Perhaps I should survey the locker room to be sure, but I’m pretty confident in thinking that Brian Leonard is the only member of the Cincinnati Bengals that has had Tony Soprano in his apartment.
And yes, I mean actor James Gandolfini and not Dolphins coach Tony Sparano.
Gandolfini is a proud Rutgers grad and avid football fan who once wore Leonard’s #23 jersey on the sidelines while Brian was playing for the Scarlet Knights.
“My sophomore year at Rutgers, he was at the game when we beat Michigan State and sat next to my parents so they got to know him a little bit,” Leonard told me. “His old roommate eventually became the Rutgers chiropractor and he knew where the players lived, so he brought James Gandolfini over to our house. He hung out with us after a huge win. It was pretty cool.”
Unlike Gandolfini in The Sopranos, Leonard is not the star of the Bengals show, but he is averaging an impressive 9.3 yards when he touches the football this year (9 runs, 9 receptions). With Cedric Benson serving a one game suspension on Sunday in Seattle, Bernard Scott is expected to get the bulk of the carries, but Leonard figures to play an increased role as well.
“He’ll be used a little bit more,” said offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. “It will depend on how Bernard is holding up. I think he’ll need a blow from time to time and we might also see Cedric Peerman a little bit, but Leonard is ready to go. We might use him every third series kind of like we do with Bernard Scott right now and I would expect Leonard to get more touches.”
Leonard is in his third year with the Bengals after being obtained from St. Louis in a trade for defensive tackle Orien Harris who is currently a member of the Virginia Destroyers of the United Football League. It is one of the more lopsided trades in Bengals history.
“I was kind of surprised when I was traded,” said Leonard. “I did pretty well in my rookie year in St. Louis. I started four games at running back and I started the rest at fullback. In my second year, I tore my rotator cuff in the preseason and had to get surgery. I had to sit out nearly that whole season and when a new coaching staff came in with Coach Spagnuolo from the Giants, they really didn’t give me a chance to be honest. I don’t think they really knew how to use me – I’m kind of a unique player and they decided to trade me.
“You know what? It worked out for the best. I love it here in Cincinnati. I love the fans; I love my teammates, so I’m glad to be here.”
Leonard made his mark in his third game with Cincinnati back in 2009. With :36 seconds left and the Bengals trailing Pittsburgh 20-15, Leonard took a swing pass from Carson Palmer and lunged for a game-saving first down (You can see the play here. Leonard’s catch is at the 1:50 mark). Two plays later, Palmer hit Andre Caldwell for the game-winning TD to give the Bengals the first of their six division wins that season.
“I think that play was actually really important for my career,” said Leonard. “Before that play, I wasn’t getting many reps. I was probably getting five reps a game – not touching the ball five times a game – I was on the field for about five offensive plays a game. After that, my role got bigger and now I’m touching the ball four or five times a game and I’m out there all of the time on third down and in the two-minute drill.”
The Sopranos has been off the air for four years. Fortunately, another Rutgers guy is helping to give Bengals fans compelling TV viewing on Sunday afternoons.
I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@bengals.nfl.net
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