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John Leonis: Walk-on balances football with aerospace engineering

Laura Myers | Friday, November 21, 2008

Most students would disagree with John Leonis when he says he is nothing special. The walk-on cornerback spends his time watching hours of tape in order to help prepare the offense for the next opponent. Whatever time is left goes to studying, because Leonis is an aerospace engineering major.

“It’s a lot of balance between work and football,” Leonis said. “You sacrifice your social life a little bit. I enjoy trying to spend time with my friends – I can’t go out with them much, but I drive them around sometimes.”

Leonis did not arrive at Notre Dame expecting to play football. Though he played varsity football all four years at his small Oregon high school, he had no plans to continue. However, after meeting a football player in his dorm and playing interhall for Stanford, he decided to try out.

He was unsuccessful his freshman year, but that did not stop him.

“I wasn’t really prepared to try out so I came back after that and just rededicated myself, refocused, came out my sophomore year, and, well, here I am,” he said.

Leonis said tryouts were difficult, especially in the early stages when the potential walk-ons had to work out at 5:30 a.m. three times a week.

“It was shell-shocking, really, because you didn’t really make it until after the Spring Game, and even then you don’t know if you’ll be invited to camp,” he said. “And you can’t be running out of the tunnel, hands down. I mean, I got to run out for the Spring Game, the Stadium was half full, and it was crazy. I didn’t know what to do with myself.”

Leonis is part of the defensive show team, which simulates the opponent’s defense to help the offense gain the right looks during plays. He performs a similar function on special teams. However, the positions do not come with a lot of glory.

“We each have our own role. I still do what I can to get the offense get ready with show teams,” Leonis said.

Despite the negatives, though, Leonis said he would not do things differently.

“It’s been really fun, he said. “I wouldn’t trade my experience for the world.”

Leonis said he would miss the football team’s camaraderie once the season ends.

“It’s a special group of guys in there, and I’m just glad to be a part of them. We have a lot of fun in the locker room and out of practice,” he said. “It’s going to be different in the spring not being able to see these guys every day, but you know, it’s kind of the nature of the business.”

Leonis grew up as a Notre Dame fan, because his grandfather graduated in the 1940s and his mother went to Saint Mary’s.

“It was cool actually being here after all that,” he said. “It’s going to be sad to graduate, and I kind of don’t want to, but real life knocks on the door and you have to answer it.”

Unlike those of some of his teammates, however, Leonis’ future does not lie in football. His plans after graduation no doubt reflect the rest of his class.

“I’d like to get a job, that’s priority number one,” he said. He said he hopes to get a job with Lockheed Martin or a similar company, and preferably on the West Coast, so he can be closer to home.

Leonis said there is one thing he wants people to remember about him.

“I am not Mike Anello,” he said. “Last year when we did show team, Patrick Graham, our defensive graduate assistant who runs our show team, used to just call all of us – me, Mike Anello, and a guy who graduated named Wade Iams – ‘The Anellos.’ He would say ‘Anello, get in there,’ and we wouldn’t know who he was talking about.”

Anello and Iams were both part of the defensive show team and walk-ons with Leonis in 2007.

Despite the tremendous amount of work he did during his time at Notre Dame, Leonis does not think of himself as distinctive in any way.

“I don’t consider what I did anything special. I just came out here and did what I wanted to do,” he said. “I just came to the school, and football presented itself as an opportunity, so I took it.”