MIAMI – It’s hard to have a trajectory like the one Darius Leonard is on without reflecting on how he got there. The dynamic Colts linebacker had one Division I offer, and that was South Carolina State, about two hours west of his hometown of Lake View, a small town near the South Carolina-North Carolina border with a population right around 800. Leonard has seen extreme highs, from being named a two-time MEAC Defensive Player of the Year to Rookie of the Year honors and a Pro Bowl selection and the birth of his daughter Mia in 2019, and crushing lows, with two of his brothers incarcerated and another brother killed in 2012 during a fight at a club in Mullins, S.C.
Through all that, the imposing 6’2 force remains focused on being as good as he can be. If he’s named to the Pro Bowl, he wants to be MVP. If he’s MVP, he wants to be Super Bowl MVP. There’s drive, and then there’s whatever is driving Leonard, a boulder picking up speed downhill with no signs of stopping.
That doesn’t stop Leonard from enjoying the ride. He’s going to take care of those close to him, his mom, his family, his wife, his teammates. But he’s going to take care of himself, too. He lets himself feel those lows without trivializing them, but makes sure to express the sheer joy that comes from those highs. Otherwise, what’s this all for?
UPROXX Sports chatted with Leonard outside Radio Row during Super Bowl week as he reflected on his journey, how the Colts handled Andrew Luck’s retirement, his sense of style, and more.
Martin Rickman: How have you adjusted to Indianapolis coming from South Carolina, spending college in South Carolina? It’s a different world down there, obviously and I know those first couple of years, you’re trying to play football and compete at the highest level, but you also you’ve got a family.
Wife and kid, yeah. It was, luckily, because I’m from the country, you know? So driving, I’m not used to traffic. So I made sure that I stayed in a neighborhood that takes maybe five to seven minutes to get to work, and made sure that I’m moving where there is no traffic, not around too many people. I’m not used to being around people. So I may be 25 minutes from downtown or anyplace else. So just trying to make sure that I’m safe and that I’m enjoying where I’m staying at.
Yeah. I sent some time with Khalil Mack when he was still at Buffalo. And I know that mindset of kind of not being recruited as heavily as you are, having that chip. Every player tries to create a chip or they’ve got one. And I know you’ve got one. How has that helped fuel you?
Well I mean, it started off in high school, man. I can remember playing JV ball, not getting in. And then when I get in, I make plays, then sit back on the sidelines. Then, not playing on the varsity level until my 11th grade year, then going to college. “Hey, what are you doing? You can’t play linebacker in college.” I had one offer. That was South Carolina State. I want to South Carolina State, and they said, “What position are you going to play?” I said linebacker. “Oh, you’re too small to play linebacker.” So then I go there, I go to South Carolina State, and I do what I’ve got to do there. Then I get drafted.
So I was a second-round draft pick. So I mean, I’m still proving everything wrong. Then last year, I didn’t make the Pro Bowl. So I’m proving that. This year, I’m not first-team All-Pro. So I’ve still got so many things that I’ve got to prove. I want my numbers to be the best, and I want to be considered as the best. I don’t want to be second. I’m a competitor. I want my name at the top of every list until my name is at the top from year to year. Until I retire, I’m not doing anything else.
There is no stop with you. I know that all comes from family. You had to grow up fast.
You know, just being through what I’ve been through, I’ve had two brothers incarcerated. Like you said, I had to grow up early. Brothers, one went in in 1997. I was two years old. Another one when I was probably maybe nine or 10, so I’ve seen that side. And then I’ve seen my brother make it out [Ed. Note: former Chargers and Saints linebacker Anthony Waters] seen him go to the college. I see him make it to the NFL. So I’ve seen both sides, seen momma cry, seen momma happy. So I knew that I wanted to make momma happy. I didn’t have nothing growing up, so I started my first job at 13, just wanting to make my own money. I didn’t want nobody to say, “Hey, here you go.” I don’t want anybody to hand me nothing. I want to go out and just make everything on my own, because I don’t want anybody to hold anything over my head at any point.
We’re in a really interesting situation right now with athletes where guys are allowed to express emotions, they’re allowed to be themselves. You’re not just a football player on a poster. You’re allowed to talk about things that matter to you.
It’s amazing, because there’s so many teams I hear of, it’s their way or nothing else. And I love being with the Colts because it allows me to be who I am. I’m a happy person. I love to give back. I love to have fun, and when I’m on the field, I can express my feelings. I’m not out here saying, “Okay, I’m doing a job.” No, I’m having fun. This is my dream, and they allow me to live out my dream a the highest level and how so many emotions, because then once I get off the field, I’m that same guy.
I’m still that same happy guy. And then you know, back in the day, it was everybody had to be a mean looking guy. Everybody was so scared to go say hey to a guy that they looked up to, because from what they seen, how they carried themselves on the field, and how everybody said that he was. But now, when they come to me, I’m a happy guy. They see I’m happy on the field. They see I’m happy off the field. So when they come up and say, “Hey, Darius, can I take a picture?” “Yeah, sure. Why not? I mean, I’m one of you.” You know what I’m saying? Everybody say you a celebrity. I’m not a celebrity. I’m the same person, the same little boy from Lake View, South Carolina. I’ve got the same heart. That would never change.
Who’s helped you get acclimated to the NFL?
I’d say my first year, me and Najee Goode, we was tight. He showed me all the ropes. He showed me everything, him and then Anthony Walker, you know, he’s so smart at Mike linebacker, and he don’t get enough credit of being a great ball player. And just them two, you know? They brought me up under their wing, and teaching me the game, teaching me the ropes, and then you’re having a great guy who has similar things of upbringing or going to a small school like Robert Mathis, having him in my corner as well.
Everything he’s proven.
So it’s easy to talk to Robert, because he’s been through the same thing that I’ve been through, so he knows how to get out of it.
With regards to the Pro Bowl, they mic you up and it seems like a really good experience. I think some people got a little bit more about you, like you were saying, with just how much passion you play with, which emotion you played. What’s that experience like? And is that something you want people to know about you?
Oh yeah. I mean, it was a great experience. I loved it. I enjoyed it. I mean, the game was a little weird. That was my first one there, my first time there.
It’s football, but it’s not football, right?
It’s not football. You’re not tackling. I took the ground one time, and that wasn’t even because I made a tackle. So it was just a different vibe on the field, but I mean, I was still having fun. I mean, I was enjoying every single moment because you don’t ever know when life is going to hit you. You never know when this thing can end, so I’m going to live in the moment, and I’m going to go have fun no matter what, and it’s going to be very rare to see me look down. Even on my worst days, I put on that mask, because you don’t ever know. Like if I walk by someone who’s having a terrible day, and I could just say hey to them or put a smile on their face, and they change their whole demeanor, that’s the type of person I am, and that’s what I want to live by.
You mentioned the Colts and kind of how that organization is a little bit different. They handled Andrew Luck’s retirement so different too. What did that teach you about them? You’d already learned a lot about who they were at that point.
Yeah. I mean, it just comes to show that they’re behind you no matter what it is. He stepped away from the game, and that’s their franchise quarterback, and they treated him so well. They still said great things about him. They didn’t bash him. They didn’t do anything, and that’s one thing that I love. And they’re always in your corner. No matter if you’re wrong or you’re right, they’re going to stand up for you, because I mean, we’re a big family, and that organization no matter if I look good, they look good. I look bad, they look bad. They know that, and if anything happens between the family, the family’s going to take it up for the family, and they showed that with Andrew’s retirement.
I know style’s important to you too. Where do you take your cues?
You want to swag out a little bit.
Yeah. But you’ve got to learn. It takes time as you grow into yourself.
Oh you definitely got to learn, yeah. It was crazy, because I mean, growing up, my brother that got killed, he was big into fashion. And me, I was just all right, I’m going to wear some basketball shorts, just straight hand-me-downs. So yeah. After he died, I wanted to kind of keep him with me, so that’s when I kind of looked into fashion, like how to dress, like what looks good, what don’t look good? And then just come in on game days man. It’s just whatever vibe that I’m thinking, like what type of game that I want to go in. All black, because I’m looking to go out there and hurting someone, or Michael Jordan thing, having a Michael Jordan shirt on. He’s the best. I mean, you know you’ve got to walk in, you’ve got to channel your inner thoughts, you know what I’m saying?
So it’s just different things to me man, I want to prove. Like if I’m on an away game, oh, I’m dressing up, you know what I’m saying? I’m suited and booted. So I let them know, “Hey listen, I’m about to clock in,” and no matter what. I had this one that I was going to. LA. And I had this sparkly tuxedo top on. Everybody’s like “What’s up man? You’re too dressy.” No. I’m letting them know that hey, I’m coming to clock in.
Where do you get inspiration from? Do you have a guy that you work with for that?
No. If I don’t pick out my outfit, I let my wife. I mean, we think together. What do you want to wear this week? Or I just give her the freedom, “Hey, you go and pick me out an outfit, and I’ll run with it.” She knows my style. She knows what I like. Or I go to Tampa, Milano Exchange. That’s where I get all my suits from. But yeah, he’s a great guy. He’s got some great swag there, and I definitely enjoy him.