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Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard continues to lead the league in tackles with 88.
Clark Wade, Clark.Wade@Indystar.com

“I still don’t think I get the respect because of the school I went to.”

I. Loss.

It’s been six years and he still can’t sleep on his right side, because he can’t stomach seeing the face of the brother he lost. Six years, and he still can’t make it through the night without tossing and turning and wrestling himself awake, because therapy never worked and closure never came and the pain never left. To this day it haunts him in the darkness. Darius Leonard keeps the TV on low, humming out the late-night silence, so his mind won’t wander back to the night Keivonte was killed.

For a while, he couldn’t eat. He dropped weight. He churned through grief counselors. He walled off the world. For 17 years they slept in the same room, Keivonte on the left, Darius the right, brothers and best friends born a year apart. Then the older brother went to a nightclub one night and ended up in the hospital, and the younger brother’s cellphone rang once, twice, 10 times in a row while he slumped in a booth with his future wife at Huddle House.

At first he was going to be fine, he was going to make it. Keivonte had been leveled from behind during a fight in Mullins, S.C., a 20-minute drive from the family’s home in Lake View. He’d been knocked out cold, but would recover, the doctors said. Darius sat by his side in the hospital, relieved. The two of them had plans. They were going places.

Not that it had been easy, or would be. Two of their older brothers were in prison, and everyone in town knew why. “Ain’t no secret,” says another brother. “Both had murder charges.”

So, together, they fought the stigma that shadowed them. Keivonte stood 6-8. He was set to play college basketball that fall. Darius had dreams of the NFL.

A day later Darius called his mom, then his sister, then his brother, begging for an update. He never got one. He grew nervous.

Finally his phone buzzed. The words he heard that morning stopped him and shook him, and even today, he can’t recite them without tears trickling out and the anguish flooding back. “They just pronounced your brother dead,” they told him.

Six years later, the case remains unsolved.

“He shouldn’t have been there that night,” is all Darius will say.

II. Roots.

Before he dreaded the dark, he relished it. As a teenager he’d rise before dawn and jog a mile and a half to the gym. “I ain’t have no car,” he says now. “That’s something I took pride in. That’s the way I grew up.”

Darius Leonard grew up one of nine kids in the no-stoplight, no-McDonald’s town of Lake View, S.C., where the population is less than 800 and the median household income is less than $30,000. Lunch would often come at the local gas station, where Darius and his brothers would pound double cheeseburgers. His mom raised all nine by herself, waking early and working two jobs to make ends meet. The stress wore on her. Darius remembers celebrating one of his birthdays in the hospital, where his mom had been admitted for high blood pressure. “We didn’t have what everyone else had,” he says.

What he did have: a fire simmering inside his lanky frame, two brothers behind bars, each offering a cautionary tale, another who’d made it all the way, offering proof it could be done. Anthony Waters lasted four years in the NFL after hearing all along he’d stumble just like his older brothers had – and end up in jail. He never did.

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He won a Super Bowl with the Saints in 2010. He wanted Darius to have the same chance, but he wasn’t about to do it for him. Anthony remembers coming home one day and handing Darius a duffle bag, stuffed with cones, resistant cords, a speed ladder. “If you really wanna make it,” he told his little brother, “You’re gonna have to go get it yourself.”

Darius wanted it. He jogged through the morning darkness to his high school weight room. He’d stay late after practice, toiling alone for hours on an empty field. Waters would regularly get calls from their high school coach, Daryl King. “He’s still over here,” King would tell him, “working by himself again.” Waters beamed.

His little brother was a stringbean – 5-10, 135 pounds – and mostly a hooper until his junior year, when those weight sessions started to pay off. Darius shot up to 6-2, bulked up to 180, and was so good King couldn’t keep him off the field. By his senior season, Darius was lining up at five positions: running back, wide receiver, linebacker, safety and punter. Slowly, the scouts started to notice. This kid was a terror.

“He loved practice as much as the games,” King remembers. “He came in every day and decided he was going to outwork everybody on the field.”

He tried to. Lower State Game, his senior year: One win sends Lake View to the title game. They build a 21-point halftime lead, but Darius stalks King at halftime. “No. 5 is killing us,” he tells his coach. “I wanna block him. I wanna take him out of the game.”

King nods. Darius stops taking carries and starts laying out hits. He lines up at fullback, and fixes his glare on No. 5. “It was personal to him,” King remembers. “It became a battle of wills between the two of them.”

With Darius plowing holes for the backs, Lake View tacked on two more touchdowns in the second half. But their cushy lead still vanishes. Darius finishes with 19 tackles that night but needed 20. A two-way player himself, No. 5 – Darius remembers the number, not the name – snuck into the endzone on a two-point conversion late. Darius took a bad angle. Missed him. Lake View lost by one.

“I still think about that play,” Darius says, simmering six years later. “I never want to feel that again. I never went back and watched that film. I won’t. I don’t wanna see it. It disgusts me.”

III. Rejection.

It was always Clemson, and it will always be Clemson, no matter he never played a game for Clemson. “He’s probably got orange Clemson gear under his shoulder pads at practice with the Colts,” jokes his college coach, South Carolina State’s – and not Clemsons’s – Buddy Pough. Waters played for the Tigers, so Darius’ room was always covered in orange. He’d spend Saturdays in Death Valley, growing giddy after he snagged a pair of player gloves on the way out.

“Guess what!” Darius shouted over the phone to Waters one night. “I’m sitting next to coach Swinney at the basketball game!”

Dabo Swinney, the Tigers’ head coach, was there to scout someone else.

Darius went to Clemson’s camp before his junior season, and again before his senior season, praying that a coach would pull him aside and offer a scholarship. “No doubt I would have accepted on the spot,” Darius says now. But the offer never came.

So Leonard waited, waited, waited. Signing day came and went. No call from Swinney. Nothing from Clemson. The word Leonard later got from the school: They were waiting on him to qualify academically, which he did two weeks later. By then he’d settled on South Carolina State, the first school to offer a scholarship, and as of signing day, the only one. “We’re getting a steal,” Pough told King that day. He was right.

Meanwhile, Darius seethed. “I think it really pissed him off,” Waters says.

Instead of Death Valley, 80,000 fans, Dabo Swinney and three trips to the College Football Playoff, he settled for a tiny FCS program in Orangeburg that was nearly shut down halfway through his five-year stay. By Leonard’s junior season, the Bulldogs were broke. While administrators weighed cutting football from the budget, the team’s biggest star mulled transferring. Loyalty prevailed. While the team hung by a thread, Darius lifted it up.

“We redshirted him as a freshman, then he played every snap for us the next four years,” Pough says.

He became one of the best in school history, leaving with a program-record 394 tackles, 53 of which were for loss, 21.5 sacks, six interceptions and eight forced fumbles. He capped his career as a two-time MEAC Defensive Player of the Year.

And he finally made it to Death Valley one afternoon, but wore Bulldog white instead of Clemson orange. SC State was crushed 59-zip early in the 2016 season, a patsy in the Tigers’ march to a national title. So lopsided was the game that the referees decided to shorten the fourth quarter from 15 minutes to 12. But Leonard, playing against his dream school on his dream field, still left his mark. After a 19-tackle outburst against the best offense in college football, his teammates gave him a nickname. They started calling him The Maniac.

Almost two years later, The Maniac would run into Swinney at an awards banquet, accolades in tow, NFL in his future.

“I hate that we missed on you,” the coach told him.

IV. Rise.

The Indianapolis Colts’ area scout showed up to the South Carolina State practice field at the crack of dawn, curious as to why a college football team began practice before the sun rose. Jamie Moore was there to see if the linebacker he’d fallen in love with on tape was for real.

He scanned the field.

“Where’s Darius Leonard?” he asked.

“That guy,” they told him, nodding towards the player who wouldn’t shut up.

Then Moore sees him, No. 10, screaming, singing, dancing, revving his teammates, annoying his coaches. That’s Darius Leonard? Of course that’s Darius Leonard.

All right, all right, Moore tells himself. I can get with this.

Pough had grown irritated with the Bulldogs’ play of late, and he’d punished them: No music during practice. So Leonard took it upon himself. He became the music. “You never had to wonder if he was at practice,” Pough remembers. “He made sure you knew.”

Moore left dazzled. A few months later, his boss was on board. All week long at the Senior Bowl, Colts GM Chris Ballard kept his eye on the rangy, small-school linebacker whom Moore kept raving about. He had this energy, this juice – precisely what Ballard sought for the Colts’ new speed-heavy 4-3 scheme. “This kid belongs,” the GM told himself before he left town. After watching tape from Leonard’s 19-tackle eruption against Clemson, he was sold.

But a tweaked hamstring at the combine in February threatened to send his draft stock tumbling. The coaches told him he could sit out. Darius refused. “I’ll go,” he barked. He clocked a disappointing 4.7 in the 40-yard dash, but left an indelible impression on the man who’d draft him two months later.

“A little Frank Gore in him,” Ballard would say.

Leonard figured he’d have to wait until the third or fourth round to hear his name called in the draft. “I didn’t get the respect, and I still don’t think I get the respect because of the school I went to,” he says. “Nobody knew who I was.”

Ballard did. He grabbed Leonard four picks into the second round. The pundits promptly chimed in, including one from Bleacher Report, who labeled Leonard “one of the draft’s worst moves.” The article continued: “For whatever reason, we woke up Friday in a world where Indianapolis thought taking an FCS linebacker in the top 40 was a good idea.”

Turns out, it was. In Leonard’s second game ever he had 19 tackles – more than any Colt in seven years – and utterly dominated in a game the Colts held Adrian Peterson to 20 yards on 11 carries. The Maniac had arrived.

Half a season in, he’s been the best rookie in football.

He leads the entire league in tackles, with 88, despite missing a start with a bum ankle. He has four sacks, seven tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, two recoveries. He was named the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Month for September, the league’s Rookie of the Week twice in only seven starts.

He’s become a highlight machine, the heartbeat of the Colts’ revamped defense, a backbone for the future. Forget future Pro Bowler. He might do it as a rookie. And he might, sooner rather than later, become the franchise’s first Defensive Player of the Year since bruising safety Bob Sanders won the award back in 2007.

That Bleacher Report article? Leonard has a photo of it on his phone. Ask him about it, and he pulls it up in an instant.

“I love it,” he says, grinning. “The plan was to make whoever wrote that look pretty stupid.”

V. Rage.

Two Sundays ago. Oakland. The Colts’ gassed defense needs to do something for the first time in two hours. The Raiders ripped off four straight too-easy touchdown drives midgame. The Colts need one stop, one play.

In an instant, it’s over. Raiders back Doug Martin takes a handoff, slides into the hole and meets the rangy rookie linebacker who was labeled “one of the draft’s worst moves.” Leonard’s vicious tomahawk chop springs the football loose. The Colts recover. The Colts close. The Maniac dances.

“I take it as playing baseball in center field,” he says of playing linebacker. “When the ball is in the air, I want it. When I play football, whoever got the ball, I want it. That’s my ball. I’m taking it from you.”

Even as his career continues to ascend, Leonard remains the unfailingly polite, “Yes sir, no sir,” country kid he’s always been, a Southern gentleman with a rage bubbling inside. It’s as if he hasn’t yet grasped all that’s come, and all that could come in the next few years. Maybe that’s what has made him different all along: Play every snap like a maniac, the rest is just noise.

What isn’t: the girl he grew up with back in Lake View who’s now his wife. He proposed on the field after South Carolina State’s Senior Day last fall; Baby Leonard is on its way. The two spend most nights at home, Darius locked inside his film room, poring hours into his iPad. “He watches film more than anyone I’ve ever seen,” King, his high school coach, says. Their off weekends? Forget Cancún or Miami Beach. Darius and Kayla go back home, where he volunteers for his old high school football team.

Back in Indy, the texts pop into his phone on game day. They are missives from the older brother who paved the way but made him earn it all alone.

“Chase greatness,” Waters will write. “Be special.”

The Maniac reads them sitting at his locker.

Then he nods. Then he goes to work.

Call Star reporter Zak Keefer at (317) 444-6134 and follow him on Twitter: @zkeefer.

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