words and interview_Jordan Hagedorn

Tonight the New York Jets will take on the Baltimore Ravens in what is one of my NFL Week 1 Top 3 Matchups. It features two hard-nosed AFC teams with high-profile free agent additions. This off-season Jets acquired defensive stud Jason Taylor and legendary running back LaDainian Tomlinson, while the Ravens traded for WR Anquan Boldin.

The Jets/Ravens game will include celebrity-like players in Mark Sanchez and Ray Lewis and great players that a lot of football fans know in Derrelle Revis, Ray Rice, Braylon Edwards, and the aforementioned 3 pick-ups. Then you have a guy who has flown under the radar his entire football career, 5-foot 8-inch, 188-pound Jets starting Safety Jim Leonhard.

Leonhard was born in Ladysmith, Wisconsin, and attended Flambeau High School in the small town of Tony, Wisconsin, where the population is 105. He excelled at baseball, basketball and football for the Falcons. After being named All-State his junior and senior year of high school, he got in front of the coaches at UW-Madison, where they asked him to try out for the football team. He would be a walk-on for the Badgers, but he gave it a shot.

After making the team, Leonhard worked hard and got better, eventually earning a scholarship his senior year. He tallied 21 interceptions in his college career, which is tied for most in Badger history. He was also one of the most effective punt returners in the Big Ten, where he held the record for most career punt return yards until his record was broken in 2006.

After college, Leonhard went undrafted, but signed with the Buffalo Bills as a rookie free agent. After a couple of seasons with theBills, he signed with the Ravens for a year and then with the Jets. He followed coach Rex Ryan to the Jets to start the 2009 season, and in March of last year he inked a three-year deal worth about $6 million.

Leonhard faces his old team tonight in what should be an extremely physical battle for AFC bragging rights.

I caught up with Jimmy at his Football Camp over the summer. Read below to see what he had to say.

Jordan Hagedorn: Coming from a small town, not being highly recruited, you ended up playing for the Wisconsin Badgers. Can you talk about your journey to the NFL?
Jim Leonhard: It’s definitely not the easiest path to take. Coming from a small town, you just don’t get that much exposure, and you have to go out and find it. You have to go out and get in front of coaches, and I was fortunate enough to go do that and go down to Madison and get in front of their coaching staff to where they asked me to walk on. Its difficult coming from a small town, but it’s not impossible. It can be done.

Talk about playing for the Badgers in front of a sold-out Camp Randall.
[It was] extremely exciting. Being a Wisconsin kid, you’re always watching the Badgers. It has one of the best atmospheres in college football. To be able to play in front of that for four years, you can’t take those memories away.

Talk about the Jim Leonhard Skills Camp and how it came about and what you’re trying to accomplish.
I love giving back and coaching and helping young kids. I had an opportunity a couple years ago to put this camp together and was able to get a lot of very talented local coaches as well as some teammates that I’ve played with in my career to just give back to the community. It’s hard. There’s not very many football camps in Northern Wisconsin. It’s good to come to the kids, to come to the athletes and really try to help them out and the coaches as well.

After college, you went undrafted, signed with the Bills, then went to the Ravens, then followed Coach Ryan to the Jets; can you talk about those obstacles after college and how sweet it is to be in the NFL?
My career especially, and a lot of careers in the NFL, it really is a roller coaster. There are a lot of bumps in the road. I’m very fortunate to be going into my sixth season, which is well beyond the average for most players. Just to finally have found a coaching staff and a coach in Rex Ryan that I really have total faith in, in what he does and what he preaches is a lot of fun, and to be around a great group of guys like that, continue your career and have an opportunity to start and make plays and get in playoff games has been a dream come true.

Who were your biggest influences?
Growing up I had a lot of family members, a huge, athletic family. We were always doing something. My dad has been a coach ever since I could walk, and then I have a brother who is a couple years older than me. I was always chasing him around. I always wanted to play with the older kids, and it really pushed me. I had to improve at a quicker rate in order to hang with those guys. I had a lot of fun, but outside of that, professional I was a huge Barry Sanders fan. Obviously one of the greats of the game, Hall of Fame, the whole deal. He’s as good as it gets. Being a shorter, smaller guy, a more compact guy like myself, I really looked up to him.

Any advice for someone looking to play football at a high level?
The biggest thing is continue to work. So many kids get caught up in their area. Especially growing up in a small area like this. They might be the best in their area, but that’s not who you’re competing against. It’s a big country, and there’re a lot of kids that want to get where you want to get. Whether it’s collegiate football or professional football, everyone that plays the game wants to get there. You can’t lose sight of the fact that you always have to continue to push yourself and push your teammates to make everyone better.

What do you do to train now, and what did you do to get to this point?
The biggest thing is lifting weights and lots of speed and agility work. Not being the biggest guy, it doesn’t matter necessarily how strong I’m going to be. Those other players have a lot of weight on me. I have to have the intelligence and the speed and the quickness in order to get out of situations and to make plays. It’s a good combination; you need a little bit of everything and can’t look past that thing on your shoulders. You have to have the intelligence in order to have success in this game.

Who do you train with? Where do you train?
Pretty much strictly back out in New York with our strength and conditioning staff. Sal Olosi is our head strength coach, and he does a great job along all of his assistants. When I’m back in Wisconsin, I’ll get back to the University of Wisconsin and work out with some of their trainers and try to be around those athletes to get some good conditioning in as well.

Talk about the famous college dunk contest.
It was a fun thing we always did in our winter conditioning at Wisconsin. One day rather than running us into the ground, we’d go play basketball and do some conditioning, and they always had a dunk contest to have fun and get everyone pumped up about it. I was fortunate enough to come in as a sleeper after my freshman year. Nobody really knew I could dunk, so I kind of opened some eyes. It worked out very well, and the next year I had to go back and defend the title. The judges might have been on my side that year I think, but I was able to get another win.

Do you stay in touch with any Wisconsin Badgers?
I try to stay in touch with a lot of guys. One of my roommates all through college was Owen Daniels, who is with the Houston Texans. A lot of guys that aren’t playing anymore are great friends of mine. Its fun to see everyone have success. I go back [to UW] every offseason and work out with some guys, so it’s fun to get to know some younger guys that I didn’t get to play with like Chris Maragos, Jay Valai and O’Brien Schofield, who just came out this last year. Just kinda pass on the words of wisdom that you’ve learned in the NFL and even your time in college. Those kids really appreciate that, and they really take what you say to heart.

Who is the most fun to play against? Most challenging opponent?
I think the most fun games are your division games. Being in the AFC, especially in our division you got Tom Brady, and then I go to Buffalo where I was for three years, and then I go down to Miami, which is never easy. You gotta like those games first and foremost, then you look at the rest of the conference where you got Indianapolis and you can play Denver. There are some very talented teams and very talented quarterbacks that don’t make it easy. Unfortunately, the last couple years in the AFC Championship games I’ve run into some very talented teams with Pittsburgh and Indianapolis – teams that were playing really well at the time and obviously made it to that Super Bowl. It’s never a good thing to get beat in that game. That one probably hurts the most out of any of them.

Describe the journey of getting to that Championship level.
It’s amazing. Just seeing the way a team comes together and a whole organization and a city come together, it’s so much fun, but to lose that game is extremely tough, because once you’ve made it that far, you realize that you have a team that can go all the way. If you catch a break here and there, you can easily get the job done. So that’s difficult, but that’s why you play the game. You live for those types of games and that atmosphere. You win some, you lose some, but you hope you win more than you lose.

It keeps you hungry, though, I suppose?

Absolutely. Until you get that ring or multiple rings, no one in the league is satisfied.

What cleats do you wear and why? What’s the most important thing in a cleat?
I’m a [Nike] Vapor [Jet] guy. I love them. The weight of them and how they feel. The bottoms are exactly what I need being a defensive back. It’s all about comfort and what can get the job done on the field. I’ve been an Eastbay kid my whole life. Always been ordering from Eastbay. In an area like this, Eastbay is exactly what you need.

What is it about Eastbay that you liked the most growing up?
Being from a small town, it’s hard to find what you’re looking for. Eastbay has the best of the best. They have all those products. Being a rural Wisconsin kid, it was always hard to get what I wanted and what I felt like would help me have success, and Eastbay really allowed that for me. Growing up as a kid, I was always at the Eastbay Tent Sale in Wausau. I was able to load up for everything – for school, for sports. They took care of me for the whole year.

What is your favorite food.
I’m kind of a steak and potatoes guy. I don’t have it all the time, but if I need a last meal, that would be it.

What kind of movies do you like?
I like funny movies. Huge Chris Farley guy. Tommy Boy. Adam Sandler. Wedding Crashers is probably number one right now for me.

What kind of music do you listen to?
I’m all over the map. Pretty much everything but country. I just like good music, good live music.

What do you do when you’re not playing football.
I’m pretty low key. Summers I like to golf, love getting outside. I’m very competitive, and golf is a game where you have to be competitive against yourself. I just like to relax at home with my wife and dogs.

For a low key guy, Leonhard has found quite a bit of success in the greatest football league on earth. He is a vocal leader for the Jets and is one of the pieces that holds their excellent defense together.

Keep an eye out for number 36 on the field tonight and throughout the season. We’ll be checking in with him on occasion as the season progresses.