When the Georgia Tech football program recently visited the Children’s Scottish Rite Hospital, it gave 10 players the opportunity to give back to the local community. For one Yellow Jacket, however, it wasn’t his first time playing games and posing for photos with the kids.
For Dylan Leonard, it was an opportunity to return to a cause close to his heart, one of many that helps define his football journey. The Georgia Tech tight end has used his platform as a college player to benefit others, betting on himself to become the role model he always aspired to be.
Betting on Himself Helped Dylan Leonard to Benefit Others
“When I was little, I thought all these guys playing football were Superman too,” Leonard begins to explain the importance of utilizing his platform as a Yellow Jacket football player in community projects, like the Georgia Tech trip to Scottish Rite. It’s become the cause closest to his heart, but it’s not even close to being the only community endeavor he’s been involved with.
“I just knew growing up that I looked up to these people, and now that I’m in that platform where I’m that person that I used to look up to, I realize you can make an impact off the field. I love giving back to the community. I grew up around this area and it’s been awesome to me to be able to give back. To get involved outside of football has always been the goal for me.”
Leonard’s involvement outside of football at Georgia Tech has been significant. It seems that for every receiving yard on his football résumé, there’s a dollar amount raised for charitable causes that far outstrips his pass-catching production. For every reception, it seems that there’s a charitable initiative or community project he’s been involved in.
In addition to the team outing to the Scottish Rite hospital, Leonard has actively been involved in raising funds via national organizations like Uplifting Athletes or for foundations like the Kay Yow Cancer Fund. In an age where time should be perceived as valuable as money, he’s donating as many minutes as possible to Habitat for Humanity and the Salvation Army.
Amongst all that commitment to the community, involvement with the children’s hospital holds a special place in Leonard’s heart. To them, he’s a star on the Georgia Tech football team, a hero clad in white and gold, a Superman with a number where the giant “S” might be. To him, those kids with stars in their eyes and smiles on their faces are so much more.
“It really puts things into perspective to us,” Leonard explains his feelings on visiting the hospital. “These little kids who are just growing up, can’t have a regular life, they still have a such a great attitude and perspective on life. It puts things into light for us when we’re going through hard times that these kids are going through things a lot worse than we are.”
“It helps me keep a positive attitude, and want to make a positive impact on those kids.”
It isn’t just Leonard who is making a positive impact in these visits. On his first trip to Scottish Rite, the Georgia Tech tight end made a friend who has had a substantial impact on his life. Their friendship is a two-way street of motivation, inspiration, and respect that has seen cancer survivor Brentley Russell become a significant part of Leonard’s life.
“Just an awesome kid,” Leonard reflects on his relationship with Brentley. “It was so cool to bring him to all the games. He was a Georgia fan, but I think I converted him. It’s cool to see a kid like that, who’s been through so much, and now he’s back in school, living like a normal kid should. It says a lot about him.”
“No person should have to go through that. He beat the odds and kicked cancer’s ass. He’s a trooper and he inspires me to push through whatever I’m going through. It’s awesome to make that kind of impact and he made the same impact on me. I’m really grateful for that relationship.”
The Walk-On Who Believed in Himself
During his Georgia Tech career, Leonard has involved himself in the local community, drawing strength and inspiration from the people and the stories that he’s been exposed to. Entering his final season with the Yellow Jackets, he has a platform to help and give back to others. Yet, he’s been no stranger to overcoming the odds himself to get to the place where he’s at.
Leonard’s high school profile on the Georgia Tech website tells a story of athletic success. It tells the story of a three-star recruit—”I don’t even know how I get that three star,” he laughs—who won a state title at Milton High School as the senior captain. With 875 yards and 10 touchdowns, “Region 5 7-A Offensive Player of the Year” leaps prominently off the page, the story of success.
However, there’s a somewhat different reality behind those words. Leonard barely played in his sophomore and junior seasons, a key time for recruiting, due to a back injury that would ultimately require surgery to allow him the success of his senior season.
Under-exposed, an underdog, and as a sub-200-pound tight end, Leonard was also viewed as underweight. “It’s tough to sell yourself as a 180-pound tight end,” the Georgia Tech tight end reflects. He had no DI offers to play college football, arriving at Bobby Dodd Stadium as a walk-on with everything to prove.
Importantly, he had the mindset to prove it.
“At the end of the day, when you come into a college football program as a walk-on you’re at the bottom of the barrel. You’ve got to come in with a chip on your shoulder and always bet on yourself. You have to believe in yourself or no-one else will. That’s what I did, I came and did what I had to do to prove myself. It’s about believing in yourself before anyone else will.”
Self-belief very quickly rubbed off on others within the Georgia Tech program. Leonard appeared in all 12 games as a true freshman, earning a scholarship ahead of the 2020 college football season. As he prepares for the 2023 campaign, the former walk-on is now a 20-game starter who has been at the forefront of the Yellow Jackets’ tight end room.
His transition from “bottom of the barrel” to a leader on the field, in the classroom, and in the community is almost complete. Leonard was named an offensive captain—the first time since his high school senior season—for the “White and Gold” spring game, and he looks to assume that role for the Yellow Jackets in the 2023 college football season.
“It’s definitely important,” Leonard summarizes his feelings on leadership.
“I never take it as a selfish role, or try and be an authority figure. I just be a guy that they know is going to show up every day and work. Then, I just try and bring people along with me. I never act like I’m better than someone else, or that anyone else is under me. I try to treat everybody with respect.”
Leonard Leaves His Mark at Georgia Tech
Leonard has utilized his platform to help a plethora of community initiatives. The Georgia Tech tight end has battled the underdog status and overcome the odds to become a prominent member of the Yellow Jackets’ football team, with his name being recognized by the Senior Bowl ahead of the 2023 college football season.
However, in his attempts to squeeze every ounce of juice out of his college experience while aiming to be as impactful off the field as he is on it, there’s another dimension to Leonard that demands attention. The Georgia Tech tight end truly puts the “student” into “student-athlete.”
Having earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration in 2022, Leonard is currently working towards a master’s degree in analytics. His classroom excellence has been recognized with a place on the ACC Academic Honor Roll across multiple years. Last season, he was a semifinalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy—known colloquially as the “Academic Heisman.”
Most recently, he was named to the National Football Foundation’s Hampshire Honor Society. Leonard is now a member of a prestigious group of student-athletes who have excelled both on and off the field. Only players deemed to have been a starter or significant contributor during the previous season, who also boast a GPA of 3.2 or above, are eligible.
“It means a lot,” Leonard says of his academic accomplishments. “I’ve always had the attitude that when I come into school, I handle my business—on and off the field. I couldn’t do it without all my boys around me and the support staff that Georgia Tech provides me with tutoring. I just try to make the most positive impact I can on my teammates. It’s been good.”
In the classroom. On the football field. In the community. Leonard has spent his entire time at Georgia Tech striving to make the most of every opportunity. Entering his final season with the Yellow Jackets, his football story is almost complete, but the underdog who battled adversity and beat the odds has used his platform to ensure his impact will last much longer.