INDIANAPOLIS – It took Darius Leonard two months to get over the loss in Jacksonville, and even longer to find himself again.
The Colts’ All-Pro linebacker didn’t feel right when last season ended. Not physically, with an ankle surgery that just couldn’t heal; not mentally, with the loss of a cousin and the sickness gripping his father and sister and tugging on his heart.
For weeks last winter, his family needed him as a job kept him hundreds of miles away. But that job was such a public failure down the stretch that the moment he had time on his side, he did not know what to do with it. Shame awaited him back home, with questions about what happened on that field in Jacksonville.
“I ask everybody how they’re doing. Sometimes it’s OK to ask me how I’m doing,” Leonard said. “Don’t ask me just to ask me. Ask me to truly have a conversation with me and to understand that I’m a human, too. I have problems. I go through things that a lot of people are going through.”
It is ironic that a star in America’s most popular sport, a man with 300,000 followers between Twitter and Instagram and the star of the weekly HBO series “Hard Knocks” can feel so misunderstood. Football starts as the vehicle to success. Then it becomes the façade, with each sack dance and Instagram filter pulling the curtains tighter until it leaves him in the dark.
Leonard began to slip around Christmastime. He was the NFL’s leader in turnovers, proudly stating his case for Defensive Player of the Year, with a team in playoff contention. But his ankle kept him in pain, with a late bye week too little to heal it and a mounting pressure to be out there every play. Then he contracted COVID-19, and the Colts played a game without him. He wasn’t with them and he wasn’t with family, just isolated in Indianapolis, hoping everyone could be OK without him.
The Colts were OK that night, toppling the Cardinals on national TV to get to 9-6. They all got their Christmases the next day, and euphoria rifled through the team.
“When we went down to the Cardinals and won that game on Christmas night, I felt like that was our Super Bowl. A lot of people saw it as our Super Bowl, and we felt invincible,” Leonard said.
“Last year, I wasn’t in the right mental space to hold everybody accountable. I felt like I let the team down in that aspect in the last two games.”
The final two weeks were the perfect storm of physical and emotional pain. The ankle seared, the performance slipped and the criticism stung inside.
The player they call the Maniac, the trash-talking ball of energy who creates turnovers with a forceful punch was suddenly the one in need of inspiration But the 6-foot-2, 230-pounder couldn’t dare show it because he had a standard to maintain, a façade, built solely through the lens of a game.
“In this profession, sometimes you feel like you don’t have to say so in your personal life just because it’s all football, all football,” Leonard said. “When you feel like you have to hold a shade up on your personal life because of your football life, it eats you up.
“I fell out of love with the game. I wasn’t enjoying it anymore.”
This is the story of a young man who soared higher and faster than anyone knew was possible, from one minute starting for South Carolina State against Bethune-Cookman to racking up 15 tackles in his second NFL game and having a sea of microphones and cameras shoved in his face to answer one basic question: Who is this kid?
But the questions weren’t about the kid, not really, because beneath the shoulder pads and the helmet with the horseshoe on it is another football player with bulging muscles and piping athleticism. He’s a gladiator. How could he fail if he was a star when he arrived?
For Leonard, and for so many others, the past two years have been about adapting to a loss of control. A pandemic forced people to consider life without the parts that make them feel good, from sports to the comfort of the people around them. What’s left in that moment is what will have to carry on.
That’s the place Leonard found himself in the moment the seconds ran off the clock in Jacksonville. Crouched down on one knee, the tears flowed, and only he knew how much bigger they were than any one football game. Who was he now to the family members he had to stay away from for this game, to the kids he wanted to bring joy?
After that game, he asked his teammates to let the 26-11 humiliation to “burn through our hearts.” I have implored them to do whatever necessary this offseason to rediscover the best versions of themselves. For Leonard, that meant fixing the person inside.
So, he didn’t get surgery on that ankle again. He didn’t think about football for two months. The Colts were hiring new coaches, and they were struggling to get ahold of him. That part of himself could wait.
Darius the football player was still in a great place, age 26, a three-time All-Pro on a five-year contract making almost $20 million a year. Darius the human being needed his attention from him.
He sat down and wrote a letter. Then he read it aloud on May 1, the first day of Mental Health Awareness Month.
“Dear mental health: First off, I would like to say that you are one tough guy to fight,” he wrote. “But each day, I continue to fight. Each day, I continue to go to war. And each day, I continue to win this battle against you.”
He wrote down where the battle began: With a mother working two jobs to support nine kids, with two brothers in prison and another one murdered. Those odds made reaching the NFL incredulous.
Once he did, a game became a measuring stick of self-worth. When he finally experienced failure in it, he had to reconsider the health of such a proposition, as well as the purpose.
The game, for all its highs and lows, is a vehicle to all the places his mother and siblings couldn’t go.
Now, Leonard is looking for joy in the journey, in all its twists and turns.
He’s letting the curtain drop.
“Mental health,” he wrote in the letter, “You will not defeat me.”
Contact Colts insider Nate Atkins at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.