As awards keep coming, Colts rookie Darius Leonard maintains intense focus

NFL tackle leader has already learned that being a pro isn't about honors, but about winning every game possible.

INDIANAPOLIS — That Darius Leonard keeps piling up NFL awards is a testament to how special the Indianapolis Colts rookie linebacker has been in his pro debut.

On Thursday, he was announced as AFC Defensive Player of the Month. The only other Colts rookie to earn that distinction was running back Edgerrin James in 1999.

On Wednesday, Leonard was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week for the second time this season. He was also previously honored as NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month for September.

This might sound crazy, but if “The Maniac” doesn’t win NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, he need not concern himself too much with another slight in a career path that has often included disrespect.

What you have to like about Leonard is his intense focus on that which is most important. And after listening to the NFL tackle leader on Tuesday, we’re reminded that he gets it.

Winning Saturday afternoon’s AFC playoff game at the Houston Texans is more important than any award. The Colts (10-6) and Texans (11-5) kick off at 4:35 p.m. Saturday at NRG Stadium.

Six years ago, many including myself got a bit worked up over Colts quarterback Andrew Luck losing the NFL Rookie of the Year honor to Robert Griffin III. Luck had shouldered so much of the Colts’ load that season, driving that 11-5 team to seven fourth-quarter or overtime comeback victories.

Yet RG III was the sexy pick. It was a joke, but what you came to admire about Luck is he didn’t waste any words on saying what he deserved. No. 12 already knew was was important. He just wanted to win games. He was driven by not wanting to let the Colts down.

When then-interim coach Bruce Arians was pitching his new book recently and spoke of that 2012 team, where Chuck Pagano had to take a leave to deal with cancer, Arians gave his classic, no-nonsense perspective on just how incredible Luck performed that year. The coach admitted the Colts weren’t nearly as good as the results indicated, they were crap, although Arians used the more vulgar term. But Luck made them so much better.

That Leonard understands this priority can only serve him well moving forward.

The second-round selection out of South Carolina State has been the best Colts rookie defensive player in recent memory, perhaps going back to first-round pick Dwight Freeney in 2002, if not farther. Some suggested at the time that GM Bill Polian reached to take the defensive end with the 11th overall pick. Freeney eventually became the Colts’ all-time leader in sacks, a record "Free" held until bookend, pass-rushing teammate Robert Mathis eclipsed that mark.

Some said the same thing about Leonard, that Colts GM Chris Ballard reached when he took the linebacker from the small school with the 36th overall pick. The 23-year-old rookie from Lake View, S.C., has done everything humanly possible to prove those skeptics were as wrong as they possibly could be.

Leonard always reminds that he plays the game with a chip on his proverbial shoulder pads, that the slights and disrespect of the past motivate him. He sure was fired up when not named to the Pro Bowl recently, inexplicably receiving just a Pro Bowl alternate selection.

He was so upset, Leonard fumed to tight end Eric Ebron that he wanted to make 40 tackles in the next game. But after that next game, when Leonard made nine tackles and his lanky pass defense led to a game-clinching overthrow and Malik Hooker interception, the linebacker’s mindset was different.

“As long as we got the ‘W,’” Leonard said, “that’s all that matters.”

Some players enjoy lengthy careers and make millions without ever truly understanding the importance of why they do what they do. They worry about their financial security or how their play is perceived, which is important sure, but it’s not most important.

Leonard gets it. He proves it every day. And we’ve all been fortunate, with or without more awards, to see how special he has become.

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