Colts’ Darius Leonard can’t ignore his critics, and he’s the biggest one


INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard doesn’t hide his obsession with finding out who his critics are.

He’ll examine articles, Twitter, Instagram or any other form of social media.

“I will never shy away from it,” Leonard said. “And I will never stop trying to find it.”

Leonard has been told many times — over and over again — not to pay attention to what is said or written about him. He ignores their advice because criticism fuels him.

All you have to do is look at his specially made cleats if you need proof. The “fourth-best linebacker.” The worst pick in the 2018 draft. The Madden ratings. They’re all written on the cleats.

Leonard also remembers those who said he was too small to play linebacker. How he was “snubbed” from the Pro Bowl team his rookie season and “snubbed” again on the All-Pro first team last season.

“I’m always on Twitter. If someone is making a bad comment about me, that means I’m not doing enough,” Leonard said.

Does the All-Pro linebacker ever block out criticism?

“Never,” he said. “When I get tired on the last rep, I say, ‘One more for the haters. … One more for the haters.'”

This wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment idea by Leonard. His agent, Malki Kawa, puts together training-camp care packages for his clients each season. This year’s package was about more than just healthy food. Kawa reached out to the linebacker’s wife and mentioned that he wanted to get his client some special cleats for training camp. Kayla Leonard, who has known her husband since elementary school, gave the idea to the agent about the cleats.

“Then it was about what Darius was going to be put on the cleats,” Kawa said. “The one thing me and him talk about more than anything is how he gets snubbed. It gets disrespectful after a while. That’s the problem.”

Kayla compiled a long list that seems foolish on the surface, considering Leonard has become one of the best linebackers — 284 tackles, 12 sacks and seven interceptions — in just two years in the NFL.

Leonard led the NFL in tackles as a rookie with 163 in 2018. That got him All-Pro honors but didn’t get him to the Pro Bowl. He had 121 tackles with five sacks and five interceptions in just 13 games last season.

What did that get Leonard?

A Pro Bowl spot, only second-team All-Pro honors, but what had him miffed even more was that he wasn’t even mentioned as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

“He takes all that and understands he may never get the recognition he wants, but he keeps track of it and uses that motivation,” Kawa said.

There’s no guarantee Leonard will wear the cleats in a game, even with the extra motivation this season.

“Will I wear them? I don’t know, I might,” Leonard said. “I’m not really a fancy cleat guy. I’m a plain-Jane guy. I don’t know if I’ll wear them. I’ll probably take a picture and put them on my front screen just to keep that motivation.”

Leonard started taking the criticism personally when he was a high school sophomore at Lake View High School in South Carolina. A baseball coach mentioned to him one day after practice that he played with Leonard’s father. The coach told Leonard, “Your dad was good, and your dad was fast. What the hell happened to you?”

“Ever since then, I’m like, ‘I never wanna hear those words again,’” Leonard said.

It wasn’t only in baseball for Leonard, either.

It was on the football field, too, believe it or not. He was told he could be an offensive player, but he’d “never be as good as his brother defensively” due to his size at the time. Anthony Waters, Leonard’s brother, played at Clemson and went on to win a Super Bowl while with the New Orleans Saints.

“I’m not sure he really even needs [more motivation],” Colts left tackle Anthony Castonzo said. “Whether he knows it or not, I think he is pretty self-motivated. He wants to be the best and is obviously extremely talented. It’s kind of like that icing on top when people doubt him; he wants to prove them wrong.”

He was named Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2018. One article after the draft called his pick “one of the draft’s worst moves” and a “head scratcher,” which is laughable more than two years later.

That’s been the No. 1 criticism that has fueled Leonard since he entered the NFL.

“Ninety-nine percent of the players that I’ve been around are motivated by that stuff — sometimes it gets personal,” Colts coach Frank Reich said. “Every now and then, if they feel like the dig goes past, ‘Bad game, bad player,’ and really gets personal, then that’s another level. It fuels their fire because everybody today, in one sense or another, is building their brand, and when something is out there that tarnishes the brand, that’s just going to create conflict and create motivation at some level.

“When I get tired on the last rep, I say, ‘One more for the haters. … One more for the haters.'”

LB Darius Leonard

“There are multiple layers of motivation. That is certainly one of them. I want our players to use it all. Anything that is going to motivate you, go ahead and use it for the good.”

What will Leonard use to motivate himself if he checks everything off his list?

MVP? Super Bowl?

“I have 15 goals that I set so high, there is absolutely no way that I can reach all 15 in one year,” Leonard said. “No way.”

Kawa wouldn’t reveal the entire list because, as he put it, “those are his personal goals.”

Some that are on the list are: Pro Bowl, All-Pro, Defensive Player of the Year, set the tackles record, set the record for sacks for a linebacker, set the forced-fumbles record for linebackers, set the interceptions record for linebackers, have the NFL’s No. 1 ranked defense and lead the Colts to a Super Bowl title.

“It’s him shooting for the stars to hope he lands on the moon type of thing,” Kawa said. “He’s literally shooting for the stars. He’s trying to go somewhere no one else has ever gone and he works his ass trying to do it. Darius isn’t keeping a tally on what people are saying. He’s keeping a tally of all the things he’s not accomplished. The goals he sets for himself, he pushing to get them.”

Just know, if you criticize Leonard, he’ll find it and use it as extra motivation.

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