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  1. #1
    RamWraith's Avatar
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    Little Embracing Leadership Role

    Wednesday, November 22, 2006

    By Nick Wagoner
    Senior Writer

    While Leonard Little was leading the Rams’ defense and continuing in his role as the team's top pass rusher last season, it wasn’t easy to see that Little simply wasn’t enjoying himself on the football field as he usually does.

    By his own account, Little wasn’t the same player or person last season as he had been in almost every other year. And it wasn’t even close. At 32, having gone through more in a five-year period than many endure in a lifetime, Little had to learn to handle pain in his foot and, more difficult, his heart.

    “Last year, my brother passed away and that really stuck with me throughout last season and I didn’t know how to come back,” Little said. “This year, I learned to deal with it and I am just going out trying to have fun. For me, I’m 32 years old and I just try to go out there and seize the moment and have fun while I’m out there playing.”

    Not only is Little having fun on the field and seizing the moment, he has done so much that he could finish his career in St. Louis. Little signed a three-year deal with the team this week; a contract he says will likely be his last.

    Last season was a difficult one for Little. Plagued by injuries, including an ankle and heel issue that slowed him, and forced to deal with the death of his brother Jermaine, Little struggled to find the bounce in his step that had made him one of the league’s most feared pass rushers.

    Little missed a pair of games after finding out about the shooting death of his brother before returning to the field with a heavy heart. With the Rams struggling, particularly on defense, Little couldn’t find a way to play with the passion and enthusiasm that had been motivating factors behind his immense success.

    “Last year, it was hard for me to cope with it because he was younger than me and we grew up tight,” Little said. “We were a close knit family. Last year, I was trying to cope with it and now I just deal with it.”

    Despite the extraneous factors working against him, he still led the Rams with 9.5 sacks. But, after a hot start, Little hit a lull in the middle of the season and didn’t hit his stride again until the end. His sack total was the second-lowest of his career since a huge 2001 when he had a career-high 14.5 sacks despite missing three games.

    In the offseason, Little’s surroundings changed once again. St. Louis hired a new coaching staff and brought in plenty of new pieces to surround the star defensive end. All of that, though was assuming Little could be a centerpiece.

    Little had ankle surgery that shaved away some bone chips in the offseason and went through a strenuous rehabilitation and recovery period that had him hobbled as recently as training camp.

    In addition, the Rams brought in defensive tackle La’Roi Glover and middle linebacker Will Witherspoon, players that could help free up Little on the outside to get to the quarterback. Less double teams equal more one on one opportunities, the type of chances Little takes advantage of more often than not.

    Beyond the physical issues, the most pressing thing on Little’s mind was finding a way to cope with the loss of his brother. Instead of grieving, Little decided to use football as a way to honor Jermaine.

    “I think about him all the time,” Little said. “Every time I get out on the field, I think about him. Every time I am out there playing, I think about him. But I know how to cope with it now. Last year, I didn’t know how to cope with it. I think that’s the biggest difference between this year and last year.”

    The difference in Little is easily evident. Not that Little was never affable with the media or never provided leadership to his teammates, but he has become one of the most accountable and important staples of the Rams’ locker room.

    In the days leading up to games and after every game, Little can be seen taking any and all questions, owning up to mistakes and modestly deflecting praise. Meanwhile, he’s embraced his role as one of the leaders of the defense.

    After the team’s loss to Kansas City, the normally reserved Little gave an impassioned speech to his teammates to keep their heads up and continue fighting. It’s a side of Little that might not have been there before and if it was, it certainly wasn’t on display.

    Little doesn’t plan to make a habit of vocalizing his leadership, but he will choose his spots when warranted.

    “I am not a real vocal guy but I try to lead by the way I play,” Little said. “If I have to say something, I will say something to the team but I try to lead with how I play and go out there and try to make plays for this team and hopefully try to help those guys along.”

    Following Little’s lead on the defense has been particularly easy this season. Through 10 games, Little has 10 sacks and has continuously come up with big plays when the defense needs them the most.

    Against Green Bay on Oct. 8, Little had two sacks, including a game-saver in which he knocked the ball loose from quarterback Brett Favre to preserve a Rams win. The extra attention paid to the likes of Glover has helped, but Little has also showed the type of versatility that makes defensive ends great.

    “We can move Leonard around,” defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said. “These guys need a little flexibility. Part of it is the scheme because of the guys you have. If you can move people around and take advantage of their athleticism, you can do those types of things.”

    And when the defense needs a big play the most, as it did against the Packers, Haslett turns to No. 91.

    “He's a great pass rusher,” Haslett said. "He can put pressure on almost any tackle in the league. ... He's the one guy up front that can put some pressure on the quarterback constantly.”

    While most players reach a certain age and hit their peak, Little seems to be getting better as he goes along. Now that he is signed up for the long haul, Little hasn’t showed any signs of slowing down.

    Instead, Little only cares about doing what he can do to help the Rams win. It stood to reason that Little doing his job of getting to the quarterback would serve the dual purpose of helping his cause for a new contract and helping the Rams win at the same time.

    Although that hasn’t necessarily been the case, it’s through no fault of Little’s play that the Rams are riding a five-game losing streak.

    “I am playing the same way I have been playing but things have been happening for me a little bit easier this year,” Little said. “After awhile, the game seems to come to you a little bit more. I think this is the first year I really understand the game and what people are trying to do to me and how to play the game basically.”

    As a self described sore loser, Little can’t handle not winning. He says he once cried for an hour or two after losing the championship of a Little League game.

    That’s part of why he has taken it upon himself to bring his expand on his role as a leader of the team.

    “He’s doing a great job of getting off the ball and getting his hands on guys to make things happen for us,” Witherspoon said. “That’s what you want. He’s one of those leaders on this defense and he’s definitely doing a great job showing people what he’s got by coming out to play and getting the job done.”

    And most of all, just having fun again.

  2. #2
    maineram Guest

    Re: Little Embracing Leadership Role

    That's the way Leonard. Keep that fire going and help the youngsters along, it's your turn to step up !!!!!

    Maineram - :r

  3. #3
    tomahawk247's Avatar
    tomahawk247 is offline Registered User
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    Re: Little Embracing Leadership Role

    how can he step up more?
    he is tied for second in sacks in the NFL and is only one behind Peppers!

    Second in the NFL for forced fumbles for D-Linemen with 5 to Jason Talor's 7

    i cant see how he can actually do much more then he is. But if he can, watch out Alex smith!

  4. #4
    maineram Guest

    Re: Little Embracing Leadership Role

    Stepping up as in taking a stronger leadership role with the D and team as a whole. He IS the veteran on this team that leads by example, but now needs to be a vocal leader in the locker room and on gameday.

    Maineram -

  5. #5
    UtterBlitz's Avatar
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    Re: Little Embracing Leadership Role

    Nice article. Leonard has been through a lot. I am glad to see that he is finding a way to bring the intensity up and the passion back to the defense.

    Maybe Leonard Little will pass Peppers in the sack total soon.


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