stars Denzel Washington and depicts the struggle to integrate the T.C. Williams High School football team in Alexandria, Va., in 1971.
"Growing up in New Orleans we weren't faced with a lot of racism," said Leonard, a product of nearby Covington, La. "Different parts of the country I've traveled to, there's been different areas of it. Obviously my best friends are African-American, back home and here, and that movie I think just depicts how well sports can bring together people and bring together not only a team but a community and a surrounding area."
Leonard is disdainful of "Any Given Sunday," director Oliver Stone's over-the-top depiction of pro football, but he gives credit to "The Program," the 1993 film that explores the dark side of big-time college football.
"Some of the parts of that movie were extreme but a lot of it was very true," Leonard said. "Somebody needs to come out with a very in-depth college football movie because I don't think there are any movies out there that really show you what it's like to have the life of a college athlete. It's not the glory that everybody thinks it is. There are so many tough and high and low points in your life. A lot of guys leave college very depressed with a lot of internal issues. So I hope they come out with a movie soon that kind of depicts that."
Leonard has had shoulder surgery and dealt with a lacerated kidney that curtailed his performance in 2007, low points to be sure, but he has stayed out of trouble by keeping busy, very busy. By the start of his junior season he had already earned his bachelor's degree in finance and is wrapping up work on his MBA in business administration.
Since arriving at Arkansas State from Covington, Leonard has kept a grueling schedule in which he took classes every summer. Even then, movies provided a respite.
Last summer Leonard took the course "Sports in Cinema," in which he spent five pleasant weeks breaking down popular sports films for their message and impact on the audience. Leonard mentioned the poster for the high school football film "Friday Night Lights," in which three players walk away from the camera, hands linked, showing their togetherness against outside forces.
"That picture is showing you it's them against the other team ... and the things that are tough in their lives," Leonard said.
On the field, Leonard has joined with his own teammates to provide some of Arkansas State's most thrilling moments.
As a redshirt freshman in 2006, he probably earned his starting job with a 10-6 victory over Louisiana-Monroe in which he snuck in for the winning score in the fourth quarter. The next week Leonard hit Patrick Higgins with a 53-yard Hail Mary as time ran out to beat Conference USA member Memphis 26-23 at the Liberty Bowl, ending a 10-game losing streak to Arkansas State's closest, long-time rival.
In 2007, Leonard rallied the team from a 31-6 halftime deficit to beat Memphis again, 35-31. Last year he led the Red Wolves to an 18-14 victory at Big 12 member Texas A&M, silencing the usually noisy Kyle Field crowd with a 15-yard pass to Kevin Jones for the 15-14 lead with 4:39 left.
They have been the kinds of games fans later like to say they were at, whether they were or they weren't. But for Leonard, the victories and thrilling finishes have been like winning the People's Choice Award but missing out on the Oscar.
The way Leonard has it scripted, there can be only one ending.
"Obviously, personally it's to win every game," he said of the team's goal this year. "We want a conference championship; we want a bowl win. I don't think you can go into any game and not expect to win. We've got to expect to win every game and play like we're going to win and go from there. But I think any loss any point this season with the team we have, it's going to be disappointing."
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