The Colts on Tuesday named linebacker Shaquille Leonard the team's 2022 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award nominee, recognizing the three-time first-team AP All-Pro for his profound impact on and off the field.
The Walter Payton Man of the Year Award is the most prestigious honor an NFL player can receive. The recipient of the 2022 NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year Award will be announced during the annual NFL Honors show prior to Super Bowl LVII.
"It's an honor to be named the Colts' 2022 nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award," Leonard said. "Since entering the league in 2018, I have strived to use my platform to serve families in the Indianapolis community and my hometown of Lake View, South Carolina. This prestigious honor is a testament to the hard work of my family, friends, the Maniac Foundation and the Colts."
Through Leonard's Maniac Foundation, which he and his wife, Kayla, founded in 2020, Leonard has made a difference in three communities which he calls, or has called, home: Indianapolis, Orangeburg, S.C. (home of his alma mater, South Carolina State), and Lake View, S.C (his hometown). Tapping into his deep knowledge of each of those communities' needs, and with over $680,000 raised to support them through the Maniac Foundation, Leonard understands how to best target his initiatives and donations to make the most significant impact possible.
"His willingness to contribute off the field is probably what makes me really proud," general manager Chris Ballard said. "Because with all our players, we want them to give and to serve others. He takes it and runs with it and has a very giving heart and wants to create a difference that lasts long-term. His legacy playing will be his legacy playing, but his legacy of giving and serving others is something that will last forever."
Leonard this year donated nearly $40,000 to renovate Lake View's Hilltop Park – a park where he played as a kid – and hosted 200 kids for a football camp there. He also put $56,500 toward improving Lake View High School's football field, and has held Coats for Kids and Thanksgiving turkey giveaways in Lake View for years.
In his adopted hometown, Leonard contributed $15,053.53 to the Indianapolis Public Schools Foundation, and $5,353.53 to Arlington Woods Elementary Sankofa School of Success in Indianapolis, where he regularly visits with students. He's also a strong support of youth football – he donated $5,053.53 to the Indy Steelers Youth Football Program, and through a partnership with USA Football awarded $10,000 in grants to youth football programs in the area.
Leonard has also held an annual "Shop With A Jock" event, where he's bought holiday gifts for deserving children around Indianapolis, and annual Thanksgiving meal kit giveaways as well.
"I know what the kids are going through. I remember when I was growing up, I was always asking for help," Leonard said. "I remember when I was younger, I got my clothes and stuff burned down and the community looked out for me. I've been in certain situations, similar to what those kids are going through. I know what it feels like to be picked on for wearing the same clothes over and over again. I just know what it feels like, I know what these kids are going through and I would hate for them to have to go through that because I know how mentally, physically and emotionally it hurt me."
Leonard, too, has remained heavily involved with the South Carolina State community, championing the HBCU experience and giving back to the school where he first made his name nationally.
In September, Leonard hosted the South Carolina State marching band on an all-expenses-paid trip to Indianapolis, and the band played at halftime of the Colts' home opener against the Kansas City Chiefs. He surprised the South Carolina State band with a $20,000 gift, too, which will allow the band to perform nationally and increase the university's profile.
"He's a great figure," Patrick Moore, South Carolina State's marching band director, said. "Everyone still talks about him. He's very well known around here, not just the things that he did on the field but also for the things that he's currently doing off the field. And I believe a lot of people are aspiring to, essentially, be just like him — whether that's being one of the next great football players from South Carolina State that gets drafted to the NFL, or whether it's someone who attends South Carolina State who wants to be the next person who's going to be able to give back and to support the institution they were able to graduate from."
Leonard, too, donated $15,000 to help provide caskets for children who lost their lives in the Uvalde mass shooting earlier this year.
Leonard has also been one of the most front-facing players in the Colts and Irsay family's Kicking The Stigma initiative, which focuses on improving mental health awareness, research and treatment. Leonard has participated in a number of PSAs and fundraisers for Kicking The Stigma, and has been open in telling the story of his mental health journey over the years.
The impact of Leonard's involvement in Kicking The Stigma has been profound. At the Jim Irsay Collection event at Lucas Oil Stadium in September, a man working the event told Leonard his openness to discussing mental health helped him work through his own mental health journey.
"His words are powerful," defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, who witnessed the interaction, said. "They're powerful enough to change somebody's life. Thats puts everything in perspective, especially when you're sitting in our seats. You really realize the type of impact you have on others in your community and others that are watching from afar. He realizes that and he does a really great job with reaching out and building those relationships and building those connections with those in the community."
Teammates certainly have noticed Leonard's dedication to community efforts. He's not only a leader on the field for the Colts; he's a leader away from football, too.
"He's the Maniac," left guard Quenton Nelson said. "He's got all the energy out on the field and then he pours all that energy into the community as well with Maniac Cares and everything he's done with Community Tuesdays. And he's really been an inspiration to all his teammates on how to give back.
"... Shaq sets the standard when it comes to using your platform and giving back to the max. He gives everything he has to the game, No. 1, and then to be able to give that same energy, enthusiasm, emotion into giving back to the community, it's unbelievable."
For Leonard, he hopes his legacy as a football player will go beyond his accomplishments on the field. And his dedication to community efforts in Indiana and South Carolina earned him the Colts' 2022 Walter Payton Man of the Year nomination, and will continue to lead him to make significant, positive impacts in those places for years to come.
"I just try to be a better man than I am a football player," Leonard said. "Money comes and goes, but people will never forget how you treat them. That's what I always want to be remembered as, as a great human being, not just as a great football player."
All 2022 Walter Payton Man of the Year nominees will receive up to a $40,000 donation in their name to their charity of choice. The winner of the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award will receive up to a $250,000 donation to the charity of his choice courtesy of the NFL Foundation and Nationwide.
You can support Leonard in Nationwide's Charity Challenge on social media, too. Fans can vote on Twitter by using #WPMOYChallenge x Leonard or #WPMOYChallenge x @dsleon45.
The player whose unique mention is used the most between Dec. 6 and Jan. 8 will receive a $25,000 contribution to a charity of his choice, while the second and third place finishers will receive $10,000 and $5,000 donations courtesy of Nationwide. Hashtag information and official rules can be found at nfl.com/manoftheyear.