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Sport - NFL

How Rejection Spurred Shaquille Leonard On To The Big Time

The RSNG Team

As a ferocious 6ft 2in, 230lb line-backer for AFC South franchise, the Indianapolis Colts, Saquille Leonard is a three-time Pro Bowl participant and showed the potential for that against Clemson in 2016. In that game, he made a bamboozling total of 19 tackles, as well as a field goal block in a 59-0 defeat – making him a stand-out player in an otherwise routine win for the Tigers.

Clemson had rejected him for their program back in 2013, despite his eyes being set on a scholarship there, where he would have been joining his brother.

But Leonard took his frustration out on his opponents and it landed him a place in the 2018 NFL Draft. He tells RSNG why you should always use failure as motivation…

RSNG Clemson won a National Championship without you, and you went onto become an NFL line-backer without them. Is everything as it should be?

SHAQUILLE LEONARD, COLTS LEGEND “I suppose you could say that, yeah. It seems we both got what we wanted in the end. But I maybe didn’t see it like that when I didn’t get the call from Clemson to play there.

“It’s a bit crazy because I still go and watch them when I can, after they had reneged on the scholarship that they were going to offer me and instead gave it to someone else. So, people may be able to understand why I felt bitter about that [laughs]. I went to the Death Valley summer camps, and I wore the orange colors of Clemson all the time.

“To be denied the opportunity to play there, to show people what I was capable of, to play at the same college as my brother, that was pretty hard to take. Did I maybe take out revenge with my play going forward? Maybe [laughs], but I think that’s really valuable…”

RSNG What do you mean?

SHAQUILLE LEONARD “I mean you should always use rejection as motivation. You should always use failure as motivation.

“You should turn around any experience into a positive, because there is always a positive side if you are smart enough and brave enough to grasp it.”

RSNG You were selected by the Colts in the 2018 draft at pick number 36 – did it feel like justice had been done?

SHAQUILLE LEONARD “Yeah, being a second-round pick was a great result for me because I was looking at maybe the beginning of the third round as were a few of the experts and commentators.

“I thought I had a good combine, and I knew I was one of the most dynamic and energetic inside line-backers, so I just hoped that someone who needed to beef up their defensive line gave me a call.

“It turned out that the Colts were interested, and I was so happy with that. I was more than pleased with the contract offer and I’ve loved being here at the Lucas Oil Stadium ever since I signed.”

“Keep up the hard work and keep showing people who you are every day”

RSNG You’re from a very small town in South Carolina and then you went to a small school – how did you transfer on to one of the biggest sports scenes in the world?

SHAQUILLE LEONARD “Well, I like to think that I am a measured and laid-back individual and I would say that not a minute goes by where I’m not thankful for where I am and realize how fortunate I am.

“The path I’ve taken to get here was not one of the usual routes that many players who end up in the NFL would probably take.

“The thing is, being grounded isn’t about what’s happened in the past; it’s about what’s happening right now or in the future, and it’s the reliance that you stay like that as a person, keep up the hard work, and keep showing people who you are, every day. Don’t change from who you are, don’t evolve in a way that isn’t you.

“The importance of that never ends. Stay yourself, man.”

RSNG It’s obvious you feel proud of what you’ve become. It must please you that you’re an inspiration for the kids out there who want to be the next Shaquille Leonard?

SHAQUILLE LEONARD “Oh, absolutely. As I say, I am honored to be at the Colts, to be able to do what I love every week, every day and it’s a privilege to be in the National Football League.

“To those kids who maybe have dreams of making it here, I would always encourage them to make sure that they concentrate on that aim of making it to the NFL.

“I think my journey here is proof that anyone can make it, anyone can achieve what they want in life – it doesn’t have to be just aiming at being a pro footballer. It can be anything you want to do.”

RSNG What advice would you give about achieving ambitions?

SHAQUILLE LEONARD “As long as you have the focus, the determination to succeed, you are putting in the hard work and going the extra mile to make sure that whatever your chosen field is, you leave no stone unturned to succeed, and have humility, you can make it.

“The only person who you can trust is you, because it’s you who has to make the effort, the sacrifices. It’s not all about doing it all in front of big crowds – that’s not where you begin.

“If you practise your craft behind the scenes, put all of the hard yards in when nobody is there to see them, you’ll be ready. Never be afraid to try something or to make a mistake.

“You’re not going to be perfect at the beginning – what matters is that you’re on form when it matters. So, the practice field, the gym, the road work, that’s where the hard work is done. It pays off on the field on a Sunday.”

“I can’t change the thoughts of others – I can’t stop negativity – I just know that off the field I am respectful and I have manners”

RSNG How did it feel being labeled as the worst pick in the NFL by some sports outlets and then becoming a three-time Pro Bowl selection?

SHAQUILLE LEONARD “You know, people will have their opinions and that’s fine because, at the end of the day, they have their roles and jobs in life. They are asked for those opinions and paid for them.

“I am paid for my work on the field and that’s how it should always be. We all have different positions in the world, and we just have to do what we feel is right and what is asked of us.

“I can’t change the thoughts of others; I can’t stop negativity. Maybe it is just their true and honest thoughts, and that’s fine. I just know that off the field I am respectful, I have manners and I’ll speak to anyone.”

RSNG You are now being widely thought of as the best player in your position in the NFL – that’s got to make you feel good, right?

SHAQUILLE LEONARD “I’m not one to boast. Stats give you an idea, but a lot of sport is subjective, so I try not to take the praise too seriously.

“Sport is also fluid – before you know it the good guy is the bad guy; the guy changing games single-handedly suddenly can’t get a break.

“You should never rest on your laurels or turn up just expecting to be picked. You have to continue to prove your worth to the team who pay your salary and make sure that you’re playing as close to your best in every game.

“There are only 17 weeks in the regular season of the NFL. Life as a pro footballer is relatively short – you have to put everything in, every week.”

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Photos: Shutterstock/REX