INDIANAPOLIS – After listening to Darius Leonard explain what makes him tick and what pushes him to be the absolute best he can be and what it would take for him to quit looking under every rock – or dissecting every tweet – in search of motivation, it’s clear he’ll never quit looking for disrespect and reacting to every slight, real or imagined.
Why is that?
It’s that list he’s compiled since the Indianapolis Colts selected him with the 36th overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft. It consists of 15 objectives, and each serves as a carrot for the hungry linebacker to chase.
“I have 15 goals that I set so high,’’ Leonard said on a Monday Zoom conference call. “There is absolutely no way that I can reach all 15 in one year.
Each box that goes unchecked represents an unfulfilled quest.
However, there are three that would enable Leonard to at least temporarily sit back, relax and admire his handiwork.
Super Bowl champion.
Super Bowl MVP.
“You want to be world champion,’’ he said. “You want to be Super Bowl MVP (and) you want to be the league MVP. If you can reach all three of them in one season, that means you did everything the right way and everybody sees it.’’
No one can accuse Leonard of setting the bar too low.
That NFL trifecta has been achieved just six times and not since 1999 (take a bow, Kurt Warner). More to the point, it’s never been achieved by a defensive player. The exclusive company consists of five QBs – Warner, Steve Young, Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw and Bart Starr – and running back Emmitt Smith.
A more realistic three-pronged objective for Leonard needs to include Defensive Player of the Year with the Super Bowl honors. The only player to check off all three: Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis in 2000.
So it’s clear Leonard won’t lack for motivation as his NFL career continues to evolve.
And that brings us to his latest impetus driving the heart and soul of the Colts’ defense: Cleats.
During the offseason, Leonard’s agent did what agents do. He noticed what others were saying about his client. Well aware of how Leonard takes to heart even the slightest diss, he came up with the idea of giving Leonard custom-made cleats for training camp with noted “slights’’ on them.
“It was crazy because my agent knows how I take criticism,’’ Leonard said. “He actually called my wife and was like, ‘I want to do this for Darius. Can you pick out all the things that will make him upset coming into camp?’
“Kayla actually put everything together.’’
Her greatest hits:
“Fourth’’ Best Linebacker
2019 No Pro Bowl
Madden 2020 Ranking of 85
2018 Worst Draft Pick
The “Fourth’’ Best Linebacker seemed to sting Leonard the most. That apparently referred to him being second-team All-Pro last season behind Seattle’s Bobby Wagner, New Orleans’ Demario Davis and Minnesota’s Eric Kendricks. He was first-team All-Pro as a rookie along with Wagner and Carolina’s Luke Kuechly.
“Being a competitor,’’ Leonard said, “you play this game to be the best, and if you’re not the top one at our position, then it means you’re not doing the right thing.
“I’ve got to continue to go out each and every week to prove that I can be the best linebacker. But until then, that fourth-linebacker projection . . . I just can’t live with it.’’
Here’s where we remind everyone just how impactful Leonard has been during his first two seasons. He was Defensive Rookie of the Year and led the NFL with a Colts-record 163 tackles. He was first-team All-Pro as a rookie and second-team in ’19. He’s the first player since at least 1982 to generate 10-plus sacks and five-plus interceptions in his first 25 games. Last season, he became just the fifth Colts linebacker – ever – and first since Cato June in 2005 to earn a Pro Bowl selection.
Yet Leonard spends a ton of time searching Twitter and other social platforms for bulletin-board material.
“I never tried to block it out,’’ he said. “There’s so many things I keep in the back of my mind. ‘OK, you’ve got to continue to hold this grudge.’’
That Me vs. Them mentality is deeply rooted. Leonard recalled playing JV football at Lake View H.S. in South Carolina.
“I was a little runt and everybody said, ‘He can play offense, but he would never be as good as his brother defensively,’’’ Leonard said, referring to Anthony Waters, a 2007 third-round pick of the Chargers. “That was because I was so small.’’
The disrespect didn’t end when baseball season rolled around.
“I wasn’t the greatest coming up,’’ Leonard conceded.
So after practice, he would stick around for extra work. One day, an assistant coach approached him, and piled on.
“He said, ‘I played with your dad. Your dad was good. You dad was fast. What the hell happened to you?’’’ Leonard said. “Every since then I tell myself I never want to hear them words again.
“I just grind and use it as motivation.’’
Veteran left tackle Anthony Castonzo smiled when asked about Leonard’s use of Twitter and other avenues for discovering motivational tools. Castonzo hasn’t been on Twitter for “like five years.’’
If it works for his teammate, have at it.
“We’re in the National Football League,’’ Castonzo said. “Whatever gets you going and helps you play your best you’ve got to do it.
“Even without that he’s a great player regardless and is very self-motivated.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.