Darius Leonard: ‘I realized I have to work on me as a person’

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Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard is arguably the most energetic player on any field he steps onto.

His role as a leader and enforcer in the middle of the Colts defense gets his teammates ready to run through a wall. But even the one they call “The Maniac” has bouts with mental health issues.

Those issues arose late in the 2021 season for Leonard. He didn’t feel like himself. Between a nagging ankle injury, and the loss of his cousin while his father and sister battled sickness, it all began to weigh on Leonard.

“I fell out of love with the game. I wasn’t enjoying it anymore,” Leonard told reporters Wednesday via IndyStar.

It wasn’t the same for Leonard. So many things tugged at him, especially back home in South Carolina where he had no way of helping.

“It was just a lot,’’ Leonard said. “I had the surgery (and) the ankle never healed. My dad got sick. My sister got sick. I lost a cousin. And then it was just a lot of things, little small things that kept bugging me. “I just couldn’t get over it. A lot of times when I would come in it was just ‘Do your thing and just get on out.’ I wasn’t really smiling. I fell out of love for the game.’’

We often look to professional athletes, especially elite ones like Leonard, as superheroes. Figures that are larger than life. They do things on the field that we could only imagine.

But beneath it all, they’re human beings. They have emotions. They have doubts. They have those dark times that we may not see because, on television, they look more like figures of grander mythos that we just happen to be spectating.

And for someone like Leonard, who’s so focused on winning and bettering his team in any way, he’s able to push it all down. Play through the pain—both physical and mental.

Even for Leonard, whose willpower is among the strongest in the league, it takes a toll.

“In this profession, sometimes you feel like you don’t have a say so in your personal life just because it’s all football, all football,” Leonard said Wednesday. “When you feel like you have to hold a shade up on your personal life because of your football life, it eats you up. I just wasn’t in a good mental place because I couldn’t be around my family whenever they needed it. So yeah, it was tough, but I learned from it.”

So Leonard used the first two months of the offseason to better himself. He worked on his mental health. He worked on being the best version of Darius Leonard he could be.

It’s a courageous thing to stand in front of the masses and admit to struggling with mental health. While progress is being made, there are still factions of fans who simply don’t care. They only view players for their worth as athletes and not as human beings.

Standing in the midst of that, fearless to tackle a persistent issue like mental health is what makes Leonard stronger each year. Now, he comes into 2022 having found himself in a much better place.

“This offseason I stayed away from ball for probably two months, and I realized I have to work on me as a person,” Leonard said. “I have to work on me showing my emotions and not allow peoples’ comments to hurt me as much as it did. A lot of things there, but feeling good, feeling great.’’

Leonard is a valuable piece to the Colts defense and an even more valuable piece to their locker room as a leader and a person.

The fight against mental health is not an easy one. It’s not one that can be overcome in one fell swoop. It’s a constant battle.

And after rediscovering himself off the field, The Maniac is ready to take on that challenge head-on.

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