BELTON — While true, it’s an understatement to say that Slade LeBlanc put in the work to get to this point.
More accurate is to say that LeBlanc put in the work. And then put in more work. And then put in more work.
That’s what coming back from two major knee surgeries in a two-year span required. So, simply put, that’s what LeBlanc did.
“It’s a major setback, both physically and mentally,” LeBlanc said. “But you just keep the right mindset and just look to the future. That’s really what I did and it’s helped a lot. And I’ve been able to recover and be perfectly fine.”
Indeed, he has.
LeBlanc — Belton’s do-everything passing, running, kicking and catching ace — had a breakout game in last week’s 45-17 win over Killeen, rushing for 170 yards and two scores on 19 carries.
The junior showed big-play ability from the running back spot that the Tigers lacked much of the year, taking a 55-yarder to the house on Belton’s second play, during which he shed a Killeen defender near the goal line with a nifty spin move. It marked the team’s longest rush of the year.
He later added a touchdown on a 39-yard run on the Tigers’ first drive of the second half, extending Belton’s lead to 18.
While Belton head coach Brett Sniffin said it’s nice to see a back with that type of breakaway speed make such plays for the Tigers, it’s also nice merely to see LeBlanc out there enjoying himself.
“With Slade, it’s getting his confidence up, and last week I think was a pinnacle of that,” said Sniffin, whose team will travel to Duncanville tonight for a 7:30 p.m. bi-district playoff game, the program’s first since 2018. “He really looked comfortable to me, in him just being out there running and playing and having fun and doing what Slade can do. Just to see him smiling and having fun out there, it warms your heart that he’s able to do that.”
It’s surely been a long road for LeBlanc to get here, one filled with the pain management of rehabilitation, the tediousness and hours upon hours of work it takes to rebuild muscle strength and cardiovascular fitness following a major surgery, and, not to mention, dealing with the mental doubts that may creep in during that time.
“It was tough. I was going to rehab two, three times a week. I was missing school. It was hard. It was definitely difficult,” LeBlanc said. “It’s kind of scarred me for life. You always have hesitations whenever you go out on the field now, but you just kind of have to put it past you.”
Added Sniffin: “It’s tough after one (surgery), and he’s had multiple, so, yeah, it’s tough. You imagine going through rehab and then doing it again, and then going through rehab again. It takes a good full year to overcome and get back to yourself after a surgery, and what he’s had to overcome with that, more even mentally than physically, has been great.”
LeBlanc’s first injury occurred in just his second year of playing football, when he tore the ACL in his right knee in the last game of his eighth-grade season at North Belton Middle School.
“I was playing quarterback and I stepped up in the pocket and I tried to cut to my right and my knee kind of gave in on me,” he said. “And that’s when it happened. No contact. I was just by myself.”
Shift to just a few months down the road, and the injury happened again when LeBlanc tore the same ligament on a similar play during a freshmen team practice. This time he missed the entire season, finally returning as a junior varsity quarterback last season before being called up to varsity for the final game of the year.
LeBlanc, who also runs track, was born in Houston but has lived in Belton most of his life. He said he will always remember that first game back.
“It was definitely scary,” he said. “But whenever you get that first hit, that first real hard cut, you’re like, ‘Oh, this is how it used to be.’ So all those surgeries and all that stuff, it just kind of goes away.”
And as LeBlanc now continues to stack game after game under his belt, it slowly becomes an even more distant memory.
“It’s heartbreaking that he had to go through all that. But now, you can see the results and, like I said, to see him having fun out there is pretty sweet,” said Sniffin, adding that LeBlanc, with his multiple roles, is what they call a “Swiss Army knife.”
“He can do a little bit of everything,” the coach said. “And I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg for him. He brings athleticism. He’s one of the fastest kids we have. He’s got a great spin move. He also is a good, stout young man. He can run over some kids if he needs to. We’re just working on getting that in his game, but he can throw, he can run, he can catch, he can kick. If you remember those old punt, pass and kick competitions back in the day, I’d put my money on Slade, that’s for sure.”
The junior has started games at running back, quarterback and wide receiver this year, while also splitting time as the team’s primary punter.
A glance at his stat sheet shows his versatility — 479 yards rushing and a team-best four touchdowns on the ground, 254 yards passing and a TD, 111 yards receiving with a score, and 117 yards on kickoff returns, giving him an average of 106.7 yards accounted for in a given game.
Then there’s his 663 yards punting for an average of 36.8 yards per kick, along with seven pinned inside the 20-yard line, all of which lead the team.
“There’s so many ways that we can use him,” Sniffin said. “But just the confidence factor, to watch how he’s grown through the year — it’s just nice to see after the adversity that he’s had to face in his early years of high school and even in middle school, that he’s able to taste some success this year. And I hope that makes him even more hungry for next year.”
There’s little doubt it will, if LeBlanc has anything to say about it.
“I definitely work harder now than I ever have,” he said. “I just love to play. It doesn’t matter what (position) I play. If you can get me out on the field, I’m happy.”