You wouldn’t think a guy at 5'8" could feed his family by playing defensive back, but that’s what New York Jets safety Jim Leonhard has managed to do.
Entering his seventh NFL season, Leonhard has defied the odds, defending the fastest players in the league and returning punts as well. With help from Jim’s friends at Farkas Eye Black, I had a chance to speak to the man from Ladysmith, Wisc. about surviving in a big man’s league, playing for Rex Ryan and the mood of the players coming out of a locked-out offseason. What follows is an excerpt of that conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.
So this “Athletes Against Stickers” campaign is quite enjoyable. I’d gather that natural eye black is better than those fake eye black decals that you see some guys putting on their faces these days.
Absolutely. It’s essentially like wearing a helmet that doesn’t provide any protection. I wouldn’t really throw that on with today’s technology. This is something I’m very passionate about. I’m a big fan of eye black, and you've got to wear the real thing. You can’t put the stickers on your faces. That’s kind of a joke.
So how do you properly apply eye black? One inch on the cheekbone? Below the cheekbone? All over the cheek? What’s the best way to do that?
The thicker and the messier, the better. The NFL is kinda cracking down on it. You used to see guys like John Randle where they had their whole face painted. You try to get away with as much as physically possible without getting fined by the league.
How does it feel to be one of the smaller players in the league (listed at 5'8") and still having the capability to play six years in the league?
I meet a lot of people that are undersized and never had the opportunity to play. I was overlooked coming out of college, and so I feel like I’m flying the flag for a lot of those people. I just try to go out and play the game the right way, be physical and have a lot of heart, and try to make it stick.
At Wisconsin, you were a walk-on there, and you were All-Big Ten before you were even offered a scholarship. Was it just because you didn’t have the measurables that they wanted?
Well, I came from a very small community. My hometown (Ladysmith, Wisc.) has 105 people, so they’re not sending people over there to recruit. But I was able to open some eyes at camp and they offered me a chance to walk on.
Going into camp as a sophomore, I wasn’t supposed to start, but the guy in front of me left, so all of a sudden I got that starting job. So, after being All Big-Ten, All-American and leading the nation in interceptions, I finally got that scholarship and all that work paid off.
Speaking as a football layperson, I think there has been a lot of evolution in the safety position over the last several years, in terms of what you’re being asked to do and what type of players are playing the position. Have you seen that, entering your seventh year in the NFL?
I’ve definitely seen a big shift. With the crackdown on helmet-to-helmet hits now, it’s difficult to be that punishing hitter. Now you have to gently put receivers and running backs on the ground. But there are other changes. We see more spread offenses, more passing, so you’re not seeing that eighth man in the box, that true strong safety that you’re used to seeing.
If you can’t cover people, your career in the NFL is pretty short. So maybe there’s a trend toward the smaller safeties, guys that are a little more agile. And with the new defenseless receiver rules, it’s a lot harder to react to those bang-bang plays when you’re questioning how you intend to hit someone.
So how do you cover Plaxico Burress in practice?
Hold him. That’s the beauty of practice, those flags don’t count.
You’ve been playing for Rex Ryan since both of you were with the Ravens. Do you see the same boisterous, mouthy guy in practice that we see on the highlight shows each week?
Rex is the same person, 24-seven. I think a lot of people that don’t like Rex, they think it’s an act, that he’s putting on a show for the cameras. But he is who he is, and that’s why he gets the respect from the players and the organization that he does. He’s very consistent, and obviously very brash and outgoing, but I respect the honesty.
Rex understands the game is about marketing, and that it’s about the fans, so he’s going to let them into the program more than a lot of other teams would be comfortable doing. Rex wants to be engaging and he has a lot of fun with it.
Your team is 2-0. Is it that big a deal to be undefeated this early in the season?
It’s definitely huge to get a strong start, to build that confidence early. Every season has ups and downs, but in the end, you can’t give games away at any point in the year. We felt like we tried really hard to give that Dallas game away, but then eventually got that turned around and got a win against Jacksonville. But this is where we expected to be. Now, we have a tough stretch with three straight road games, so we have to stack those wins up wherever we can get them.
We’ve realized how important it is over the last two years to get those home playoff games. It’s hard to go on the road three straight games at any point in the year, so we need to win the division and lock up our home field through the playoffs.
I don’t mean this as an insult, but I think you’re a decent example of a rank-and-file player in the NFL. I think you’d have a good perspective on how well the players made out with the new collective bargaining agreement. Are you happy with what came out of the lockout?
There was a number of positive things that came out of it. We don’t have to worry about that BS for 10 more years. The owners are happy, the players are happy and you move on. It’s big business and sometimes it has to get ugly before decisions are made, but we’re very happy. You look at some of the safety issues that were addressed, I think we took a huge step forward, and the owners feel like they got what they wanted with some of the rookie contracts. Neither side would have signed that if they felt like they had a raw deal. We’re just happy to be playing football again.
You had to rehab a broken tibia in the offseason, which was made more difficult by the fact that you couldn’t interact with team doctors. Peyton Manning had a similar issue with his neck surgery and wasn’t able to play by the start of the year. What were you able to do that he didn’t?
It was tough. I give the Jets a lot of credit.
We set up a great plan for the period where I knew I couldn’t contact them, so I knew the direction I needed to take. But regarding Peyton, how can you make a career-threatening decision on surgery without talking to your employer? That’s pretty difficult to ask someone. We saw a number of guys getting surgery once the lockout was lifted for that reason. All of those decisions were put on hold by the lockout, and Peyton might lose his entire season because of it.