Darius Leonard became a surprise star as a rookie, and he has even bigger goals for his second season. 

INDIANAPOLIS — It started out as a pause on the phone. A few more words, then another pause. Then her voice cracked.

“Oh man, I’m losing it,” said Lynette Waters, the mother of Indianapolis Colts All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard. “I’m getting emotional, tearing up. It just means a lot to me.”

Waters’ tears weren’t about disappointment or anger. Quite the opposite.

Waters was thinking about that moment last February, when she went into full-sprint mode, the way her son does when he’s pursuing a ball carrier. On that winter day, Waters took off after the white Mercedes-Benz with the red bow on it that Leonard purchased for her after completing a rookie season when he led the NFL in tackles.

“It meant a lot to me because you have some kids who make it and then forget about their parents and family,” Waters said. “God let my child live his dream, whether or not he buys me nothing. I get emotional because it goes back to how he was raised and the man he’s become.”

Waters’ tears and emotion could have been a lot different if Leonard had taken the path of two of his older brothers, who are in prison. The Colts linebacker also didn’t seek revenge on those who had a part in another brother’s death during a fight in a nightclub in 2012.

“He avoided those problems because he always wanted to be different in every aspect,” said Chris Ford, one of Leonard’s closest childhood friends. “Avoiding trouble where we’re from was difficult, especially once you get up in high school. But Darius saw what members of his family went through while he was growing up, and he didn’t want any part of it.”

Pitfalls of the Hilltop

Trouble was easy to find in Lake View, South Carolina, a town with a population of less than 800. Everybody was either related or knew each other. So the temptation and peer pressure was always present.

Waters, a single mother, had to work multiple jobs at once to keep food on the table and the lights on for her nine children. Meals were scarce, but enjoyable. It was a matter of surviving and making do.

Waters was often working, but she made sure Leonard knew where not to go: an area in the Lake View area known as the Hilltop.

“That’s where everybody hung out as far as where trouble was at,” Waters said. “I didn’t want him to be in that area because I knew what was going on there. I didn’t want to catch him or hear anybody tell me that they were there because if they were there, they knew what it was going to be like when they got home.”

Instead of getting in with the wrong crowd, Leonard was using some wood to make a square rim to play basketball. Or he was playing baseball or at home playing cards with friends. The last thing he wanted for his mother to do was embarrass him for his mistakes, as she did when she went to his school during his sophomore year and scolded him for getting in trouble, threatening him by saying she would take away sports.

“She was always trying to protect me so I didn’t end up on the same route as my two brothers,” Leonard said. “She didn’t want me to have to be fist-bumping my family through the glass [in prison] like my brothers. I also knew that was the route I didn’t want to go. I wanted to see my mom happy all the time, not having to stress out worrying about me.”

Leonard doesn’t go into a lot of details about why his brothers — Charlie and Cody Waters — are incarcerated. Charlie is in prison for a “murder case” that happened in 1997, according to Leonard. He said Cody is in prison because he was an “accessory at a wrong place, wrong time.”

Both brothers are in prison, but that doesn’t stop Leonard from talking to them regularly. Charlie writes his brother a letter every game.

“I love, love it that he still talks to them,” Lynette Waters said. “That’s Darius being Darius. He’s not going to forget about them. I’m thankful and so proud of him that he’s still in touch with his brothers incarcerated.”

More adversity

Another life-changing call came when sitting in a Waffle House on a night in December 2012. Leonard was eating with his future wife, Kayla, and Ford. Leonard heard the news that his brother, Keivonte Waters, had died a day after an altercation at a club in Mullins, South Carolina, which was about 25 minutes from Lake View. He was hit from behind and knocked cold, dying after a brief stay in the hospital.

Keivante and Darius were born a year apart and shared a bedroom growing up. Leonard’s emotions were all over the place. Sadness. Tears. Anger. Questions. Denial.

“Where we grew up, when something like that happens, it often leads to fights or revenge,” Ford said. “Darius could have derailed his future by trying to get revenge. I never saw him like that. That would have been a moment of me trying to steer him in the right direction. But I didn’t have to because he had a good head on his shoulders and knew that wasn’t the way to go.”

Leonard faced another obstacle in high school. He wanted to play at Clemson, like his brother, Anthony Waters. Leonard waited and waited for a scholarship offer to come after attending football camp there before his junior and senior years.

It never came.

The Tigers were waiting on Leonard to qualify academically. He eventually qualified, but by then he had already decided to attend South Carolina State University, a Football Championship Subdivision school. He became a two-time MEAC Defensive Player of the Year, and did play at Death Valley as an opponent. He had 19 tackles and a blocked field goal in a 59-0 loss to Clemson in 2016.

“[Clemson coach] Dabo Swinney told him after the game that they missed out on not getting him,” Ford recalled.

Ballard’s hidden gem

The Colts had some wondering what they were thinking when they selected Leonard out of the tiny FCS school in the second round of the 2018 draft. Colts general manager Chris Ballard was looking for a player who could spearhead their transition to a 4-3 defense that emphasized speed, and he became so set on Leonard’s potential he passed on Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith to take guard Quenton Nelson with the No. 6 pick. Ballard believed his hidden gem would still be on the board when the Colts picked in the second round.

Leonard responded by leading the NFL in tackles with 163 in 15 games, which was 19 more than the next closest player. He was the league’s Defensive Rookie of the Year and was a named an All-Pro.

He’s not happy to rest on that success. Leonard wants more, like 200 tackles, 10 sacks, Defensive Player of the Year, the Pro Bowl and winning a Super Bowl. He doesn’t hide his displeasure for not making the Pro Bowl last season.

He also knows from experience the game he loves can be taken away from him in one play.

Anthony Waters seemed to have a bright NFL future before tearing his ACL in the first game of his senior season at Clemson, Leonard said. Waters was a third-round pick by the Chargers in 2007, but was out of the league by 2010.

“Every time I look at football, I look at life, I know how quick life can change,” Leonard said. “I’ve got two brothers incarcerated and one deceased. I don’t take nothing for granted. I keep my focus just seeing what my brother went through. His life changed in one play and I know how quickly this game [can end]. You’re an injury away from not playing this game anymore. I always remain humble and just keep trying to play each play to my best ability.”