In his first practice since Week 18 of the 2021 season, The Maniac got a takeaway. Because of course he did.
Shaquille Leonard, the three-time first-team AP All-Pro and the first player in NFL history with four interceptions and eight forced fumbles in a single season, participated in practice on Wednesday and Thursday at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center. Those practices were markers in a grueling three-and-a-half-month journey that isn't over yet, but Leonard feels is progressing well.
"It's been a minute since I felt the way I'm feeling now," Leonard said. "It's a good feeling but it's still a process. I'm not saying that I'm 100 percent ready to go right now, I'm trying to figure all that good stuff out, but I am feeling better so that's the main thing."
Leonard said he hasn't felt like his left ankle has been right since he rolled it in Week 4 of his rookie season – it's been taped up ever since; last year, he described it as "attached" when asked.
So Leonard has had to learn how to not only play through pain over the last few years, but play at a high level while dealing with that discomfort. And he's been remarkably good at it: Leonard earned first-team AP All-Pro honors in 2018, 2020 and 2021, and earned a spot in the Pro Bowl in 2019, 2020 and 2021. He'll enter his fifth year in the NFL with 538 tackles, 17 forced fumbles, 11 interceptions, 15 sacks, 19 pass break-ups and 30 tackles for a loss.
"If I'm not out there hurting the team, then I think I can be out there," Leonard said. "But if I feel like I'm hurting the team, I gotta be a man, look at myself in the mirror and say, you know what, yes I want to be out there, yes I want to compete, but is it best for the team if I'm on the field. And that's the decision that me, the staff, Frank (Reich) and Chris (Ballard) have to make."
While Leonard was on the Physically Unable to Perform list during training camp, he was still a fixture at practice – usually looking down at the offensive playcalls, then attentively watching what was unfolding in front of him, then energetically interacting with his teammates. He made the most of his circumstances, using that playsheet to try to identify tendencies or tells on certain plays that might give away the call before the snap. He had plenty of conversations with quarterback Matt Ryan, too, to try to pick up on things that might help him on gamedays.
"Football is my happy place, football is my safe haven, football is something I love to do, love to compete," Leonard said. "Being down for three and a half months, it sucks, but it made me look at football in a different point of view."
There's not a timetable for when Leonard will play in his first game during the 2022 season. But the Colts were pleased with how Leonard attacked things before and after his June back procedure, and feel like he's given himself the best shot to play as soon as possible.
This guy's been the ultimate pro," Reich said. "I've really not been surprised, but just thankful for his approach. From Day 1, he's never taken his foot off the gas so that when we got to this point, it gives us the best chance possible to get him back as soon as we can."