HINESVILLE — Yes, he has blinding speed and uncanny athleticism. Yes, he has made play upon play for Liberty County High, lit up opposing receivers at elite recruiting camps and earned five stars from recruiting services. Yes, he’s a big-time signee and early enrollee for the Georgia Bulldogs. But that’s not necessarily what has endeared Richard LeCounte III to the people of this “coastal country” area in remote Southeast Georgia.
LeCounte brings with him to Athens as much all-around athletic potential as any recent UGA recruit. For those in Liberty County, and more specifically a hamlet of 800 or so people called Riceboro forged from the remains of a rice plantation and the toil of slaves, LeCounte is a prototypical yet unique all-American sort.
Just ask Corey Bates. He is a full-time firefighter and EMT in Liberty County and part-time athletic trainer at the high school. Bates points to a scene he witnessed firsthand after the Panthers suffered a heart-crushing triple overtime loss to Greater Atlanta Christian in the Class AAA quarterfinals this past November. Bates always wraps ankles and tends to the players’ bumps and bruises throughout the season. Likewise, it’s his duty to cut off those wraps and bandages at the end of games. Being such an integral part of the team, Bates’ wife Tabitha and two young children, Gracie and Ty, are often alongside Bates as he tends to his duties.
That was the case on the night of November 25th. The Panthers had just suffered arguably their most devastating defeat of all time against No. 1-ranked GAC. As always, LeCounte had done everything he could possibly do to carry his team to victory. Liberty County’s star attraction hardly came off the field in what ended as a 44-38 defeat. A safety by trade, LeCounte instead played middle linebacker in this game and also took numerous snaps on offense. He ran the ball nine times for 40 yards and a touchdown; he caught three passes for 61 yards and another score; he threw a touchdown pass. He also returned two kicks for 44 yards and logged 12 tackles in the game.
Understandably, LeCounte was forlorn and exhausted as he trudged through the Panthers’ somber locker room and made his way to the training room afterward. It was there, sitting on one of the training tables, that LeCounte encountered his little friend Ty Bates.
There is not a bigger fan of Liberty County — or LeCounte in particular — than 7-year-old Ty. He was there for every game all season and watched the Panthers roll into the playoffs like a freight train. He had never considered his team not winning it all, not with LeCounte on the team. He fully expected his No. 4-wearing hero to lead them the rest of the way.
So when they lost, Ty was inconsolable.
“He was so upset he couldn’t even speak to me,” LeCounte recalls. “He wouldn’t even look at me. He was just crying and stuff like that.”
LeCounte tried to engage his little buddy, but without much success.
“He picked him up and hugged him and said, ‘I understand, Ty. I feel like doing the same thing, too,’” Corey Bates recounted.
That’s when LeCounte suddenly turned and left the room.
“He comes back in with a brand new Georgia hat, the one he wore in that day, and he comes in there and hands it to Ty,” Corey Bates said.
Seeing the exchange, Tabitha Bates suggests that LeCounte sign the cap for Ty. He did.
“From your big brother Rich to my big Ty, Go Dawgs!”
“I had a Georgia hat with me, so I just gave it to him,” said LeCounte, downplaying the act. “It’s something small but maybe it’s something he’ll remember. He’s been there for me since I’ve been playing, so I wanted to make a positive impact on his life. I just didn’t want him to feel like that anymore after that tough loss.”
Bates said LeCounte carried around little Ty in his arms the rest of the night. Not another tear was shed.
“I have nothing but affection for that kid, man,” Bates said. “He is an awesome individual. I can’t wait to see him between the hedges.”
That’s just one vignette in what has been a motion picture-worthy career for LeCounte at Liberty County High, where they’re still having to deal with the void of his early departure. LeCounte was one of six UGA signees to enter the school in early January as an early enrollee.
Joining LeCounte as early enrollees at Georgia are quarterback Jake Fromm, junior college offensive lineman D’Marcus Hayes, wide receiver Jeremiah Holloman, defensive back DeAngelo Gibbs and linebacker Monty Rice. The early-arriving rookies joined the Bulldogs’ returning lettermen for the always-grueling offseason strength and conditioning workouts this past week.
“I’ve texted with him several times,” said Kirk Warner, a former tight end at Georgia and LeCounte’s head coach at Liberty. “He’s doing well, going to classes, adjusting to everything. Of course, they’re working out every day, so he was a little sore toward the end of the week. But he’s doing fine.”
As one might expect from a 5-star-rated recruit, the hope is that LeCounte will be able to contribute immediately at Georgia. While he does not have the size typically desired of modern-day SEC safeties — he’s 5-foot-11, 175 pounds — descriptions of LeCounte’s speed and athletic abilities are other-worldly. The instincts and toughness with which he plays make him a good fit for patrolling the deep third and reading and reacting from the middle of the field. But he has the quickness to cover the slot one-on-one.
That happens to be one area the Bulldogs will be looking for help this coming season. They are losing senior starters Quincy Mauger and Maurice “Mo” Smith at safety and nickelback, respectively.
“He’s got unbelievable abilities and his work ethic and desire to be the best is second to none,” said Warner, who played LeCounte all over the field the past four seasons. “So Georgia’s getting an energetic young guy who’s going to refuse to lose and do everything in his power physically and mentally to ensure that Georgia wins and wins big. He went there for a purpose and it’s to get Georgia back into the top five nationally. He’s got a plan and some goals.”
That has always been the modus operandi for LeCounte, to plan and set goals. Since he first encountered as a middle schooler his much-older buddy, Ohio State linebacker Raekwon McMillan, LeCounte has always written out his goals. In fact, three that he has already achieved are written on the wall of his bedroom in his home in Riceboro:
- Maintain a GPA of 3.0 or higher
- Graduate early from high school
- Become a high school All-American
Check, check and check. LeCounte was named a U.S. Army All-American in December and played in the Army All-American Game on Jan. 7. He arrived at UGA a day later.
By all accounts, LeCounte could have done pretty much anything he wanted as an athlete. He’s said to be as good or better in basketball than football. He was a key member of Liberty County’s 28-1, Class AAAA state championship team last year. LeCounte scored a team-high 20 points in the 58-52 victory over two-time champion Jonesboro while helping keep Jonesboro’s 6-foot-4 star M.J. Walker in check.
Liberty’s basketball team, which features Auburn signee Davion Mitchell and 2018 star Will Richardson, is expected to contend again this year. They would have been a favorite to repeat if LeCounte was still on the roster. However, he had to forgo the sport in order to graduate early his senior year.
But that didn’t prevent LeCounte from tapping into his hoops glory one more time. He played in only one game only for the Panthers his senior year. With Mitchell sidelined with an injury and Richardson down with the flu, LeCounte dressed out and played for Liberty County on Dec. 13. He scored 17 in a region win over Appling Country, then graduated from high school six days later.
“You can’t make this stuff up,” Bates said, laughing. “It’s been something incredible to watch.”
DEEP ROOTS IN RICEBORO
For all these attributes that everybody is citing in LeCounte, athletic and otherwise, somebody deserves credit. And in and around Hinesville and the greater area known as Liberty County, that credit is directed to his parents, Erika and Richard LeCounte II.
LeCounte III was born and raised in a tiny little town called Riceboro, about 13 miles southeast of Hinesville, the county seat. Same as his father and his father before him. There’s not much there nowadays but a one-story city hall, some residential homes, and a whole lot of rural farmland. The population was 809 in the 2010 census, and it’s probably not much more than that now.
Riceboro once was the home of majestic plantation farms. The city gets its name from the crop that used dominate this area. The once-booming Southeast Georgia rice industry was built on the backs of slaves. The LeConte-Woodmanston was the largest plantation in St. John’s Parish — now known as Liberty County — in the 19th century. According to local historical accounts, more than 200 African-Americans were once enslaved there. Once released from bondage, many of the freed slaves changed their last name to LeCounte. A LeCounte family tree is posted at LeCounte Park in Liberty County.
It’s something the family acknowledges but is not necessarily proud of.
“We don’t necessarily embrace it, but we’re aware of it and we respect it for what it is,” said Richard LeCounte II. “It comes from way, way back in the slavery days and the rice fields. We have a botanical garden not two miles from our house that was part of (the plantation), a tourist spot. But me, myself, I don’t really know the deep-down, real history of it. It’s not something we really talk about.”
The botanical gardens to which LeCounte II refers once belonged to Louis LeConte, the son of Woodmanston Plantation founder John Eaton LeConte. Louis LeConte’s son, John LeConte, would go on to graduate from the University of Georgia, practice medicine in Savannah and eventually teach chemistry and philosophy at UGA in the mid-1800s.
Today, LeConte Hall on UGA’s North Campus is named for John LeConte. In this, the LeCountes take a little delight.
“That was exciting when I found out about that,” LeCounte II said. “I actually went by there and looked at it. Pretty interesting.”
Nowadays, the Richard LeCountes of the world don’t work for anybody but themselves. Richard LeCounte II works as a maintenance planer for Newport Timber, a division of the Interstate Resources paper company. LeCounte’s mother works for Coastal Electrical Membership Corporation.
LeCounte himself is the youngest of six children, with two brothers and three sisters. He’s what they call their “surprise baby,” arriving five years after his next-oldest sibling.
Perhaps it was already having a household full of older children or his parents merely having been well-schooled in the art of child-rearing by the time Richard came around, but nobody can remember ever having a lick of trouble with their youngest.
“I totally credit my wife with that,” said Richard II. “From the time he was a little boy until his teenage years, my wife kept him in church all the time. He participated in church, that’s where he learned how to speak and talk to people and that’s where he got that outgoing personality, from church and his mom.”
LeCounte has been a lifetime member of Banner of Truth, his mother’s church in her hometown of Darien, Ga., about 20 minutes outside of Riceboro.
LeCounte’s athletic abilities were also evident early on. The family swears he began riding a bike without training wheels at 2. By the time he was playing rec ball, nobody could touch him.
LeCounte’s older siblings were good athletes in their days, too, but his parents had never seen anything like Little Rich.
“When he was about 9 or 10, he started separating himself from everybody,” LeCounte II said. “Speed, athletic ability, all that was just different. It’s been crazy, though. I never imagined anything like this.”
LeCounte himself never did either, but he credits his parents for getting him where he is today.
“There’s no one in this world that I look up to more than them,” LeCounte said of his mother and father. “They were with me when I wasn’t anyone. Every day I wake up I plan to make them proud. That’s my mission of the day, to make my parents proud and happy. That’s just what I do.”
UGA’S TOP RECRUITER?
Another phenomenon to behold has been LeCounte’s prowess as a recruiter. He forever will go down as the first commitment of the Kirby Smart era, pledging to the Bulldogs’ new coach just days after he accepted the job in early December of 2015. Since then, LeCounte has rivaled Smart on the recruiting trail.
Always a “rock-solid” commitment to Georgia, LeCounte nevertheless continued to take official visits and attend elite prospect camps just so he could help lure other prospects to Athens. He’s credited with helping to get Jake Fromm, Malik Herring, Jeremiah Holloman and Nate McBride to sign with the Bulldogs. LeCounte played “Santa Rich” and teamed up with “Santa Jake” (Fromm) in a couple commitment videos produced by DawgNation.com.
“I’ve never seen it on the level that Richard took it to,” Warner said. “He had his mind set on some guys and went after them. He’s just like that. He has a magnetic personality and guys just like him. They’re attracted to him and want to be around him. And that’s been since I met him eight or nine years ago. This kid would be talking and you’d see all the other kids standing around listening. He’s always had that ability.”
So impactful on recruiting were LeCounte and his friend Fromm that one is left to wonder if the Bulldogs can hold together their top-three-rated class now that they’re at UGA. Warner believes it will only enhance it.
“The good thing is he’s up there early and all those guys who are coming on officials in January will get a chance to meet him,” Warner said. “That can only help.”
LeCounte should know a thing or two about recruiting. He has been in the middle of it for a long time. His first encounter came as he watched his mentor, McMillan, get swept up in it in before signing with Ohio State as a midyear enrollee in 2014. McMillan would introduce LeCounte to college coaches and take him on recruiting trips whenever he could.
Very soon, McMillan’s predictions that LeCounte would be “the big thing coming out of Liberty” started to come to fruition. LeCounte was invited to attend the U.S. Army All-American Bowl as one of the specially-recognized freshmen. It was there that the family met a high-profile Georgia commitment by the name of Sony Michel.
Likewise, early offers came for LeCounte from virtually every major college in the country, including McMillan’s Ohio State. LeCounte completed his high school career as the nation’s No. 2-ranked safety and with more than two dozen scholarship offers.
Such are the phases of big-time recruiting. First you just want to get noticed and get an opportunity to land a scholarship, then you want be able to compete on a high level. But if you’re as highly-rated as LeCounte, eventually you know you have to live up to incredible expectations.
He’s beginning to feel that end of it right about now.
“There’s definitely a lot of pressure put on me (with the 5-star ranking),” LeCounte admitted. “But I don’t feel like I’m above anyone or anything like that. I’m coming in with a hard-working mindset. I’m just like any one of those other players. What really separates me is my work ethic. I want to be great but I want my play to do most of the talking for me.”
Smart, for one, has already taken notice.
“He’s a bowling ball of energy, I can tell you that,” Smart said in a recent radio interview on Atlanta’s 680 The Fan. “He is a kid that loves the game. He loves people. He loves life. He’s got a great family. He’s in our family now and he’s done a great job helping us with this class. I’m looking forward to it.”
BORN TO LEAD
There was a community celebration held in LeCounte’s honor on Dec. 19 at the Liberty County Performing Arts Center. More than 250 people turned out to give LeCounte a sendoff for the ages.
All small towns have their leaders, their favorite sons, but LeCounte’s legend grew bigger and brighter than anyone could have imagined. Even him.
“This took off faster than I expected,” said LeCounte, still amazed by all the fuss. “It’s humbling to know I have people looking up to me. Having people looking up to me makes me stay on the right track. It lets me know I can’t be slipping at any time.”
There will be a lot more eyes on LeCounte now that he’s at Georgia. He can be certain that two of them will belong to a little kid from Liberty County wearing his personalized cap. But to Ty Bates and a bunch of other people tucked in a little corner of Southeast Georgia, Richard LeCounte can do no wrong.
“Honestly, I never seen anything like it,” said Bates, who worked in Wayne County before moving here. “The way Richard is with Ty is the way he is with any kid who comes in contact with him. He’s not too big for his britches, if you know what I mean. … To hear him talk, this community has given him a lot, but he does what he can to give back. I’ve never heard an ill word about the kid from anybody.”