Darius Leonard on love, loss and second chances
Colts star Darius Leonard’s first two years in the league have been among the best debuts ever by a linebacker. But his path to NFL greatness has been far from easy.
Darius Leonard steps out of his in-laws’ house on a five-acre farm. The June sun reflects off iridescent dragonflies that zip in the South Carolina morning air. Leonard closes the 15 yards from the front door to the driveway, where I stand, in a few long strides.
I notice his haircut. “Got that fresh Boosie, I see.”
“You know it,” he says, laughing.
Long-limbed and muscular, Leonard is wearing dark gym shorts and a royal blue “Lake View High School Football” T-shirt. There is a diamond-studded “53” hanging from one of a few gold chains. After we greeted one another, he tucked his jewelry into his shirt. His gleaming black Benz SUV sits in the driveway, but we are just a few miles from the trailer park where he lived for a couple of years as a kid, one of the 15 or 20 places he called home as a child. He is the embodiment of the rags to riches story we’ve seen chronicled in movies and music. Leonard’s favorite portrayal is YFN Lucci’s 2016 song, “Everyday We Lit” — “I came up from nothing … / Did it on my own… / I swear I ain’t never expected it to be like this.”
“He speaks the truth on everything,” Leonard says.
Leonard is one of nine children — five brothers, three sisters. The fifth of six boys, Indianapolis Colts linebacker Leonard is the reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. One brother, Anthony, also played in the NFL. Two others are in prison. Darius’ closest sibling, Keivonte, died when Darius was in high school.
“If it weren’t for football, I’d probably be dead or in jail,” is an abused cliché — but it might not be far-fetched to say that, because of football, Leonard is not dead or in jail.
Instead, he is a college graduate and an NFL All-Pro. He is the guy who stops to change a stranger’s tire on the side of a country road. If there’s music playing at practices or games, he is dancing. He is the guy who makes everyone happy. He has emerged from unthinkable circumstances to become a beacon of joy for everyone in his orbit. This is mostly accomplished by suppressing grief, which he says he’d rather do than burden others.
His wife, Kayla, is the only person who sees that he occasionally aches from the trauma of his past. Before Keivonte’s death, she had never seen Leonard show any real emotion. But in the almost eight years since, she has seen him cry countless times. “There’s always something that happens in his life where he thinks about his brother, and that triggers different emotions,” she says. “Getting drafted, his brother not being there. Winning Defensive Rookie of the Year, his brother not being there. Having our daughter, him not being there. You know, just a lot of big milestones have happened.”
The football field is not an escape from the trauma of his childhood. Nor is it an outlet to release the emotions he has bottled up. Leonard plays aggressively, but he does it with a bounce — best exemplified by his celebration after every sack (and this year, there have been a lot of them). He fiercely raises the hand sign of his frat, Omega Psi Phi — while he does a jubilant, wide-legged jig. You can see a smile in his play, like you can hear a smile over the phone. But he admits that smile is sometimes forced.
Leonard still feels the weight of his past. He has spent his life pushing through it: “Pressure bursts pipes or makes diamonds,” he says. He’s never considered that it could do both.
Leonard was born in 1995, one of nine children raised by a single mother in Lake View, South Carolina, a town so tiny there are no stoplights. “We have a caution light, though,” Leonard says, pointing toward the center of town.
As a child, Leonard and his family moved often. There was the trailer park on the gravel road, where he met his father for the first time at the age of 13. The tiny gray townhouse in Mullins, South Carolina. The big house in the middle of nowhere. Leonard did two stints at a friend’s house, sleeping in a living room and a barn.
The family wasn’t well off. Leonard was the butt of elementary school jokes for wearing high waters and shoes from the discount department store, Maxway. The first day back to school after Christmas was always rough. Classmates would return wearing new clothes and bragging about their gifts. “In the third grade, I wore thong sandals to school,” Leonard remembers. “They called me ‘Two Dollars’ because that’s how much they cost.” Leonard answered with more jokes rather than show how much it hurt.
What got him through many of those childhood trials was his relationship with Keivonte. From the time Darius was born, about a year after Keivonte, they slept in the same room. When the house was particularly crowded, they shared a bed. Growing up they watched a lot of Walker, Texas Ranger — “for him” — and pro wrestling — “for me,” Leonard says.
You’d rarely see one brother without the other, often in matching clothes. “He was a big clown,” Leonard says, smiling. “Keivonte always wanted to make everyone laugh.”
After Darius’ junior year of high school, Keivonte left Lake View for Columbia, South Carolina, where he attended Benedict College on a basketball scholarship. During his freshman year, Keivonte came home for the holidays and spent Thanksgiving with his family. One night over the break, he was going out with friends and asked Darius if he could borrow some clothes. “He wanted to wear my shoes out, but he wouldn’t let me wear his,” Leonard says. “I told him I was ready for him to go back to school.”
A few hours later, Darius got a call. Keivonte was being rushed to the hospital, unconscious after a fight at a club. He died the next day.
One of the last conversations Leonard recalls having with his brother was during that holiday break, after Keivonte had seen Darius argue with Kayla. “You never know what you have until it’s gone,” Keivonte warned, reminding Darius to cherish that relationship. Just days later, that relationship would be what got Leonard through Keivonte’s death.
According to the police report, Keivonte was “thrown or slammed against a wall.” He “struck his head, immediately after which he became unconscious” and was rushed to the hospital.
Kayla rode with Darius to see Keivonte. They left the hospital early the next morning, believing Keivonte was going to survive. Then, instead, as they were preparing to return to the hospital later that day, Kayla was standing with Darius when they got the call that Keivonte was dead. “I just remember him leaning on the car, just crying,” Kayla says. “I just wanted to hug him, and say, ‘I’m sorry.’ ”
Kayla and Darius have known each other for almost their entire lives. They met in Ms. Susan’s kindergarten class, playing on the kitchen set. According to Leonard, it’s not a coincidence that they ended up next to each other in the class picture — “she moved the other little girls so she could stand by me.” (Kayla rolls her eyes, but doesn’t deny it.) In the sixth grade, Leonard took his shot at lunch. “I talked some good mack daddy.” But she rejected him: Apparently, his mack was not strong enough to overcome the size and shape of his head.
“He had a little peanut head,” she says with a laugh.
They started dating during their junior year. “We probably hid our relationship for the first two years,” Leonard says. Rather than go out, where they knew they would get looks of disapproval and feed town gossip, they hung out in private, or with a few friends. Gradually, they allowed more people to find out about them, but there was a cost. In 2011, an interracial relationship was still taboo in their tiny Southern town. “Growing up in Lake View, I heard the N-word used regularly,” Kayla says.
Kayla’s friends were direct, she remembers: “Why are you dating a black boy?”
“We lost friendships over it,” says Leonard, who said people weren’t as bold when with him. “They would just stop talking to me and stop giving me rides.”
Leonard and Kayla hadn’t fully come out as a couple before Keivonte died. A brother’s death would be stressful for any young relationship — particularly one with as much pressure as Leonard’s and Kayla’s. But Leonard didn’t seem to want to talk about it — with Kayla, or anyone.
Leonard’s mother, Lynette, turned to counseling. “I was digging a hole, going further and further in the hole, until I actually had to talk to a therapist,” she says. Leonard tried counseling too, but after four visits, he quit. “It didn’t work,” he says.
Kayla and his mother say Leonard still hasn’t directly dealt with the emotional aftermath of the traumatic loss. “It’s still hard on him,” his mother says.
Leonard pushes away sympathy from his family. “It’s pointless for you to say it,” Kayla says, “so I’ve learned to not say ‘I’m sorry.’ ”
Even now, on the bad days, the routine is always the same. Leonard isolates himself and cries. Kayla is usually there to hug him. No words need to be spoken.
At Leonard’s 2018 draft party, as the family gathered in Myrtle Beach, Colts general manager Chris Ballard called Leonard early in the second round and asked, “Do you want to be a Colt?” Minutes later, the announcement was made on TV, and the house erupted around Leonard, whose bright smile masked what was rumbling beneath.
Kayla spotted him drifting from the celebration, so she followed him to the back of the room. They cried together. A local news crew, there to capture the hometown man’s moment, caught what everyone assumed were tears of joy. But this was also another reminder of the person who wasn’t there.
For a time after his brother’s death, Leonard thought that celebratory draft moment would not come. Leonard was never a top-rated prospect, particularly not before a growth spurt after his junior year of high school, but he was good enough to garner interest from several schools. He had eyes for only one: Clemson, where older brother Anthony Waters had gone before being drafted by the Chargers.
Darius played three varsity sports in high school and as a senior led Lake View to the lower state championship. (He bears personal responsibility for the team not winning and can describe, with pinpoint accuracy, the final play, when Lake View’s opponent went for two on the last play of the game.) Leaving a school that has 11 state football titles, without winning that year, was “a hurtful feeling,” Leonard says. “If you don’t have a state title in Lake View, you weren’t good enough.”
He wasn’t good enough to win a championship, and soon found out he wasn’t good enough for Clemson. A class clown, Leonard had to work in his senior year to get his grades and SAT scores high enough to be Division 1-eligible. By the time he did, Clemson, which had shown interest, he says, but wouldn’t commit until he got his grades up, was out of scholarships. Leonard called several schools, but the answer was the same. Only one school had an open spot: South Carolina State University. To Leonard, that meant his professional football dreams were over before they began. Kayla, who was attending nearby Claflin University on a softball scholarship, remained encouraging, but Leonard had decided that he was going to be a gym teacher and high school football coach.
So he got off to an early start. While attending SCSU, he regularly drove the two hours to Lake View to help coach the football team, calling head coach Daryl King with notes on upcoming opponents. “He was preparing for his games at South Carolina State, and there he is also spending an hour or two a day watching film for us,” King says. Every Friday that he didn’t have a game, Leonard was on the sideline with Lake View. “That’s the kind of guy is,” King says.
In 2016, as a redshirt junior, he got a chance to show Clemson, the national championship runner-up, what it was missing. SCSU went into Death Valley and lost 59-0. Clemson’s players were a class above all of the Bulldogs — except for one. Leonard was everywhere, recording a game-high 19 tackles and blocking a field goal. “I had a big chip on my shoulder,” he says. “I wanted to put them on notice.”
After the game, he says, “My teammates said I played like a straight maniac.” It stuck. From then on, Leonard was known as “The Maniac.” Leonard’s connection to the nickname went deeper than his teammates had anticipated. “Mind of a Maniac,” by one of Leonard’s favorite rappers, Lil Boosie, was already part of his pregame playlist, and it remains today.
As Leonard’s junior season in college ended, Lake View’s playoff run was just beginning. For Leonard, this was a chance to right another wrong: To help Lake View win the title that he had failed to bring home as a high school senior. “He was with us every day at practice,” King says.
A week after Leonard accepted his first Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference Defensive Player of the Year award in December 2016, he was back in Lake View, “up in the booth for us on the headsets” during the state championship game. At the end of the first quarter, he had tips for Coach King. “It made all the difference in the world,” King says. Lake View won its first state title since 2007.
Leonard and Kayla graduated the next semester. She returned to teach at Lake View, but Darius had one more season of eligibility. Finally, Leonard says, big schools had come calling — even his dream school, Clemson, was offering a spot — but he decided to stay at SCSU. In his senior year, Leonard posted another triple-digit total in tackles (114) and a career-high in sacks. He ranked in the nation’s top 15 in solo tackles. His NFL aspirations were alive and well.
But the highlight of his SCSU career came after his final home game, a 33-15 win over Hampton University. He had been saving his scholarship refund checks and used a friend’s employee discount to buy a ring from Kay Jewelers. After the game, at midfield, he asked Kayla to marry him. She said yes.
As a 24-year-old family man, NFL star and Colts team captain, the pressure Leonard puts on himself has only increased. The drive to joyfully be a relentless tackler, responsive husband and engaged father to his 9-month-old daughter, Mia, is fueled by the memory of his brother. But, burning that fuel affects Leonard in ways that go somewhat unnoticed. The future of this man and this team might be determined by how those pressures affect the man he becomes.
In his rookie season, Leonard showed enormous potential. He earned first-team All-Pro honors by leading the league in tackles, notched seven sacks and had two interceptions. The Colts’ defense went from 27th in defense-adjusted value over average in 2017 to 10th with Leonard in 2018. The Colts won nine of their last 10 regular-season games, plus a playoff game for the first time since 2014. The Colts beat the Houston Texans 21-7 in the wild-card round before falling to the Kansas City Chiefs. Headed into this season, the Colts were a trendy Super Bowl pick.
It is safe to say that this season has not gone according to plan. First, quarterback Andrew Luck abruptly retired in the preseason. The Colts still managed to start 5-2 but then lost five of six. Leonard missed three of those early games in concussion protocol after an injury in Week 2 against the Tennessee Titans. He watched the games he missed from home while wearing his jersey and helmet.
But since his Week 7 return, he leads NFL linebackers with 74 tackles. In a mid-November performance against the Miami Dolphins, he recorded 11 solo tackles, a sack and an interception, becoming one of only two players in NFL history to record 10 sacks and four interceptions in his first two seasons (the other is Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher).
“He has the tools to be the best in the league,” says D’Qwell Jackson, a linebacker for the Colts from 2014-16. “He’s great in space, a sure tackler, and he came into the league with a knack for blitzing.”
Leonard’s $1.6 million salary this season makes him the 93rd highest-paid linebacker in football — a ranking that should change significantly the next time he’s eligible for a contract. Leonard looks forward to celebrating that milestone, but he knows he is going to get it the same way he gets everything else: with hard work and Kayla’s support.
“Kayla means the most. When I was dirt broke, she was still right beside me. When my brother died, we weren’t even public and she said, I don’t care, I’m going to be the best armor for you the whole way.’ When I lost the scholarship at Clemson, she was there,” Leonard says. “She never left my side through any moment; she made sure that I had absolutely anything that I needed.”
The loss of his brother still weighs on Leonard. He and Kayla imagine Keivonte watching Darius play on Sundays and playing with their daughter at home.
In astronomy, a nova is a star that suddenly and momentarily shines thousands of times brighter, allowing onlookers to appreciate its previously hidden brilliance. The phenomenon comes from an interaction between two stars — one living, one dead. In the NFL, Lake View, South Carolina’s Darius Leonard has created a nova. Darius is very much alive. Tattooed on his forearm is the face of his companion star, Keivonte.
Before every game, Leonard winds tape tightly around his wrist and up his forearm. He stops just below Keivonte’s eyes.
“So he can watch me.”