Jim Leonhard’s short game didn’t look too shabby during the second week of training camp on the campus of SUNY Cortland. In the midst of grueling two-a-days, Leonhard found time for a little fun.
The New York Jets safety just finished his second football practice of the day, but Leonhard had a little more work left to do. He grabbed a wedge out of his golf bag and sneaked onto one of the football fields to practice some short pitch shots. Then, he hit a couple 50-yard pitches. Ultimately, a 90-yard approach shot from the goal line to the opposite 10-yard line would be his last.
A shortened practice session was not in the plans. But Leonhard didn’t have much choice when a member of the school’s staff spotted him.
“I got kicked off the field,” Leonhard said Thursday, Aug. 12 as rain continued to fall after morning practice. “I only got a few in, but I was hitting the ball very well, I will say. We’ve got the rain, so obviously it’s not going to happen today. But I’ll sneak back out there.”
Don’t doubt that he will. The so-called “undersized” 5-8, 188 lb. 27-year-old has been persistent all his life. Despite an outstanding high school football career that included a Wisconsin state championship his freshman year and all-state honors his junior and senior seasons, Leonhard received no college scholarship out of high school.
Leonhard ended up walking on at the University of Wisconsin, where he made the Big Ten All-Conference team three times (2002-2004). But it wasn’t until his final season (2004) that he received a scholarship. Still, Leonhard went undrafted in the NFL and was the only undrafted rookie to make the Buffalo Bills’ 53-man roster in 2005. In stints with the Bills, Baltimore Ravens and now the Jets, Leonhard has played in 54 professional football games and recorded 144 tackles, one sack, three interceptions, nine passes defensed and a touchdown.
“I have a lot of respect for Jim and the way he plays the game,” said Jets defensive end Jason Taylor. “If you see him on the streets, you’d never think he’s an NFL player, similar to a Zach Thomas or a Larry Izzo, guys that I used to play with that didn’t really look the part but played the game at a high level.”
The sixth-year veteran has had an outstanding camp so far this summer. He has shown a great command of the defensive coverages, been extremely physical, looked very comfortable on punt returns and has had a knack for making interceptions on tipped balls.
He also brings more to the field than just individual talent. Dating back to last year, Leonhard has taken a leadership role in getting players more familiar with the defensive system since he played under Jets head coach Rex Ryan when Ryan was defensive coordinator for Baltimore.
“I’m not a get-in-your face, yelling-type of guy,” he said. “But I play with a lot of passion. I play with a lot of energy, and I think the team feeds off of that.”
Leonhard said that “being a well-rounded athlete” has helped him get to where he is at now. Ryan knows all the details of his starting safety’s multi-faceted career in athletics.
“He’s smart, physical, talented and a great athlete,” Ryan said. “When you look at his background, he won two slam-dunk contests at the University of Wisconsin, he led the nation in punt-return average one year, led the nation in interceptions one year, and don’t forget, he struck out 19 guys in a high school (baseball) game.”
Regardless, Leonhard knows when he needs to work on his game. That’s why he couldn’t help but take the opportunity after football practice to hit some wedge shots before dark.
“I’m decent, not the best on the team,” Leonhard said about his golf game. “I’ll give that one to Danny Woodhead. But I can do a little something every once and a while.”
Nick St. Denis covers the Jets for GreenAndWhiteReport.com