Leonhard Gives Back to His Hometown 'Dreamers'
By Eric Allen
If you were to make a highlight video of Jim Leonhard, you might want to include some John Mellencamp music to accompany the visuals. After all, Leonhard is a small-town boy who was often overlooked and yet managed to cash in on many of his crazy dreams.
Leonhard, the 5’8”, 186-pound safety who is set to begin his fifth NFL training camp and first summer with the Green & White, has not forgotten where he came from. Last month he hosted his second Football Skills Camp at Flambeau High School in Tony, Wis.
“The biggest thing for me is trying to get the kids things that they can actually use,” Leonhard told newyorkjets.com. “They go to a three-day camp, wherever it is, and they get a lot of different drills and they hear coaches say a lot of certain things. But unless they can actually retain it and use it for themselves after those three days are over, it’s kind of like a babysitting camp.
“So I try to keep it very simple, going over and over what I think is important for high school athletes to know and to be able to use.”
Big Fish, Small Pond
Before walking on to the University of Wisconsin football team, Leonhard captained Flambeau HS his junior and season seasons and earned all-state honors twice. He became a football star in Tony, a town with little more than 100 inhabitants and little in the form of camp offerings.
“There was nothing. The colleges will have their football camps, but there was nothing where there were professional athletes or just nothing like that in the area,” he said. “You really had to go out and find it and seek it if you were that age group or looking for a camp like that. This camp brings something to the area that I know they need and I think it’s very beneficial for both the kids and the coaches.”
Always searching for ways to improve the camp, Leonhard was assisted this year by Seahawks FB Owen Schmitt, a couple of his former Badgers teammates, and his brother, a fitness instructor. And while Leonhard had 70 high school players participating, he also emphasized the time he spent with the 15 high school coaches in northern Wisconsin.
“After the first day is when I’ll sit down for however long the coaches want to stay, essentially, and we’ll watch film and just talk football. If they have any questions or if there is anything they want me to draw up or look at, I’ll talk to them,” he said.
“The second day is kind of the same format, but instead we’ll just have a barbeque for the coaches and just get all those coaches bouncing ideas off of each other and just talking football. It’s rare just to get that many coaches together in one setting at the same time to just talk football and I think the coaches really appreciate that side of the camp.”
Leonhard, an undrafted free agent who played three seasons with the Buffalo Bills, experienced his pro breakthrough last season under Rex Ryan in Baltimore. Even though he’s a tremendous athlete, Leonhard will probably never receive proper credit for his physical traits.
“You get categorized as one thing and it kind of sticks with you forever and that was me,” he said. “I was the undersized kid, really smart and athletically so-so, one of those he-can-get-the-job-done-for-you kind of guys.
“The NFL is all about potential. You could throw on film of my sophomore year of college and you kind of knew what you were going to get already. It is tough to try to break down those kinds of stereotypes within football. The guys know it’s not true. I’m a lot better athlete than I get credit for and there are a lot of guys who are good athletes who are a lot smarter football players than you would think.”
Last season, Ravens CB Frank Walker referred to Leonhard as “White Lightning” and the nickname stuck. He made 13 regular-season starts, racking up career highs in tackles (85) and passes defensed (6) while displaying solid return ability on special teams. Then during the Ravens’ postseason run, Leonhard registered 16 tackles, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble.
And after Ryan was hired by the Jets in late January, Leonhard followed the defensive mastermind up I-95 just a few weeks later. This is the third pro stop for Leonhard and he hopes to be here for a while.
“I’m excited about the team, the organization and the guys on the team, if not for me, then for my wife [Katie]. It’s always tough moving and meeting new people and trying to get settled in,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to staying in New York for a while. I think it’s going to be a great fit for both sides and I’m really looking forward to settling here in New Jersey.”
Living the Dream
With another solid season in a big market like New York, Leonhard could become a household name among small football communities nationwide. If he can succeed with the Jets, he will attract more publicity for his camp and more assistance from coaches and players alike.
“I’m really excited to see where it can go in the next couple of years and just how much better we can make it for both the kids and the coaches. I’m looking forward to the next off-season and having better stories and maybe some more playoff stories,” he said. “That would be a lot of fun. We’ll get through this season and hopefully we can keep everyone healthy and have a good run.”
When the next off-season commences, Leonhard will move back to Madison, Wis., and eventually get ready for his third annual camp in Tony. After a four-hour car ride, he’ll reach his destination and see a sign the town put up for their hometown son.
“It’s weird to go back sometimes. I have so much support there — everyone knows who I am and everyone is very, very supportive. It is humbling to see because in the moment, as I’m doing it, I’m just having a good time,” he said.
“I’m living the dream. Everyone who ever put on a helmet and pads would love to be at this level and I’m just enjoying it. It doesn’t seem like it should be that special to me, but you go back there and you realize just how important it is to those people and just how important my success is to that area.”