INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Darius Leonard had resigned himself to the inevitable.
Instead of anxiously waiting for word that last year’s Pro Bowl snub had been rectified with his first selection Tuesday evening, he headed downtown to Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Indiana Pacers were bracing for LeBron James’ only regular-season visit, and Leonard didn’t want to miss it.
Then, the NFL announced the Pro Bowl rosters.
Then, Leonard’s cell phone buzzed to life.
“Definitely shocked,’’ he said Wednesday. “I was on the way to the Pacers game so I wasn’t looking for it. Coach Reich called me, just told me the news.
“I was excited. Told the wife and kinda went from there.’’
Leonard’s initial reaction was a “sigh of relief.’’
“Finally, getting to the dance,’’ he said.
The call should have come last year, and the fact it didn’t lowered Leonard’s expectations in Year 2. He described the selection process as a “popularity contest’’ and lamented the lack of “love’’ he was shown last season.
And who can forget the epic nature of Leonard’s rookie season? He led the NFL and set a Colts record with 163 tackles, including 12 for a loss, despite missing one game. He added 7 sacks, two interceptions, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He had at least 10 tackles in seven games, topped by a 19-tackle outing against Washington.
He and Quenton Nelson were named first-team All-Pro, the first rookie teammates cited since Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers in 1965.
We sense the beginning of a trend. Nelson was selected for his second Pro Bowl, and there’s every reason to expect the Colts’ standouts to be regular all-star teammates moving forward.
“Quenton and I always talk about it,’’ Leonard said. “We talked about it last week. Just coming in together last year (we’re) so very close.
“Quenton dominates every single game.’’
Now, there’s a level of validation for Leonard, especially considering the Pro Bowl is determined through a voting of players, coaches and fans.
“Somewhat,’’ he said. “Finally, everybody seeing what type of linebacker I am. It’s great that my peers around me voted me in . . . they’re seeing what I’m doing, they respect everything I’m doing.’’
“It means a lot, especially coming from where I came from. A lot of adversity I had to go through and coming here and kinda proving everybody wrong.’’
Year 2 hasn’t measured up from a sheer numbers standpoint, but that was assured when Leonard missed three games with a concussion.
Even so, he once again has spent the season stuffing his bottom line: a team-high 104 tackles, including six for a loss; 5 sacks, four interceptions, six defended passes and two forced fumbles. He had two interceptions at Tampa Bay and returned one 80 yards for a touchdown.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of Leonard’s first two seasons: he’s the only player since 1982 to have at least 10 sacks and five interceptions in his first 25 games. Not the first linebacker. The first player.
“We all know what a great playmaker Darius is and a great leader he is on our defense,’’ Reich said. “He’s in a perfect scheme for a guy of his ability.’’
Despite finally checking off one of the boxes that eluded him last season, Leonard isn’t satisfied. Not even close.
One of the strengths of his game is an ability to self-motivate, which can be traced to when he was a playmaking ‘backer at South Carolina State. Leonard set school records with 394 tackles and added 21.5 sacks and 53 tackles for loss.
The chip on his shoulder grew when some draft analysts criticized Colts general manager Chris Ballard for “over-drafting’’ Leonard. He was the 36th overall pick in 2018.
Leonard’s next motivation? Do more. Be better. Achieve more self-imposed goals.
“The only goal I met (this year) was the Pro Bowl,’’ he said. “I probably set 15 goals this year, and that’s the only one I’ve met. I have so much room for improvement.’’
His list of goals?
“200 tackles,’’ he said. “Ten sacks, six interceptions, eight forced fumbles, Defensive MVP, Super Bowl MVP. My name’s not at the top of any of the goal sheets I want. I’m not Super Bowl MVP. I’m not Defensive MVP. I’m not none of that stuff.
“There are so many things I want to be great at. Right now, I’m just a good linebacker, and I’m aiming to be great.’’
The Colts placed defensive back Rolan Milligan (foot) on the injured reserve list and signed cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun.
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