Before the film “The Blind Side” became a box office hit and its story was familiar to millions, Jim Leopardo, founder and CEO of Hoffman Estates-based Leopardo Cos., was involved in a similar story that netted almost identical results.
Leopardo has always been supportive of youth sporting programs as a financial sponsor and a volunteer.
“In my early days, sports were my outlet,” said Leopardo, who played football at Western Illinois University. “They gave me confidence.”
Through his work with the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball program Leopardo met Hudson, a young man from the west side of Chicago with immense athletic talents, but limited outlets to display them in the city’s notoriously rough area. Hudson spent as much time trying to avoid gangs as he did honing his athletic abilities.
The Leopardo family would eventually end up being a champion for his transition to a brighter future.
As a freshman at Chicago’s John Marshall Metro High School, Hudson was the starting defensive end on the varsity squad. He was also the starting center on the school’s basketball team and received Rookie of the Year honors for both sports. Despite his achievements, Hudson surmised that he needed a better education to earn the attention of NCAA scouts.
He turned to the Leopardos for help and the family stepped up in a big way, helping Hudson and his family move to the Chicago suburb of Barrington. There, he would be closer to the Leopardos and he could attend Barrington High School.
“We found an apartment for his family in Barrington,” said Leopardo. “He went to Barrington High School as a junior, got his grades up, and eventually won an NCAA scholarship to the University of Minnesota.”
Hudson spent two years at Minnesota and then transferred to Eastern Illinois University, where he would eventually graduate.
Although he did not graduate from a major college program, many still believed that he had the ability and skills to compete at the next level. Leopardo then decided to pay for Hudson to travel to California and attend Performance Gaines, one of the top NFL development facilities in the country.
He entered a relative unknown, but through his work effort, Hudson was soon dubbed “one of 10 likely late-round picks or undrafted free agents who could eventually become quality NFL starters” by Sporting News Magazine. Scouts noticed his abilities as well and on draft day in 2010, Hudson was selected as a guard in the fifth round by the Cincinnati Bengals, significantly higher than anyone had expected.
Leopardo’s reaction to the news sums up his feelings towards Hudson’s journey and its eventual outcome.
“I cried when he got drafted,” he says.
At the start of the 2011 season, Hudson was penciled-in as the backup right guard, but after a knee injury the team released him from the roster and quickly re-signed him to the practice squad. On December 12, Hudson was promoted back to the active roster and will play this Sunday in St. Louis.