Still growing but nowhere near the 6-6, 244-pounder the Bears traded up to draft ninth, Leonard Floyd placed his feet on either side of a green watermelon growing from the vines in the rich Georgia soil.
Just a teenager — Floyd first got the summer job preceding his ninth-grade year, before he ever played organized football — Floyd would squat down, twist and pluck the melon from the vine.
He’d shovel it to a coworker, like a rugby player, who would lateral it down the line. They’d repeat the option play over and over again, for hours and days and months, in the sticky Southern summer.
“It’s all back, lower body,” Floyd said. “It’s all squats.”
He’d return to the family home in Chauncey, Ga. —with a population of 342 and one traffic light, a flashing yellow — sweaty and exhausted for three-straight summers, having picked watermelon or packed trucks with tobacco.
His mom knew how he was feeling. Chrishonda Floyd has worked at the Husqvarna factory for 16 years to support five children.
Floyd worked so he could afford school clothes. At the end of the summer, he’d drive an hour and a half to Macon. A skateboard shop there sold a pair of his favorite black Vans for $40.
It was his payoff.
On a grander scale, the former Georgia Bulldog is looking for the same as a pro.
Friday, he was hit with his first professional criticism at Halas Hall: that he’s too rail-thin to play outside linebacker every down in the NFL.
The joke was that, when he held up the Bears’ No. 1 jersey, the skinny player and his uniform formed a No. 11. His weight is a legitimate worry.
If Floyd can’t bulk up, though, it won’t be for lack of effort.
“That’s why he goes so hard every day,” Chrishonda Floyd said of her son, who’s a father himself now. “Because he knows the struggle.”
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Mark Richt admits it sounds amazing.
“It’s kinda funny,” he said. “But he’s a lot like A.J. Green, actually.”
The Bengals’ star receiver, who also played for Richt at Georgia, shares Floyd’s personality: unassuming and grounded, despite their otherworldly football skills in a part of the country that worships such players.
The coach doesn’t stop there, though: The 6-4, 207-pound Green and Floyd share a body type.
“They’re guys who are long striders and very graceful,” said Richt, hired by Miami this offseason. “But when you’ve got that kinda graceful athleticism with that ability to move sudden, it’s just kinda rare. And he’s one of those kinds of guys. …
“These guys can run full speed, change direction, turn their body in any way they gotta turn it to make a pick or make a catch, whatever it is. They’re very graceful that way.”
GM Ryan Pace said Floyd had “great athleticism for a guy that tall with that kind of length,” and practically fetishized his 33 1/8-inch arm length.
He was always an exceptional athlete; having never played organized football before ninth grade, he was a varsity starter as a freshman.
“That’s what shocked me,” his mom said. “You’d never think, because he’s quiet and laid back. On the field, he’s just a completely different person.”
Rex Hodges, his senior-season coach at Dodge County High School, always thought he would have made a stellar college tight end. He played there in high school, catching everything that came near him.
Hodges joked that, because Georgia’s lead recruiters for Floyd were defensive coaches, they kept him for themselves.
“He was a good blocker,” Hodges said. “He could catch the ball. He could run with the ball. He could tackle. Other than punt and kick — and we just never tried him on that — he was good in all phases of the game.“
He played basketball and threw the shot and discus. A Georgia teammate of three years, Sterling Bailey, swears Floyd can play every sport well except baseball.
Floyd used to beg Richt to play tight end.
“I definitely felt like I could have been an offensive guy,” he said. “Shoot, I like scoring touchdowns, but I like hitting people more.”
It paid off.
“Guys who sack the quarterbacks,” he said, “get paid the most.”
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For those wondering how Floyd will gain weight, here’s a scary thought.
“I lose most of my weight during sleep,” he said. “So I can’t pretty much help it.”
To bulk up during the Combine, he ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, oatmeal and fruit. He weighed 244 pounds in February, up 10 from his playing weight. He said he’s since lost five.
Floyd, who met with Bears trainers and nutritionists during his pre-draft visit, will likely play in the 240s, Pace said.
“I think Ryan said before: ‘You can’t coach athleticism. You can’t coach speed,’” Bears coach John Fox said. “I think Leonard has a unique ability to bend, and to rush.”
Floyd was tempted to leave school one year ago. Because Floyd attended Hargrave Military Academy between high school and college, he was eligible to turn pro after his sophomore season. Rehabbing from surgeries on both shoulders last offseason, though, guaranteed his return for his junior year.
He proved that he was healthy. His statistics didn’t jump off the page, in part because the Bulldogs used him at inside linebacker and in coverage, limiting him to 4 ½ sacks and only 13 in three years.
He turns 24 in September, and teams still haven’t seen what he’d look like after a healthy offseason.
Full-time devotion will help Floyd, who idolizes 6-4, 258-pound edge rusher DeMarcus Ware.
“They’re not going to be in biology class or calculus. … ” Fox said. “Nutrition, sleep and the science of being a professional athlete will be put into place.”
Floyd is not just a striking body, Richt swears.
“There’s some guys that are smooth athletes that aren’t football players, either — maybe don’t have the toughness,” he said. “But this guy, he truly loves football. He loves the practice, he loves the meetings, he loves the coaches, he loves the players, the camaraderie. He just enjoys the game.”
That doesn’t stop him from barking at teammates when need be, said Bailey, the former Georgia defensive end.
“He just knows how to use his ability — his ability to lean, speed, get off the ball,” Bailey said. “He knows how to use what God gives him.”
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Floyd spent draft night at his aunt’s home in Atlanta. He invited high school and college friends, old coaches, favorite teachers and extended family. They grilled and made soul food and ordered sandwiches.
Work wasn’t done once the party ended. Floyd’s son Carter, who turns 2 in September, kept waking up during the night.
Floyd woke up with him, letting the baby’s mom sleep.
It’s full circle, really. He had always wanted to take care of his mom. Now he can, while caring for his own son, too.
Back home, Chauncey is as proud of Floyd as he is of it.
“We made history,” Chrishonda said.
Floyd loves his home — “I wouldn’t change it for the world,” he said — and will take it with him, all the way to the big city.
“Coming from a small town that I come from, I have a major chip,” he said. “I’m ready to prove myself.”