Jim Leonhard can take a beating, but please don’t call him ‘scrappy’

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Jim Leonhard. (nfl.com)
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Each time the Jets or Giants play a football game, Capital will write about a home-team member who took part in it. This post is about Jim Leonhard, who played safety in the Jets’ 34-24 loss on Sept. 25 to the Oakland Raiders.

Herb Welch, a free safety for the great Giants defenses on the 1980s, a white guy, once told me that coaches pigeonholed him as a player who was short on talent and long on smarts and heart. This was, he says, because “I was a little smaller, and I wasn’t quite as tan” as his colleagues in the secondary.

So it’s best to be careful when using words like “scrappy,” “smart,” and “overachieving” when describing the Jets’ Jim Leonhard. That’s not to say that he’s not all of those things; after all, he clawed his way to an established NFL career after being cut from his first training camp as an undrafted free agent, and he is correctly credited with being the “quarterback” of the secondary, who helps line players up play after play. But a lot of guys in the NFL fit that description. And Leonhard, just like a lot of other players, is also an absurdly good athlete.

He is only 5-foot-8, but “Jumpin’ Jimmy,” as his parents in tiny Tony, Wisconsin (pop. 105) nicknamed him, won a slam-dunk contest against his football teammates at the University of Wisconsin. He was a three-sport star who once struck out 19 of the 21 hitters he faced in a high school baseball game. When he ran the 40-yard dash in college in 4.4 seconds, then-Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez asked him to run it again.

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It seems as if it’s Leonhard’s lot in life to be underestimated. Mark Stamper, who coached Leonhard in high school, recalled the moment he first laid eyes on Leonhard, when Leonhard was an eighth grader trying out for the junior varsity.

“I’m kinda looking around as the new coach, and I see this scrawny little runt,” he said. “And I’m like, ‘Who is this guy?’ Just his size, and he’s so unassuming.”

Leonhard walked on at Wisconsin, earning a starting spot as a sophomore and then finally a scholarship as a junior. And even though he finished his college career tied for the most interceptions in school history, with 21, he wasn’t drafted. But by his third NFL season, he had established himself as a full-time starter.

After all this, it seems Leonhard enjoys his scrappy-guy reputation. He wears eye black on the field, and recently, he filmed a mock PSA for the Farkas Eye Black Company, railing against the wussiness of stick-on patches that many contemporary athletes use instead.

“Stickers!” Leonhard underscores with contempt in the spot, holding up patches inscribed with messages like “LMAO” and “Sweet!” “This childlike behavior is dangerous and is setting a poor example for young athletes.”

That video aside, Leonhard is one of the least visible of the Jets’ stars. During games, he usually lines up in the deep safety position, a couple of yards outside the scope of the 16:9 television screen.

Yesterday’s game was an exception: Leonhard was conspicuously involved in a couple of the game’s pivotal moments, but in this case, it was a bad thing.

Late in the first half, he was the only Jet with a chance to tackle Raiders running back Darren McFadden, who had taken a handoff and sprinted a clear 25 yards untouched by human hands. It was a tough task for Leonhard, who himself was coming all the way from the other side of the field, but he let McFadden slip through his grasp, setting him free for a 70-yard touchdown that pulled the Raiders within 3 points.

If that play gave the Raiders signs of life and hope that they could win a game the Jets had controlled for most of the first half, Leonhard’s next visible appearance let everyone know that the Raiders probably would win: On Denarius Moore’s 23-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter, Leonhard commendably read the play and was in position to make a tackle. But just as he was about to lunge, he was knocked several yards through the air by an unseen block from Raiders lineman Samson Satele, who is seven inches taller and 110 pounds heavier than Leonhard.

It was a signature moment in a game in which a Jets defense that takes pride in its physicality and, yes, scrappiness, seemed taken aback by an opponent that turned out to be just as physical, and even scrappier.