24th annual Albany Sports Hall of Fame induction: Emarlos Leroy

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Emarlos Leroy can illustrate better than anyone his importance to the Monroe High School football team during his heyday in the mid 1990s.

"The only time I came off the field," Leroy began with a laugh, "was kickoffs, halftime and the end of the game."

And while Monroe never won a state title with Leroy staking out the offensive and defensive lines, he wasn't about to leave Albany without a state championship of some kind considering every male member of his family had. So Leroy captured the heavyweight wrestling crown in his final season in 1995 -- and still is the last Monroe wrestler to do so.

Although, when Leroy becomes one of six new inductees into the Albany Sports Hall of Fame's 2010 class on Monday, he hopes he can find the words to explain how it feels to have his picture next to his brother -- and former Monroe and Albany State football star, Antonio Leroy, who was inducted in 2006 -- on the Civic Center wall.

"I didn't expect this ... I really didn't," said Leroy, who went on to play for Georgia and eventually two years in the NFL with the Jacksonville Jaguars before a back injury cut his career short. "When I got the call from (HOF president) Bob Fowler, I thought it was a joke. I was at a loss for words, but at the same time, I was like, 'OK, this is pretty cool.' "

What's also pretty cool is what Leroy has made of his life after his NFL dreams ended early. He's now the coach of three sports -- football, basketball and track -- at Forrest High School in Jacksonville, Fla., where he also works as the school's security guard.

"Emarlos Leroy's athletic accomplishments stand on their own and when the committee sat down to name this year's inductees, (those accomplishments) just jumped out at you," Fowler said. "But more than that, he's a great citizen. He went on to get his degree and now he's a coach himself."

Leroy was in his office with some of his Forrest High students when the call from Fowler came in, and after the conversation was over, Leroy admits he was immediately taken back to his playing days.

"I just thought about all the hard practices we had at Monroe; how the coaches put us through the trenches each and every day," said Leroy, who played under one-time Tornadoes football coach current Westover principal William Chunn. "But it went back even further to how I was raised as an individual. When I put on a lot of weight at the end of my senior year and was being lazy and not working out before the Georgia-Florida All-Star game, my dad just told me not to ever settle for being second-best or take a backseat to anyone. He told (me and my brothers), 'If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. So take on all challenges.'

"And that's how I've tried to approach everything."

That includes his fondest memory of his Monroe football days, when he got up at the team's homecoming pep rally his senior year in 1995 and told the fans in attendance -- make that, guaranteed -- that the Tornadoes would beat No. 9 state-ranked Worth County that Friday.

"My coach just looked at me like I was crazy," Leroy said. "But as I walked off the stage, I just told them, 'Hey, if Joe Namath can do it, why can't I?' "

Monroe won, 3-0, as Leroy's defense emerged from the rivalry battle victorious by posting a shutout.

"I'll never forget that," he said.

But while football was often a grind back then, considering Monroe was not a state contender at that time, as a wrestler, Leroy was hardly every challenged. He posted a 130-5 record in four years as the Tornadoes' heavyweight -- standing 6-foot-2 and weighing around 300 pounds -- and finished state runner-up his junior year before winning it all his senior season.

Leroy was actually undefeated until the finals as a junior, and lost just one match by disqualification as a senior -- a fact he's still is annoyed by even today.

"The ref DQ'd me because he said I used excessive force in the region championship match; he said I picked the kid up and slammed him," Leroy recalled. "But somehow, the 400 people watching and even a second ref nearby didn't see it. So, whatever. I was mad then, but I (avenged that loss) by winning state."

Wrestling, however, was not in Leroy's future after high school. Football, meanwhile, most certainly was.

After all, it'd been a dream of Leroy's since watching Chicago Bears win the 1985 Super Bowl.

"I just told my dad then, at nine years old, I'm gonna play in the NFL," Leroy said.

Prior to that dream, Leroy yearned to play for the University of Georgia after watching the Bulldogs win the 1980 National Championship when he was four. Of course, those plans took a detour out of high school when he instead signed with Albany State, but was told he would be redshirted his first year.

"I told the coaches that there was no way I was sitting out," Leroy remembered. "I came to play. And I wanted to play now."

So ASU released him from his commitment and Leroy ended up playing for national junior college powerhouse, Northwest Mississippi Community College, with the hopes of playing two years, then transferring to a major, Division I program.

And by the time he was done in Mississippi, he had his pick of the litter.

"My first year, I came in overweight -- I was about 340, 345," he said. "And when I just missed making Second-Team All-American by one vote, I was mad. I just remembered my father telling me don't be second to no one."

Almost overnight, as Leroy tells it, he became a changed man. He dropped 66 pounds that summer, worked out like it was a religious practice and returned for his sophomore season a strapping 280 pounds.

"When all my teammates were sitting around playing cards (that offseason), I was at the gym, working out six days a week," he said. "And when I came back, I ran the 40 (yard dash) in 4.7 and I was ready to play."

Boy, was he ever.

In Leroy's first two games of the 1997 JUCO season, he led the nation in tackles after two games, posting 31 stops -- 21 solo -- four sacks and nine quarterback hurries. He broke his hand in Game 3 of the season, missed four weeks and still returned to end the year as the nation's No. 2 leading tackler.

And that's when the calls and letters started flooding in yet again.

"My coaches basically told me I could sign where I wanted," said Leroy, who had offers from Tennessee, Penn State, Ohio State and, of course, Georgia. "It'd been my dream to play at Georgia, so the decision was pretty easy."

Leroy left NWMCC in 1997 with his two-year degree in Health and Physical Education -- and as the MVP of the football team. He joined the Bulldogs and coach Jim Donnan in Athens, where he was a two-year starter, compiling 64 tackles -- 29 solo, 35 assisted -- along with 3 1/2 sacks and one interception.

Although, looking back on his Georgia days, Leroy says he isn't most proud of what he accomplished on the field, but rather off of it.

"The proudest moment I had from playing college football (for the Bulldogs) was receiving my degree in Child and Family Education from the University of Georgia," Leroy said. "I knew I wanted to play in the NFL, but I also knew that degree was more important than anything else I got out of my time there."

After Leroy left Georgia, he was drafted in the sixth round -- pick No. 182 overall -- by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 1999.

On draft day, Leroy says he was in Atlanta with his agent watching as the selections were announced -- while growing more impatient by the second.

"Well, my friends and family kept calling me and asking me what was going on and I had to keep telling them, 'Man, stop playing around on the phone. I'm waiting on the call!" Leroy laughed. "Then, I get a call from (former Jaguars head coach) Tom Coughlin and he told me they had traded with Tampa Bay for their sixth-round pick and were about to draft me."

At first, Leroy admits he didn't believe it was coach Coughlin, and instead thought it was one of his buddies playing a trick on him.

"I said, 'Man, this isn't Tom Coughlin. Come on now.' And coach said, 'I promise you this is coach Coughlin," Leroy recalled. "So I told coach, 'OK, then what did I tell you I cherished most in my life when you interviewed me?' And coach said, 'You told me that what you cherished most was the love and friendship you have with your family.'

"So I realized it really was coach and I just said, 'OK. Oh, hey man ... how you doing?"

Leroy never started for the Jags in the two years he played in the NFL. Then, in 2001, a bulging disk in his back forced him to retire.

Leroy says there's no doubt in his mind, if not for that injury, he'd still be playing today.

"ESPN's Mel Kiper (Jr.) was on the air saying (at the draft), 'What a get for Jacksonville. I think Emarlos Leroy is the most underrated defensive player in this draft,' " Leroy said.

But despite his all-too-short stint in the pros, Leroy says he does have at least one fond memory.

And it came on his very first play.

"I got into a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers -- they had the No. 2 defense at the time and we were No. 1 -- and (former Pittsburgh QB) Kordell Stewart dropped back to pass on their own one yard line," Leroy recalled. "And I just busted through the line, sacked Kordell and got us a safety. And that was my first play in the NFL."

At age 34 these days, Leroy is helping other athletes live their dreams in Jacksonville, where he decided to return after getting picked up, then waived, by the Carolina Panthers after Jacksonville released him in 2001.

And he hopes maybe one day down the road, a star pupil of his may earn the same honor the Hall of Fame will bestow on him Monday night.

"When my athletic director (at Forrest High) found out I was going to be inducted, he yelled out to all the kids in the hall, 'Look here, everyone: You know who this is? This guy is about to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. This is the kind of guy you want to be like some day,' " Leroy laughed. "I told the coach to stop all that nonsense, but it did feel good. It felt good -- and an honor -- knowing I'm considered one of Albany's finest."