Travis Leonard can do the math. Even without a slide rule from his AP calculus class.

He graduated this spring from Gardena’s Junípero Serra High with a 4.7 GPA, but perhaps the top headline of Leonard’s impressive résumé is his two-year participation in a pioneering International Space Station Program (ISSP) at the Catholic school. That’s resulted in an academic scholarship at the University of Southern California’s elite Viterbi School of Engineering.

On the other side of the equation, the 6-foot-2, 280-pounder anchored the offensive line on a Cavaliers’ Mission League football team that went to the semifinals of the CIF-Southern Section Division 2 playoffs last fall. Leonard’s highlight reel impressed the USC Trojans’ coaching staff enough to invite him to be a preferred walk-on freshman for the nationally ranked football team, which starts practices this August.

For now, the USC football walk-on status doesn’t come with an athletic scholarship or guaranteed playing time. But for Leonard, it all adds up in his favor.

“There are fewer [football] players in the NFL than there are those with engineering degrees,” said the 18-year-old, sporting a silver chain with the number “66” dangling from it — his number on the football team.

“But there are a lot of similarities in how to achieve things. In a class project, I can be like: ‘We’re meeting after school, we’re working on this project, and we’re staying until 5 p.m.’ On the football field, ‘The offensive line is moving right, we’re going over the linebacker, and we’re going to score.’ ”

Leonard said he’s found a balance in doing both the last two years at Serra. “When I go to USC, I don’t think it will be as hard a transition.”

What may be far more difficult, however, is the transition Leonard will face without his father rooting him on. Last January, Troy Leonard died unexpectedly of a heart attack at age 54. 

Travis Leonard with his parents, LaTasha Bellard-Leonard, right, and Troy Leonard, who died last January of a heart attack. (Submitted photo)

It was the first Monday coming off Serra High’s 2023-24 winter break. The football playoff run was still fresh, and momentum was building as Leonard and seven schoolmates were about to see their 3D liquid resin printing experiment go into orbit from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida via a Hawthorne-based SpaceX Falcon 9 CRS-30 rocket headed to the International Space Station.

As per their routine, LaTasha Bellard-Leonard had dropped Travis off at Serra High on her way to work as a program director in Bellflower for Easterseals. The drive was a half-hour from their Long Beach apartment. Troy picked up Travis later that afternoon. This time they stopped at Troy’s parents’ house to pick up some materials for Travis’ upcoming senior class retreat.

As Troy walked back to the car, he called out to Travis: dial 911. As he watched his father collapse, Travis attempted CPR waiting for the ambulance. He called his mother as they went to the hospital. It was too late.

“I never thought that leaving the house that morning we wouldn’t see him that evening,” said LaTasha during an interview with Angelus, drying her eyes with a tissue.

“It hasn’t been easy, and I’m still taking time to grieve,” said Travis. “It’s just so unfair. I did miss one day of school, but the reason I knew I had to go back was because, in my head, I could hear my dad saying, ‘Next man up.’ Now, I was the next man up. I can still hear his words.”

Travis and Troy were training partners, pushing each other to succeed. Troy’s athletic background came from playing basketball at Banning High School in Wilmington. He saw the value of Travis playing sports at Serra High.

John Moran, Ed.D., the president of Serra High since 2022, was impressed with the “unbelievable speech” Travis gave at his father’s funeral.

“I saw how close they were, as his dad was a major mentor,” said Moran.

Members of the team that helped launch an experiment into space were honored by LA County Supervisor Holly J. Mitchell’s office at a March 21 launch event at Junípero Serra High School in Gardena. (Courtesy of Serra High School)

Serra High, with 380 students today, boasts a prolific alumni base of athletes who have gone on to careers in football, basketball, and track and field since its opening in 1950. It was the first school in California history to win a state football and basketball title in 2009-10. Today, the student body is about 80% African American.

Leonard’s accomplishments in both athletic and academic fields were a reason why, at the Serra High Senior Class Awards night prior to graduation, Moran chose him for the President’s Award for Character and Leadership.

“I rarely have been as impressed in my 25 years of education leadership with a young man as I have been with Travis,” said Moran. “His public speaking is exceptional. No arrogance at all, very level-headed, poised, and confident. People see him as a leader — a strong, silent type who articulates so well now.”

Leonard credits his mother with keeping him true to the motto: Leaders always lead from the front, not pushing everyone else forward from the back. He also credits Moran and Serra Science Department chair Ken Irvine with expecting him and his 81 other senior classmates to succeed at whatever they want to do.

“The best part of being at Serra was all the opportunities they gave me,” said Leonard, a member of the National Society of Black Engineers. “I took advantage of what they provided and now I’m seeing the dividends and rewards. Serra also gave me a brotherhood, so my class will keep in contact because we were close.”

Leonard holds his numerous awards with Serra High President John Moran, Ed.D., after graduation May 31. (Courtesy of Serra High School)

LaTasha values the Catholic education she received at St. Frances X. Cabrini in South Los Angeles and the all-girls St. Mary’s Academy in Inglewood — so the family decision made for her son to attend Serra was a natural one. 

“Travis took the bull by the horns and was able to succeed,” she said. “His dad instilled strength in him definitely, to push forward. There’s a plan that we maybe don’t know or understand, but it’s there. I know his dad is watching over him and so many positive things are still going to happen.”

Leonard has an array of proclamations, plaques, and awards to document his successes. One of them is the Serra Alumni Association Tim Boyer Character Award for his football sportsmanship. There is the Principal Award for demonstrating good academic standing, and a Certificate of Recognition from the California Legislative Black Caucus for participating in the African American Leaders of Tomorrow Program at Cal State Dominguez Hills.

But the key lesson learned, he agreed, is to stay in the moment and don’t take anything for granted. His father’s death underscored that.

Leonard recalled how in starting sophomore year, this space program opportunity hadn’t even been introduced yet at Serra. He was focused on a biomedical career.

When he was picked to be part of the mission, he had serious doubts they could pull it off. By his junior year in August 2023, he was part of the first ISSP project that involved watching a seed germinate in space

The second ISSP project earned Leonard and his team a special honor by the California State Assembly in Sacramento earlier this year. 

“I know the world is going to need more electrical and mechanical engineers because of where we are going with technology, and it’s about hitting deadlines, pushing our limits, getting past our fears,” he said. “I was very timid at first because I never had to speak in front of people, and I didn’t want to be wrong or look like an idiot. Now I can explain it: This is how it works, this is the experiment, A plus B equals C.”

And that, any scout can agree, is a measurement of success.