Colts linebacker Shaquille Leonard still wasn't feeling right after undergoing a procedure on his back in June, but he tried to push through it to get back on the field in the first half of the 2022 season.
Leonard said he didn't have any sensation down his leg while he was working to get back on the field in July, August and September. He didn't have any power on the lower left side of his body – he couldn't do a calf raise, for example. But he was committed to trying to play through that discomfort and lack of strength, and Leonard made his season debut in Week 4 against the Tennessee Titans.
A concussion sustained in that game held him out until Week 8, when he got back on the field and picked off Washington Commanders quarterback Taylor Heinicke. But he wasn't right.
"I was making it worse," Leonard said. "When dealing with nerves, from what I've learned, is that you have to take the proper time, proper rest. Me being a warrior, wanting to compete, me wanting to be by my brothers' side, I wanted to be on the field. I wanted to go out there and compete. But I didn't know I was making it worse by continuing to do the things that I was doing. God has a way of making you sit down and I had to sit down, look at it from that aspect and learn from it."
Leonard felt something during a practice ahead of the Colts' Week 10 game against the Las Vegas Raiders, and was advised by interim head coach Jeff Saturday – in his first week, and after his first practice, in that role – that he needed to shut things down. Saturday had dealt with a nerve issue in his hand during his career and connected with Leonard over their shared experience.
Leonard underwent a second surgery in November and was placed on injured reserve, ending his season.
"If it wasn't for Jeff, I probably still wouldn't know," Leonard said. "For a long time I didn't have any answers. I never had dealt with (a) nerve. I never had dealt with not being able to do a calf raise. I never had to talk to anyone about that. When Jeff came in, he told me he had a similar surgery with his hand. Being able to talk to him – then at Wednesday's practice against the Raiders, I felt something weird.
"Right then he said 'Bro, shut it down. I want you to get it checked back out.' Once we saw the MRI, we knew it was time to get another surgery. I thank him because without him I would have continued to put my body on the line when I shouldn't. Sometimes you have to protect the player from himself and I commend Jeff for that. I'm thankful that Jeff came here for that reason."
Since that surgery, Leonard has been encouraged by the progress he's made. He said he's felt "tingles" down his left leg, from his glute to his hamstring to his calf, and is focused this offseason on intentionally building up his strength.
And Leonard is confident he'll not only be ready for the start of the 2023 season, but he'll be the same player he was over his first four years in the NFL – in which he was named a first-team AP All-Pro three times.
"As of right now, I have zero doubt in my mind that I will be back to being me," Leonard said. "I know that I will and I can't wait to come back out here, compete and prove everybody wrong. I love this game, I love to compete, I love to play and I love to prove everybody wrong. I'm looking forward to that opportunity."
Leonard, by the way, took note of who stayed by his side throughout a difficult season – and who wrote him off while he was dealing with a physically and mentally draining injury few understood.
"I have a lot of screenshots and a lot of liked tweets," Leonard said. "It was different this year. I never felt that much hate before. It was to a point where it felt like people thought that I quit on the team and that's what hurt the most – to feel that. I'm ready to get back out there. It's hard for me to sit still and it's hard for me not to play a sport. It's hard for me not to be able to run. I just can't wait to get back to being me."