Headaches gone, so Colts’ Darius Leonard excited to return against Texans

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA - DECEMBER 02: Darius Leonard #53 of the Indianapolis Colts warms up on the field prior to the start of their game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field on December 02, 2018 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The headaches wouldn’t subside. One week turned into two, then three.

Darius Leonard thought he was on the verge of getting over a concussion sustained in the Indianapolis Colts’ week 2 win at Tennessee – blame an early collision with Titans running back Derrick Henry, who outweighs the 230-pound All-Pro linebacker by nearly 20 pounds – but even limited participation in practice rekindled the throbbing in his head.

“I couldn’t get over a headache,’’ Leonard said Monday. “That was the main thing.’’

Concussions remain one of the most unpredictable injuries to deal with. Players respond to them differently. Leonard insisted his symptoms, which really took hold after the Titans game, were severe.

The headaches persisted. He was fatigued and irritable. Bright sunlight bothered him.

As two weeks gave way to three, Leonard’s anxiety level increased.

“That’s when I really started thinking, ‘Wait a minute. Now I have a wife and kid. I’ve had a headache for three weeks. Will I ever be the same? Do I keep playing?’’’ Leonard told the media.

At some point, he came to grips with his situation. It was time to move past the concussion and play.

“You can’t think about it,’’ Leonard said as the local media encircled his cubicle in the locker room. “Play one play at a time. Once you start thinking about the future, that’s when something could go wrong.

“Go out, give 110% on each play, try to make each play and go from there.’’

The announcement the Colts’ defensive cornerstone would return after missing three games came early last week and in an unusual manner considering the secretive nature of NFL teams when it comes to injuries.

Leonard pulled up his Instagram account and shared the news: “Big Mood after getting cleared to play again . . . let’s go! #maniac.’’

He was asked if it’s been difficult missing a couple of weeks.

“Four,’’ he corrected. “It was definitely tough being away from the team and not being able to go out there and help your brothers out.

“It definitely was rough.’’

Leonard believes he sustained the concussion in the first quarter against the Titans. He felt a little “foggy’’ following an early tackle against Henry, but remained on the field and finished with a team-high 10 tackles.

“As the game went on, I felt a little fatigued and wasn’t really Darius,’’ he said. “After the game, I knew something was wrong.’’

Leonard previously suffered a concussion while at South Carolina State, one that forced him to miss one game.

He’s been a vocal, irresistible force since Chris Ballard selected him in the second round of the 2018 draft. Leonard’s always jabbering. There’s bounce in his step. His pre-game and pre-practice gyrations have been documented and disseminated by the team’s video staff.

“You just feel the juice, the energy that he brings,’’ fellow ‘backer Anthony Walker said. “It goes throughout the whole defense.’’

Leonard returns in time for Sunday’s AFC South showdown with the Houston Texans at Lucas Oil Stadium.

“He’s a special player,’’ Walker said. “He’ll definitely make a difference.’’

But for three games, Leonard couldn’t make a difference. He wasn’t even allowed to be on the sidelines for the week 3 win over the Atlanta Falcons at Lucas Oil.

Those blasted headaches, remember?

Leonard was idled, but hardly idle.

As his teammates were holding on for a 27-24 win over the Falcons, Leonard was home with his wife, Kayla, and daughter, Mia.

“That was one of the hardest things, not being able to be with the guys,’’ he said.

Leonard made the best of a bad situation. In preparation for the Falcons’ broadcast, he pulled on his 53 jersey. And his helmet. Remember, he was at home.

“That first game it sucked being away,’’ Leonard said. “I was down on myself. You want to be out there.

“To cheer myself up, I put on a helmet (and) I put on a jersey just to get my personality back . . . had to do something to get my spirit up.’’

He paced from room to room, from TV to TV.

“I remember having like three TVs on and whatever TV I was at and they were doing good, I stayed at,’’ he said with a smile. “I’m very superstitious.’’

He sent Kayla upstairs.

“When I watch a game I’m very intense, especially if South Carolina State’s playing, Clemson playing, us playing,’’ he said. “I’m very intense.’’

That nervous energy flooded onto social media.

“Yeah, I’m not a big Twitter guy,’’ said Leonard, who has entertained his modest 43,000 followers with approximately 2,600 tweets.

That changed dramatically as he watched from afar as his teammates handled the Falcons at Lucas Oil Stadium and stunned the Kansas City Chiefs two weeks later at Arrowhead Stadium. He delivered two dozen tweets during the Atlanta game, then cranked out more than 40 during the Chiefs upset.

“I did that to have fun and keep my mind off not being there,’’ Leonard said.

Now, he’s back and the timing couldn’t be better.

Leonard orchestrated one of the most productive rookie seasons in team and NFL history. He led the league and set a franchise record with 163 tackles, including 111 solos. He was named first-team All-Pro and selected Defensive Rookie of the Year on the strength of his fat stat line: 12 tackles for loss, 7 sacks, two interceptions, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

On hand for Leonard’s return are Deshaun Watson and the Texans. Houston sits atop the AFC South at 4-2, just ahead of the 3-2 Colts.

Watson is the catalyst of an offense that’s among the NFL’s most prolific: 6th in total yards, 5th in rushing, 10th in passing and 8th in scoring. He has passed for 1,644 yards and 12 touchdowns and rushed for 164 yards and another 5 TDs.

“He’s just a dangerous guy,’’ said Leonard, who faced Watson twice as a rookie and when South Carolina State faced Watson’s Clemson Tigers in 2016. “I respect him. He’s one of the great quarterbacks in this game right now.’’

Watson was one of the opposing quarterbacks Ballard had in mind when he used the 36th overall pick in ’18 on Leonard. One of the ways to deal with Watson’s mobility was to add linebackers with sideline-to-sideline speed. On those occasions when Watson breaks containment and gets on the move, it’s critical to limit him to a 5- or 10-yard gain.

“Darius is one of those guys that can make it when Deshaun Watson gets in the open field, (he) can make it interesting and not many guys can,’’ Frank Reich said. “You need guys like Darius that can make it interesting.’’

Geathers also cleared

Safety Clayton Geathers also has cleared the NFL’s concussion protocol and will be available Sunday. He missed the Chiefs game after sustaining a concussion in the week 4 loss to Oakland.

The status of two other players remains uncertain. Safety Malik Hooker (knee) and rookie wideout Parris Campbell (abdomen) did not practice Monday. Each is making progress, according to Reich.

Hooker has missed three games after undergoing a procedure on his left knee. Campbell had a procedure to address an abdominal injury and missed the Chiefs game.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

And be sure to catch the Colts Blue Zone Podcast:

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