In 2007, the Waynesville football team achieved a school first – the 2007 Missouri Class-5A State Championship. Former linebacker and running back L.J. Fort played a lead role throughout that season.
"L.J. was dominant on defense," Waynesville head coach Rick Vernon said. "He was an outstanding linebacker. He always had that natural instinct of where to be at the right time. On offense he was a very hard-nosed running back that could really find the hole and hit it and get those extra yards."
The dream begins
Dating back to his childhood, Fort always loved football. At 8 years old, Fort watched his first Monday Night Football game between the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers. That exact moment defined Fort's future.
Fort stepped onto the Waynesville campus in 2004 as an undersized, 160-pound young man full of aspirations. It was here, under Vernon's tutelage, where Fort established his fundamental skill set.
"I learned a great deal of things at Waynesville," Fort said. "The biggest thing though was getting the little things right. Maybe I didn't always agree with the coaches at Waynesville, but I always listened to them and did whatever they asked me to."
Fort made an immediate impact on the gridiron.
"My freshman year was awesome," Fort said. "I had one of the best coaches that I have ever had in (current Waynesville head wrestling coach) Jeff Davis. We went undefeated and were one of the only freshman teams to go undefeated. I was playing tight end that year, and by the end of the season coach just threw me at running back."
In his sophomore year, Fort started on both offense and defense as a linebacker, a freakish feat in its own right. Battering every opponent who stood in his path, Fort struck fear into the eyes of each opponent by his senior year.
"My junior year was pretty good, and then my senior year we won the state championship," Fort said. "It was a dream; it was awesome being around those players and having so many individuals that really wanted to win."
Constantly in the weight room or studying film, Fort was a true student of the game and a quiet leader on his team.
"He never really said a lot, but everyone knew that he was a person that you would want to follow," Vernon said. "He watched film and was always asking what he could do to become a better football player."
Page 2 of 3 - In his final year at Waynesville, Fort set records that may never be equaled. He finished with 2,152 yards and 23 rushing touchdowns on 228 carries. Fort boasted an impressive average of 165.5 yards per game and 9.4 yards per carry. Defensively, Fort tallied 85 tackles, eight sacks, and five interceptions (three for touchdowns).
Waynesville won the state championship and finished 12-1 in 2008.
On to college
After high school Fort attended the University of Northern Iowa to play linebacker. He started in nine games as a sophomore and earned playing time in 11 games.
Fort eventually became the leader of a pesky Northern Iowa defense.
"He was the kingpin in the middle," Northern Iowa coach Mark Farley said. "He was the one that I think our players looked to. He was the one that our coaches looked to. He understood our defense and he had a great drive and passion to play this game."
Fort ended his college career with 356 tackles, four sacks and five interceptions. His performance, however, would not earn him a place in the 2012 NFL Draft. It was afterward that the New Orleans Saints offered Fort a tryout with their team before the Cleveland Browns called him, offering a three-year contract.
His dream unfolds
"After seeing some of the guys that were being picked," Fort said. "A lot of the guys from my own conference, and not knowing who they were, being picked over me made me extremely frustrated."
As he's always done, Fort worked hard throughout the Browns training camp, leading the team in tackles (21) during the preseason, which earned the rookie linebacker a chance to make plays during the regular season.
"It was a good feeling," Fort said. "I was thanking God for the opportunity to make the NFL. I was way more excited about making the 53[-man roster] than the call to come here."
His hard work and dedication paid off, but it took two preseason games for Fort to realize he was living his dream.
"The first preseason game when I saw Calvin Johnson run out, and then the second preseason game when I saw my favorite player Charles Woodson run out for the Packers – to see those guys run out, I knew I was here and that I had finally made it."
Page 3 of 3 - Filling in for a suspended Scott Fujita, Fort made his first start on the NFL's opening day. Fort recorded his first career sack in the game after running down the elusive Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick.
"That was a crazy experience," Fort said. "I rolled out and it was just me and him, and it was like do or die and my instincts kicked in."
Fort's impact continued after he intercepted a Vick pass, putting his team in position to win.
"That is when I felt that I really made it because I had made an impact on the game," Fort said.
Although Fort had a stellar performance in the game, Browns fell narrowly to the Eagles, 17-16.
Fort loves football, but now he feels he has a higher calling than he did when he initially began playing.
"Back then it was probably just the game itself," Fort said. "How it molds young men and imports principles, and then the culture we live in and how football is so highly regarded and looked upon motivates young kids to want to play in the NFL. Now, though, it is for the glory of God. This is a platform and if I can get people's attention and get them to God then I have done well."
Fort has recorded four tackles, a sack and an interception in 2012.