INDIANAPOLIS — His tone carries none of the hyperbolic inflection you might expect from a player known as "The Maniac." No dramatics. No renegade desire to light everyone's mentions on fire. Not even a complimentary shot from the Jim Beam ladies passing through this restaurant has an effect on his composure.
Darius Leonard is eerily casual as he lays out the plan.
"To be defensive MVP every year, to be a Super Bowl champion every year and to be the leading tackler every year," Leonard says. "I just want to be at the top. It's who I am. I want to see my name at the top."
He wants to play 12 seasons, he goes on, so...quick math...yes, "11 rings" is what he envisions.
Preposterous? Sure. Write it off as BS if you want. Spam. But just know that in the mind of the Maniac, it all seems perfectly reasonable, because the mind of the Maniac is just...different. He takes every assumption you could possibly conjure of an instant NFL superstar—a 23-year-old who transformed from nobody to centerpiece of the Colts defense and Defensive Rookie of the Year practically overnight—and promptly shoots them out of this galaxy.
Count the ways.
He plays the game with a Nostradamic, violent, magnetic pull to the football...but doesn't even watch much film. He'll study at the facility but rarely ever at home, because when he did agonize over X's and O's—before Week 1 last season—he felt like his feet were trapped in mud. He was overthinking. So he decided right then he'd slam the gas pedal for good, then led the league in tackles. By a mile. Despite missing a game.
He served as a virtual runaway train all season, racking up 190 tackles, seven sacks, five forced fumbles and two interceptions in 17 total games...and he wasn't even close to 100 percent. He sprained his ankle in Week 4, and it only got worse. And worse. He numbed it up with Toradol on game days, that Toradol wore off, and his ankle absolutely throbbed the other six days of the week.
He's turned his success into hundreds of thousands of social media followers...but he got tired of women sliding into his DMs, so he started posting more photos of his girlfriend turned fiancee turned wife. He's taken, damn it, so everyone please back off. He's known Kayla since kindergarten, she turned him down in sixth grade (he still gives her hell over that), they started dating in 11th grade, and here they are, married, with a baby girl. This relationship grew from the root. "Not the ground," he assures, "from the root up."
He's bound to make millions upon millions of dollars...but he's not about to splurge on a sports car, because his "jacked-up" Ford F-250 does just fine, thank you. He also doesn't like partying in big cities, celebs at his side. Even downtown Indy can be a little overwhelming for this native of Lake View, South Carolina (population: 783). He'd much rather spend his free time fishing for bass, tearing through ATV trails on his Yamaha Grizzly and blaring country music. (He's on a major Florida Georgia Line kick right now.)
And judging by that blissful disposition, you might think everything in this man's life off the field has been smooth. Not even close. Leonard has two brothers in prison for murder, while one other brother—his best friend, the one who slept next to him for 17 years—died after getting clubbed in the back of the head at a nightclub.
The Maniac, the linebacker who may wreak havoc on your offense for the next decade, is unlike anything you could ever expect.
So everyone, in 2019 and beyond, should absolutely expected the unexpected.
He doesn't serve as his own hype man. No, in a backwards hat, gold "D" necklace and white Nike crew at Rick's Cafe Boatyard, Leonard gazes off into the Eagle Creek Reservoir and puts his own game on trial. Outright agonizes over all the plays that went wrong, like one 4th-and-inches in his team's 31-13 divisional playoff loss to the Chiefs. That play still pains him. "I felt I let the team down," he laments. As Leonard replays out loud, he hit Damien Williams in the backfield, and Williams carried him forward.
He made the right read. He beelined. He failed.
"That's why I say I'm not a good player yet."
He doesn't stop there. Unprompted, Leonard cringes over a high school football game he just can't let go. He may never forgive himself for getting stiff-armed on a decisive two-point conversion in Lake View's state title game. When his team blew a 21-point lead. When he let his friends down. Remember these moments, he told himself then and tells himself now. Remember the pain.
That's why Leonard didn't relive those 190 tackles this spring when the Colts all returned to town. He sat down with a coach to rewatch all of his "bad" plays from an All-Pro season. The route that burnt him 15 times. The missed tackles. Williams ragdolling him. The times he couldn't get off a block...
"Once I can get all that situated, that's when I can say maybe I have a shot at getting good," Leonard says. "But right now? No, I'm not good yet."
In other words, we ain't seen nothing yet.
He'll inch closer to full Maniac in 2019, and full Maniac is a scary thought.
He's hard on himself, but Darius Leonard is a prideful man, too. In fact, he had second thoughts about even talking to Bleacher Report because we have a special place in his heart. Er, phone.
Before Leonard even sits down to chat, he's ranting.
"Out of all those picks," he says, the pitch of his voice rising. "I was the worst?!"
And in five seconds flat, on his phone, Leonard shows off an aggregated headline of the post declaring him the worst pick in the 2018 draft. Never mind the fact that B/R had come around by midseason. Mention this 180 to him, and Leonard either doesn't hear it because his mind's still racing over the first article or pretends that second one didn't even exist. Because being called the worst pick "hurt bad." He still stares at this screenshot once a week for motivation.
B/R wasn't alone in the analysis, either. Plenty of folks piss Leonard off. Those who fail to include him in their Top 10 segments. He can't believe his forced fumble at Oakland to seal a win went ignored. ("If you look at that play, you cannot say somebody else can do that.") Those who say he's poor in coverage when the Colts are primarily a zone defense willing to give up those short completions. ("They are definitely trash.")
The Pro Bowl voters. Whoever's behind the rookie of the week awards; he cannot believe he took only two of those. ("I want it every week.") NFL teams themselves. Leonard thought for sure he was headed to Dallas, Pittsburgh or Tampa Bay. All three teams seemed to love him.
Such is the weird tug of war in Leonard's mind. He doubts himself, interrogates himself, still can't shake a play from high school, yet simultaneously he is livid over everyone else's doubts and allows those doubts to also take up residence in his mind. He doesn't ignore negativity—he welcomes it.
"I'm always down to prove everybody wrong," he says. "I'd die before I let anybody tell me something I can't do."
Not big enough. Not fast enough. Not strong enough. He says he heard it all before the draft, before the Colts took him 36th overall, before he saw everyone's arbitrary D+ grade. And then his memory wanders in reverse, tracing the roots of this mentality.
First, back to Clemson. His dream school. Clemson was his favorite team growing up—his brother, Anthony Waters, played there, and Leonard went on two visits there himself. But whether it was the timing of his qualification or the fact that the defensive coordinator who recruited him left for Auburn, Clemson stopped calling. He never received an offer. One of his friends who did play at Clemson, fellow Lake View alum Quandon Christian, later told Leonard he'd heard his highlight tape was lost in the system.
Two weeks after national signing day, Leonard qualified, but Clemson had moved on.
"When Clemson kicked me to the curb," Leonard says, "that gave me a bigger chip."
South Carolina State it was, a program that nearly folded before his junior year. The crammed weight room, locker room and training rooms were all perfect for Leonard. He could stay hungry there and even needed to redshirt before playing. And with one 19-tackle game against Clemson, the "Maniac" nickname was born. In the comment section underneath a picture he posted, a fan said he played like a maniac, so Leonard ran with it.
Further back, he recalls his traumatic upbringing. His mother raised nine kids by herself.
He remembers seeing both pain and joy in Mom's eyes. Joy when Waters made it to the NFL and then won a Super Bowl with the Saints. Pain when two of his brothers were sent to prison. For Leonard, the choice was easy. He'd avoid the streets to bring his mother joy. The thin line of this decision, how easily things could've changed, is never lost on Leonard. He makes a point to speak to both of his incarcerated brothers twice a week—sometimes three times. His older brother writes him letters, once assuring Leonard that he had turned all the other inmates into Maniac fans.
The most pain, for all, came when the brother he was closest to died in 2012. Keivonte Waters was 19 and was set to join the basketball team at Benedict College. He had big dreams himself. Then at a Mullins, South Carolina, nightclub, a fight broke out and Waters was struck in the back of the neck.
The case went unsolved.
Leonard, who was 17 at the time, says he wasn't able to sleep much at all the next two-and-a-half years. He saw grief counselors. He lost weight because he couldn't eat. To this day, he still can't sleep on his right side, where he'd face Keivonte and talk deep into the night. He still can't sleep with the TV off; he needs to hear something as he dozes off. And, according to his wife, he still "jumps" up in his sleep to look to his right for Keivonte.
Being wired the way he is, you'd think this all would've sent Leonard on a rampage for revenge. Whoever killed his best friend was never found, never punished. "Got off," Leonard says.
Then, he clarifies.
He says his family actually has seen a video of the attack.
"We knew who it was," Leonard says. "It still hurts now. Yeah, it sucks. It sucks to know that he is still free. Especially seeing what I've been through in life. And to have him escape through and nothing happens, it hurts not just me but everybody in the family."
B/R's messages to Mullins police chief Michael Bethea were not returned. Press Leonard on this—there's video, so there should be consequences, right?—and he only calls this "a crazy world," adding that the video also replays in his head to this day. He recognized the person who knocked his brother out but didn't know him personally. His brother, who had changed high schools, likely did.
And there's Keivonte. Just lying there on the ground, motionless.
Leonard absolutely wanted a piece of the man who killed his brother. "Most definitely," he says. "For a long time." But then he thought about what Keivonte would've wanted.
"Would he want me to retaliate and get locked up like my other brothers?" Leonard says. "Or would he want me to keep doing what I'm doing, making him proud?"
This choice, like his last choice, was easy.
He hasn't looked back.
Instead of getting revenge and rotting behind bars, Leonard is in a huddle literally predicting game-changing plays.
He doesn't bring these plays up himself, of course, but cornerback Pierre Desir does.
In the third quarter of that same Chiefs game eating away at him, Leonard told everyone pre-snap, "I'm about to get the ball out. Be ready." Wide receiver Sammy Watkins took a jet sweep, and Leonard punched the ball out with his right fist. Earlier in the season, on 4th-and-1 against Dallas, Leonard knew slot receiver Cole Beasley was about to run a buttonhook, so he shaded to the outside, let Beasley beat him inside and used his athleticism (and 34 3/8-inch arm) to swat the ball down. Adrenaline at full blast—that breakup essentially ending the game—he cupped his hands to his mouth and screamed, apparently mocking Leighton "The Wolf Hunter" Vander Esch.
Not the case. Members of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, he says, like to bark. He was barking.
He's his own man, and this has been Leonard his entire life.
He took the game-winner in basketball games. He pitched the most innings of anyone on his baseball team. He dictates. He takes control. As an NFL linebacker, Leonard is seizing control as much as possible and, very quickly, rebranding the Colts. He will not allow this Colts defense to fold in January like it always seems to do. He refuses to allow this defense to ever be considered "soft," because he's not soft.
"Everything that I've been through, I just let everything go," Leonard says. "I let everything go on the field, so every play, I want to make. Every tackle, I want to make."
Adds Desir, "His hardships and what he's had to overcome as a person—he's very passionate. You see that in his play, you see that in his workouts, you see that in practice. He carries that passion with him."
The Colts know how to poke the bear, too. Whenever they played a team that passed on him in the draft, defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus and teammates were sure to mention it. Buffalo traded up for Tremaine Edmunds at No. 16 overall. Dallas took Vander Esch No. 19 overall. And against Leonard's Colts, those two teams had more combined turnovers (six) than points (five).
Leonard was mad, so Leonard was the best player on the field. And on that bad ankle, too.
"I want to prove that I'm better," he says. "I want to prove that I belong at the top. I want to prove that I'll outwork them. The whole week [leading up to those games], they were talking trash to me. They know what eats me alive. I'm a competitor. I don't care what it is. I'm a competitor. For another guy to come in and show off in my facility and outplay me? I can't let that happen."
Even if that guy is one of the best receivers in the game. In a Week 4 loss to the Texans, the game in which he injured the ankle, Leonard was somehow caught mano a mano against DeAndre Hopkins and was burnt for 24 yards on a slant. It was Cover 4. A linebacker has no business trying to go step for step with Hopkins, but Leonard took that play hard anyway, because Houston then kicked a field goal to win. He didn't forget the play later in the year, when the teams met again. Leonard knew if Hopkins jogged off the line that he'd "flash back inside," so he overplayed him inside and batted the ball away.
This is how Leonard plans on inching closer to his absurd goals and why his positional coach in college doesn't think his big plans are so unrealistic.
South Carolina State linebackers coach and interim defensive coordinator Jonathan Saxon is confident Leonard could've run the team's defensive meetings in his place back then.
"A lot of people will say he was great, and he'll tell you he was just OK," Saxon says. "He wants to be one of the greats. When you talk about the Ray Lewises, he wants his name in that conversation. That's his drive. Without a doubt. That's one of his 'whys.' He wants to be one of the best ever."
In Indy, Leonard is quick to praise middle linebacker Anthony Walker for making all the calls and checks because that's what allows him to see red. He can simply attack and serve as the loud, spirited, see-ball-get-ball force of nature the Colts have never really had. As a whole, Leonard believes this defense holds itself to a higher standard in practice than any team in the league because all linebackers and all defensive backs must constantly race to the ball at the end of plays.
The games, to him, are "easy" with how hard Eberflus pushes everyone, and it blows his mind how his defense will disguise a coverage and Andrew Luck still calls it out.
Not that these Colts get much national love. Other players, he says, are fed "a golden spoon" after plays that aren't even that impressive while Indianapolis is a flyover afterthought. He feels his entire team is disrespected.
"I think they're hatin' on the Colts," Leonard says. "I'll say that."
Only one sure way to change that: Win the next 11 Super Bowls.
He's not eating hot dogs for dinner a week straight like he used to, nor is he asking Mom for permission to have a snack from the cabinet because rations are low. He no longer needs to shower at a friend's house because his family lost its electricity. Nor is he wearing his older brothers' hand-me-down clothes and shoes.
Life is good.
Eventually he, too, may ink an $85 million contract. Leonard loved seeing C.J. Mosley get paid and knows the man he looks up to most, Bobby Wagner, is also about to cash in.
Yet, here, Leonard can sense the question coming like that forced fumble at Kansas City. "Yes," he cuts in immediately, he absolutely can keep playing the underdog card in 2019 despite having already arrived in the eyes of many. Because he wasn't in the Pro Bowl, wasn't the Defensive Player of the Year, wasn't a Super Bowl champion and isn't even close to being the linebacker Wagner is.
"That's what I want to get to: the way he picks up plays quick," Leonard says. "Once I get to that level, that's when I can consider myself as good."
The reminders to stay true to who he is are everywhere.
Last Easter, Wagner changed the tire of his former biology teacher's car on the side of the road. That act of kindness went viral but, honestly, these small deeds are part of his daily life. He believes such charitable work should come from the heart and that players shouldn't feel the need to broadcast them to the world. When he was helping with a bike drive once and local media caught wind of it, Leonard asked the local stations not to come because he didn't want a second of publicity.
He simply wanted kids to have what he never did growing up: a bike.
Leonard won't allow himself to forget where he came from. Too many memories made him this wild blend of buoyant and volcanic and, always, determined.
He points to Mom. He remembers her spending one of his birthdays in the hospital with high blood pressure and knows it was all because of the stress of raising nine kids, of seeing some swept away by violence. He points to his brother, Anthony Waters, who tore an ACL before his final collegiate season. That single injury, he believes, cost his brother millions. He points to his first varsity football jersey. There weren't enough jerseys at Lake View for everyone, so the players not expected to do a damn thing were handed the school's outdated uniforms. The previous design. Leonard was given one of those, No. 2, and was overcome with shame. He decided right then to outwork everyone.
If people heard all the trash talk he and his wife have as an interracial couple, Leonard knows they'd get why he's so inherently positive. The two of them have heard it all and respond to bigotry one way: with a smile.
"Love is love," Leonard says, "no matter what the color is. If you love someone, you love someone. Sometimes when I go back home, people look at me sideways. I don't care. I laugh, have a good time and keep it going."
And he thinks of Keivonte. Daily. Leonard has his brother's face tattooed on his arm with the words "Life goes on." He feels his presence every Sunday.
Nothing came easy for Leonard in the past, so he never wants anything to come easy in his future.
It's why when he finally beat his brother Anthony in a foot race, he didn't celebrate. He knew he needed to beat him again. And again. That's how he views this 2019 season.
That's why he sincerely loves coaches being so hard on him.
"I don't want any coach to say, 'You were the Defensive Rookie of the Year!'" Leonard says. "Yeah, last year I was. But this year, I have to prove it all over again. I don't want you to hand me no spot. So I'm glad the rookies came in. We have a great group of rookies who are very athletic. They're going to push me. I'm looking forward to it."
Along the way, Leonard will rant about a trivial Top 10 list or an old B/R take proven cold because that emotion keeps lifting him toward that new stratosphere. Leonard candidly admits he doesn't like people speaking or writing negatively about him. He takes it personally. He feels the need to correct your mistakes.
The mind of the Maniac won't ever change because he won't allow it.
He'll stay jovial when he has no business being jovial, even holding out hope that one brother in prison gets a shot at parole.
He'll stay grounded and country and continue to love raising his new daughter. The fact that a life is now dependent on him lifts him into that stratosphere, too. He knows this is a daughter he never would've had if he did retaliate after Keivonte's 2012 murder.
Can he forgive his brother's killer? Not a chance. But he can live how his brother would've wanted.
Says Leonard, "I'm definitely going to keep the same mindset that I have."
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.