Wisconsin's Leonhard become's NFL's 'little big man'
Jim Leonhard chuckles each time he goes back home in the offseason and sees the huge, full-color sign that greets visitors.
Standing in a grassy field in tiny Tony—a village with a population of 105—is an homage to the New York Jets safety that proudly proclaims: "Welcome to Tony. Hometown of Jimmy Leonhard. Walk-on to All-American."
"I just kind of shake my head, but at the same time, it means a lot to a lot of people," Leonhard said after training camp practice Wednesday. "I take lots of pride in it, but it is a little weird. It makes it fun to go back."
The sign includes a drawing of Leonhard in action from his University of Wisconsin days, and lists his academic and athletic achievements. Yep, the little guy from the small town is certainly big stuff back home.
"They're just so proud to have one of their own making it big like I am right now," Leonhard said.
Leonhard's parents, grandparents and youngest brother still live in Tony, and several other relatives live in surrounding areas. But the family no longer resides at Leonhard Lane—named years ago after the family.
"People make the All-American boy comparison, and it really is the truth," said Ted Alberson, the owner of the Tony Depot and Leonhard's former junior high school football coach.
"He was just a model boy in school," Alberson added.
Listed at 5-foot-9, Leonhard stands out because of his small stature and baby-faced appearance. He looks more like an accountant or high school student than a playmaking, ball-hawking NFL safety.
"When he was coming out of Wisconsin, I evaluated him, the way he looked in pads," Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "If he would have shown up (without pads), then he doesn't pass the looks test."
Leonhard has heard all the jokes, and he's used to them all.
"I'm about to turn 27, so I think it's starting to get to the point where being young is a good thing, looking young," he said with a smile.
He has established himself as an NFL standout despite humble beginnings. Leonhard was a three-sport standout in high school, but received no Division I scholarship offers and walked on to the football team at Wisconsin.
"I think I've always had that underdog mentality, going out there everyday knowing that you have something to prove," Leonhard said.
He was awarded a scholarship his senior year and finished his career with 21 interceptions, and was one of the best punt returners in Big Ten history. He then became the only undrafted free agent to make the Buffalo Bills' opening day roster in 2005.
"I always had the confidence I could play at this level," he said.
Leonhard ended up playing three seasons with Buffalo before signing with Baltimore last offseason. He thrived under Ryan with the Ravens, who went to the AFC championship game with Leonhard as a starting safety. When Ryan left Baltimore to become coach of the Jets, Leonhard was offered a deal by Denver but decided to take less money to follow his coach to New York.
Leonhard is expected to start in the secondary with Kerry Rhodes, Darrelle Revis and Lito Sheppard, and will also likely return punts.
"He's not the biggest guy, he's not the strongest guy, but he's very athletic and he's smart," Revis said.
"He disguises coverages about as well as almost anyone outside of Ed Reed in this league," Ryan said.
"Last year playing with Ed, the best safety on the planet, not that I can do the same things he can, but you learn a lot of things from him," Leonhard said.
"That one year, it really helped my career and I think it'll help this unit this year, the fact that I played with a guy like that."