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Thread: The Legacy Of Leonard Little
The Legacy Of Leonard Little
The Legacy of Leonard Little
Thursday, November 26, 2009
By Nick Wagoner
Two years into his NFL career, Leonard Little had yet to make much of an impact on the game and found himself wondering when his opportunity would arrive.
Beyond that, Little was still unsure that even if the chance to prove himself came, that he could actually do it.
In his college career at Tennessee, Little had regularly dominated. He was one of the most intimidating forces in the college game and had made a habit of collecting sacks like Jay-Z collects No. 1 albums.
But the NFL was a different world and Little had yet to even show up on the radar.
So it was that then coach Mike Martz made the decision that the best way for Little to unlock his many skills was to get his behind kicked every day in practice.
“If you were going to get better, you were going to have to go against someone great,” Little said. “I was going against the best every single day in training camp. He told me if I was going to be an impact player in this league, I have to practice against the best and Orlando Pace was the best.”
Practice after practice, repetition after repetition, all world left tackle Pace utterly destroyed Little. Every move Little made was turned away, every spin move stonewalled.
Eventually, Little had a breakthrough. After hundreds, perhaps thousands of opportunities, Little finally began to solve Pace or at least battle him to a draw.
“He was the best at the time and when I first went against him it was intimidating because he was a great player,” Little said. “He would get the best of me and I’d keep battling and then beat him sometimes. He would beat me. It went back and forth. But I think that was the first time I realized I could play in this league.”
Twelve years into his career, there’s nobody who can question that Little can indeed play in the NFL as he has become one of the league’s premiere pass rushers and the greatest defensive force in St. Louis Rams history.
THE ORIGINAL ‘TWEENER
When the Rams used the 65th overall choice, in the third round of the 1998 NFL Draft on Little, they knew they were getting an extremely productive college player.
For a player with Little’s resume to last until the third round would normally be a bit of a surprise. But for as impressive as his statistics were, the stat that held Little back the most was the fact that he was a 236-pound defensive end/linebacker.
Before the dawn of the 3-4 defense in which teams can regularly find ways to get pass rush specialists on the field as an outside linebacker, there was Little.
In fact, Little was one of a number of players first associated with the dreaded “’Tweener” label.
The Rams decided to roll the dice that Little’s skills would override his stature and plugged him in as a linebacker though Little maintained he was better suited for end.
“I never considered myself as a linebacker,” Little said. “In college I played end two years and linebacker/end my last year so when I came here they moved me to linebacker I knew I was a better end than anything. That’s what I thought in my mind but I played the position because they wanted me to. I never complained about it.”
Little spent his first two seasons under coach Dick Vermeil as a reserve linebacker, making his greatest impact on special teams where he was actually a gunner, running down punts and kickoffs.
In retrospect, the thought of Little as a gunner is a bit humorous.
“It’s unbelievable, the guy was a gunner on punt when he was young,” Rams end Chris Long says. “It’s unbelievable and still for him to be going at the level that he’s at right now is just crazy.”
During the 2000 season, after plenty of practices against Pace, Little finally got his opportunity at defensive end. He was used mostly as a situational pass rusher but excelled in the role, coming up with five sacks and forcing a fumble.
“When I finally got in the game, it was easier than going against Orlando,” Little said. “He really made me better.”
After the 2000 season, the Rams said goodbye to mainstay end Kevin Carter, an incumbent starter the team traded to Tennessee. The impetus for the move was the development of Little, whom the team planned to plug in as a starter.
With the knowledge that he could play at the game’s highest level, it fell on Little to take the “Tweener” label off by adding weight.
Little ate everything he saw, regularly placing large orders at McDonald’s and consuming anything caloric at all hours of the day. The guy who had never weighed more than 245 pounds was now 250 and had the size to hold up as an every down end rather than just a pass rush specialist.
“It was hard because I had to eat extra calories and do this extra stuff to get up to that weight,” Little said. “I finally did and my rushing got better and things started rolling from there.”
Armed with the confidence that he could make plays and the size needed to compete on every play, Little burst on the scene in 2001, posting 14.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in just 13 games.
A star was born.
THE “OLD MAN”
As time flies by in an NFL career, it’s easy to look back and wonder where the time went. Seemingly in a blink of an eye, Little went from little used special teamer to pass rushing force to wise old veteran relying on savvy more than anything else.
Following his breakout year, Little went on to rack up monster seasons in 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2006, never posting fewer than 9.5 sacks in any of those years. And he went to the Pro Bowl in 2004 when he was all over the place and posted a ridiculous (by end standards) 92 tackles.
Now, though, Little is commonly known in the locker room as the “old man” as younger players regularly tell him they enjoyed watching Little play when they were in junior high or high school.
“You get some guys that remember me playing at Tennessee or remember me younger in my career when I was playing at my highest level,” Little says, laughing. “You hear guys say I’m old and stuff like that. I can understand that. I used to do the older guys like that when I was younger so it’s just part of the game.”
Actually, Little takes his role as the oldest member of the Rams seriously. In fact, the quiet and humble Little has openly embraced his role as a leader for the many young defensive linemen in the Rams locker room.
“That’s invaluable for us,” defensive coordinator Ken Flajole said. “Not only his style of play but his ability to show the younger guys that’s how you prepare in the National Football League. To have guys like that, an older guy who has been through the battles and knows what it takes on a weekly basis to prepare with the film study and the note taking, Leonard has been as good as gold that way and he’s a good role model for all of the younger guys.”
Long, for one, counts Little among his most influential mentors in the game and make it a point to regularly pick Little’s brain about any and everything.
“I’d say Leonard is my biggest influence in the pros that is playing right now,” Long said. “More than anything, he’s like the guy who keeps me sane out here because he has been through so much, losing, winning, good years, bad years and he knows so much about the game. For me, it’s someone I can always go to in confidence, ask any question and know I am going to get the best possible answer.”
Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo looks to Little to provide guidance but says Little doesn’t have to say much to set the right example.
“Leonard is a true pro,” Spagnuolo said. “He’s done it for a long time. He has been through this both ways. He’s been on both ends. He’s been on championship teams, he’s been on teams that have struggled and he stays consistent. He does his job. He works 110 miles per hour when he’s up there and asked to do the reps and I appreciate that from a guy that has been around as long as he has.”
A PLEASANT SURPRISE
At 35, coming off a pair of injury-plagued seasons, many would jump to the conclusion that Little didn’t have much gas left in the tank. Heck, Little himself wasn’t sure how much he had entering the season.
That’s why he spent the offseason at his home in North Carolina training as hard as he ever had, running hills with 20-pound weight vests strapped to his chest.
All of the work has clearly paid off. Little leads the Rams in sacks with five and has been able to generate a pass rush on a pretty consistent basis.
Anyone still questioning his ability to perform need only watch the tape of a sick Little jumping a pass in the flat, returning it and leaping into the end zone from 6 yards out with the game hanging in the balance.
“It’s crazy,” Long said. “He stands out, period on the field in the NFL among Pro Bowlers and all that stuff. When the guy is healthy and on the field, he has been able to show that he can still do it and do it at an elite level.”
Even Little is amazed at some of the things he can still do on a field.
“I really surprise myself sometimes like ‘Did I just do that?’” Little said. “I never thought in my wildest dreams I would be at this point in my life. For me to do some of things I am doing is really surprising to me. At age 35, doing some of the stuff I am doing really shocks me.”
LIFE AFTER FOOTBALL
Since signing a three-year contract extension with the Rams on Nov. 19, 2006, Little has maintained that he wanted to finish that contract with the team and then ponder his options, with retirement as a likely choice.
This is the final year of that deal but because he’s healthy and still performing, Little is far from coming to a final decision on what he will do when 2009 comes to an end.
By his own admission, Little is a bit of a homebody and enjoys being back home in North Carolina with his family. But he also still has a passion for the game.
For the Rams’ part, Little could well be welcomed back in a short contract in a pass rushing role that would allow him to do what he does best.
“I have no idea, really,” Little said. “I will sit down with my family, see where I am and see how my body feels. I am 35 years old so I need to make sure my body is in pretty good condition. Who knows? I don’t know what’s going to happen. Right now I am going to live in the moment and I just thank God every time I am on the field for being able to play at the age of 35.”
Regardless of the decision Little comes to when the season and his contract is complete, there’s no denying he has left behind an impressive legacy on the field at the Edward Jones Dome.
Little’s 87 sacks rank first in franchise history since the statistic became official in 1982 and places him fourth among players in this decade. Additionally, Little was a part of the 1999 Super Bowl championship team and an integral part of the team’s run to the NFC Championship in 2001.
One factor that could come into play is the opportunity to finish his career where he started it, something that is exceedingly rare in this salary cap era.
Amongst all the sacks, tackles and the Super Bowl trophy, that opportunity to finish what he started would be every bit as special.
“The way things are today it is hard to do that with free agency I have played 12 years here and nobody can say I didn’t leave it all on the field or I didn’t play hard for the organization or I didn’t play hard for the city,” Little said. “I have tried to do that because it’s my job to do that. That’s my whole focus to lay everything on the line and do the best I can every day.”
Re: The Legacy Of Leonard Little
I applaud Little for all he has done in his career. He will always be one of the greatest Rams defensive player.
Also, it makes sense how Little got to where he is now by training on Pace. I wish we still had someone like Pace here for Long to train on. Barron could be that, or even Smith, but time will tell.
Re: The Legacy Of Leonard Little
Great post, Nick,
FINALLY, a post about him without reference to...
Re: The Legacy Of Leonard Little
It has been a sincere pleasure seeing LL develop from his draft day up to now. When he calls it a career, I will be one of the first to say how outstanding it was to see him play for this franchise. Oh and getting the chance to meet him and shake his hand in StL after a win against the Seahags...just awesome.
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