INDIANAPOLIS — Darius Leonard was in a dark place at the end of last season as what had been a promising Indianapolis Colts season unraveled around the linebacker and the rest of the organization.
An ankle injury that bothered him all the time. Family members with health issues. COVID-19 hitting key team members, including himself. And to top it off, the Colts’ playoff aspirations came to a screeching halt with a Week 18 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, who finished with the league’s worst record despite the win. This season-ending loss enraged owner Jim Irsay during the game, on the plane home, and inside the team facility upon his return.
More than four months later, Leonard, who often tries to keep his best face on camera, admitted things weren’t going well with him last season.
“I fell in love with the game,” Leonard said. “I wasn’t enjoying it anymore.”
It’s something no one would ever imagine coming out of Leonard’s mouth. He’s not the same Darius Leonard who uses all kinds of negativity as motivation when making countless tackles, intercepting passes or attacking like Mike Tyson when knocking the ball out of his opponents’ hands for a forced fumble.
But that’s how Leonard felt after the Colts couldn’t beat the Jaguars in a game in which the defense had no answer for rookie Trevor Lawrence and the Jacksonville offense in Week 18.
“The first month, I didn’t want to go home, I didn’t want to be with anyone, I didn’t want to face it yet,” Leonard said. “Because the question was going to come: what happened in Jacksonville? And at that point, I really didn’t know what happened.
Leonard never thought he’d need to walk away – not when there was a point in the season when the Colts were one of the hottest teams in the NFL and some pundits were calling them contenders. at the AFC.
Even Leonard, who faced adversity throughout his life, was beaten mentally and physically in what ended up being the most grueling season of his four-year NFL career, which includes being named a three-time first-team All-Pro.
“You hold back all your emotions,” Leonard said. “You put a smile on so many other people’s faces, and the time you need — a lot of people around you, they see you smiling all the time; they don’t understand that sometimes, just because I smile, I ask everyone how they’re doing — sometimes it’s OK to ask me how I’m doing?
“Ask and really have a conversation with me and understand that I’m human too. I’m having issues. I’m going through a lot of things that a lot of people are going through. … You’re sitting here and you feel like you have to keep a shadow over your personal life because your football life is eating away at you, and I just wasn’t in a good frame of mind because I wouldn’t be with my family every time they needed it.
Colts linebackers are one of the closest groups on the roster. Fellow starters Zaire Franklin and Bobby Okereke knew what Leonard had been through in recent months.
“The way the season ended kind of broke our hearts in different ways, and I would say we all have to go through our own kind of healing process to restart,” Franklin said. “For me it was very different… I can see what Darius went through.
“It’s good for him, someone who is so dedicated to the game and works so hard at it. A lot of times you need that time to get away from the ball, to be with family, to get a perspective of the world. I I really want him to be in a better state of mind this year. [Leonard] all the time, I’m always there to support him, always support him no matter what.”
Leonard is back, he says he’s healthy and the defense has made important additions to cornerback Stephon Gilmore (the 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year), defensive end Yannick Ngakoue and coordinator Gus Bradley, who replaced Matt Eberflus after he left to coach the Chicago Bears.
“Made me happy, especially with the rush, helping [DeForest Buckner] and [Kwity Paye]add [Ngakoue] and a closed corner in Gilmore,” Leonard said. “You think about all the takeout we’re going to have. Stephon is excellent at following the ball. It’s a better opportunity for us to get more takeaways. … We must have more than 40 takeaways in the season.”