Shaquille Leonard's return from injury gives the Colts' defense a jolt of energy

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Indianapolis Colts linebacker Shaquille Leonard (53) celebrates a stop against the Chicago Bears during an NFL football joint practice at the Colts' training camp in Westfield, Ind., Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

INDIANAPOLIS – When Indianapolis Colts linebacker Shaquille Leonard woke up Monday morning, he was overjoyed.

Sure, he had the expected soreness from playing his first full game since early November.

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He just didn't need any additional medical treatments or trainers or doctors to examine his bruised body or experience a trip back to the injury report. Instead, what the postgame wake-up call proved to the three-time All-Pro was that he could finally play football his way — again.

“It was a good sore,” Leonard said. “It (the game) was most definitely satisfying, just after everything I've been through to be able to get back out there again, play the game I love. It definitely was satisfying to go back out there and compete with the guys.”

Critics questioned whether Leonard could ever fully recover from two injury-plagued seasons and the excruciating pain in his left leg. In his darker moments, perhaps even Leonard may admit he also questioned whether he'd ever reemerge as one of the NFL's most fearless defensive playmakers.

And while anyone who knows Leonard understands he'll use any perceived slight to fuel his passion to silence doubters, this time seemed different.

Leonard tried everything to get healthy.

He had offseason ankle surgery between the 2020 and 2021 seasons and used a hyperbaric chamber in hopes it would speed his recovery. When that didn't work, he had back surgery in June 2022 for what doctors determined was a nerve injury.

The surgery kept Leonard out until Week 4 last season and then less than two quarters into his season debut, a violent collision with teammate Zaire Franklin left Leonard with a broken nose and in the concussion protocol. He missed three more games before returning in late October and two games later, his season was over.

Three games, 11 tackles, one interception and yet another back surgery to fix his still painful leg. Leonard didn't like the way it looked on paper any better than it did on film.

“I feel like last year, I was just so eager to get out there, I feel like I hurt myself again,” Leonard said when training camp opened. “That's why I had a second surgery in November. So you learn from that, and you learn how to take it slow."

Patience has never been one of Leonard's virtues.

In the first practice of his rookie training camp, he picked off Andrew Luck and went from second-round draft selection to opening day starter in a matter of weeks. He won the league's tackling title that season and broke the franchise's single-season record (163). Over the next two seasons, it seemed that nothing could slow The Maniac.

Then came the injuries — and the lesson.

After missing all of the team's offseason workouts, Leonard accepted taking extra days off and using a pitch count at camp and during the preseason as he overcame what he described as the “fear” of another injury. It wasn't easy for the 28-year-old from South Carolina State who is widely regarded as the heart of Indy's defense.

“It’s just like I told him, it’s like riding a bike,” Franklin said Wednesday. “When I go into every year, a preseason game, I’m nervous about tackling. I’m just trying to make sure it still works. So I know how that feels and when he got that first one on the first play, I’m like ‘Yeah, it’s on.’”

And yet, Leonard had to endure one more setback during the first of two joint practices with the Chicago Bears in mid-August. On Day 2, Leonard for the third time in his career went into the concussion protocol, where he remained until four days before Indy's season opener.

When he was cleared to play, Leonard displayed his trademark smile and his passion. Franklin saw it, as did new Colts coach Shane Steichen.

“When I got here in the spring, he was in there at 5 a.m. grinding, getting his body ready, in there with Richard (Howell) rehabbing, doing all this stuff,” Steichen said, referring to the Colts' top strength and conditioning coach. "I’ve said this a million times, but it’s the truth: The guy is the ultimate competitor, the ultimate leader and he just wants to be out there with his team.”

He wants to win games, chase opponents from sideline to sideline and make a difference.

On Sunday, he did. Leonard participated in 86% of Indy's 70 defensive snaps, logging seven tackles with for one loss. And even though the Colts lost 31-21 to defending AFC South champion Jacksonville, Leonard knew Monday morning he had won the bigger fight.

“It was good. I liked what I saw (on film),” Leonard said Thursday. "I’m still not satisfied with what I saw, but I like the player that was out there. Hopefully, I can just continue to build off that and continue to make good strides.”

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