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Last season, Colts’ Darius Leonard ‘fell out of love for the game’

INDIANAPOLIS – Darius Leonard has been a high-profile spokesman for one of the Indianapolis Colts’ flagship causes.

Often, their All-Pro linebacker wears a t-shirt to shine light on the team’s Kicking the Stigma campaign.

It’s OK not to be OK.

Last season, Leonard wasn’t OK. Not even close as it turns out.

“I fell out of love for the game,’’ he said Wednesday afternoon. “I wasn’t enjoying it anymore.’’

Outwardly, there was no evidence of that. Leonard remained one of the Colts’ more effusive players whether it was during practice, in pre-game warm-ups or the game itself. He bounced around, joked with teammates, smiled and hammed it up whenever the camera found him.

By season’s end, he had earned a fourth All-Pro designation in as many seasons – the third time as a first-team selection – and was named to a third straight Pro Bowl. He authored another fat stat line: 122 tackles, four interceptions, an NFL-high eight forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

But it was a struggle throughout.

Physically and mentally.

Individually and collectively.

The struggle began in mid-June with “clean-up’’ surgery on his left ankle, and concluded with the Colts’ epic collapse with closing losses to the Las Vegas Raiders and Jacksonville that kept them out of the playoffs.

“We go down there to Jacksonville, and we play like trash, and we lose a game to possibly get into the playoffs and it sucks,’’ Leonard said.

The sting remains five months later. Leonard needed two months to recover from and come to grips with the historic meltdown.

“The first month I didn’t want to go home. I didn’t want to be around anybody,’’ he said. “I didn’t want to face it yet. The question was going to come: What the hell happened at Jacksonville?

“At the moment I really didn’t know what happened. . . . As a defense, we didn’t do enough. I didn’t do enough. I’ve got to be better. We’ve got to be better.’’

Leonard took responsibility for not being a better leader and a better teammate, and for not holding everyone accountable.

His weekly issues with the left ankle were obvious. He lacked his usual mobility and explosiveness, which made his ability to generate game-changing plays all the more impressive. Normally a tackle machine, he was limited to six or fewer in each of the first three games.

Each week, the same questions bounced around in his mind.

When will it be better?

When will it be close to 100%?

But the ankle was only part of what Leonard dealt with.

“It was just a lot,’’ he said. “I had the surgery (and) the ankle never healed. My dad got sick. My sister got sick. I lost a cousin. And then it was just a lot of things, little small things that kept bugging me.

“I just couldn’t get over it. A lot of times when I would come in it was just ‘Do your thing and just get on out.’ I wasn’t really smiling. I fell out of love for the game.’’

That’s the side of athletes few see, a side most keep to themselves.

“In this profession, sometimes you feel like you don’t have a say-so in your personal life,’’ Leonard said. “It’s all football. It’s all football.

“When you sit here and feel like you’ve got to hold a shade up with your personal life because of your football life, it eats you up. I just wasn’t in a good mental place because I couldn’t be around my family whenever they needed it. So yeah, it was tough, but I learned from it.

“This offseason I stayed away from ball for probably two months, and I realized I have to work on me as a person. I have to work on me showing my emotions and not allow peoples’ comments to hurt me as much as it did.

“A lot of things there, but feeling good, feeling great.’’

About the ankle

Leonard indicated his left ankle still isn’t 100%, which might be a cause of concern.

“It’s attached. It’s there,’’ he said with a smile. “I mean, we’re working on it. It feels a whole lot better than what it did coming from the end of the season. Just a lot of time to rest, trying to make it stronger.

“I feel better coming in this season than I did last year.’’

Is yet another clean-up procedure necessary?

“I hope not,’’ he said. “If it does, it’ll be there. If it don’t, it don’t. I think we did enough of cleaning it up the past two times that I did have to clean it up. Now it’s more strengthening it up.’’

About the collapse

Perhaps complacency helped doom the Colts. As it turned out, the high point of their season was the 22-16 road win over the Arizona Cardinals on Christmas Night.

At 9-6, the Colts had a 96% chance at making the playoffs with two games remaining. Then, the embarrassing losses to the Raiders and Jaguars.

Leonard shoulders a portion of the blame. He missed the Cardinals game due to COVID-19, but returned for the final two.

“Last year I wasn’t in the right mental space to hold everybody accountable, and I felt I let the team down in that aspect the last two games,’’ he said, “I felt like we got comfortable with winning. We went down to the Cardinals, and we won that game on Christmas Night. I felt like that was our Super Bowl. A lot of people saw that as our Super Bowl, and we felt invincible, and we went down there and beat that team with our backups.

“We got caught up in the moment. Now we understand that even when you win, you’ve got to make sure that we stay on top of the small details and don’t shy away from calling guys out like we would if we were losing.

“It just made me grow as a leader. I felt like me personally I didn’t do enough, and I let the team down.’’

About the defensive additions

The defense finds itself in a transitional offseason. Coordinator Matt Eberflus is the new head coach of the Chicago Bears – he’s been replaced by Gus Bradley – and general manager Chris Ballard added several key components, most notably edge pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue and cornerback Stephon Gilmore.

Leonard offered an enthusiastic thumbs-up to the personnel moves.

“It made me happy, especially with the rush just helping Buck (DeForest Buckner), Kwity (Paye) out,’’ he said. “Adding that defensive end is going to help us out a lot. Having the shutdown corner with Gilmore and you think about all the takeaways we’re going to have there.

“Stephon is great at tracking the ball and Yannick, man, he’s been havoc off the edge.’’

The Colts finished 2nd in the NFL with 33 takeaways last season, and the objective remains higher.

“Each year it’s 40-plus,’’ Leonard said.

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You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.