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  • The Legacy Of Leonard Little

    The Legacy of Leonard Little
    Thursday, November 26, 2009

    By Nick Wagoner
    Senior Writer

    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.


    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.


    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.”


    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.”


    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.”

  • #2
    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.


    • #3
      Re: The Legacy Of Leonard Little

      Great post, Nick,
      and thanks.

      FINALLY, a post about him without reference to...


      • #4
        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.
        Last edited by IronRam; -11-27-2009, 05:29 PM.


        Related Topics


        • RamWraith
          Little Embracing Leadership Role
          by RamWraith
          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...
          -11-22-2006, 01:48 PM
        • 01d 0rd3r
          Little inspires rams
          by 01d 0rd3r
          By Nick Wagoner
          Senior Writer

          When he arrived at the Russell Training Center on Friday of last week, Leonard Little wasn’t feeling well.

          After stopping in just long enough for his teammates and coaches to see how sick Little was and how ill he might become, he was sent home in an effort to keep him quarantined from the rest of the team so it wouldn’t get sick as well.

          Little spent the majority of the rest of that day in bed, doing whatever possible to cure the strep throat that had hit him suddenly Thursday night.

          On Saturday, Little had a bit more time to rest as the Rams traveled to Jacksonville but he didn’t feel a whole lot better.

          When he woke up on Sunday morning, Little was still far from healthy. In fact, he was still downright ill.

          Despite his ailment, the thought of not playing against the Jaguars never crossed his mind.

          “There wasn’t a chance I wasn’t going to go,” Little said. “If I can walk out there, I can play. I just tried to go out and be a good leader for the young guys on this team and try to do the best I can to help us win the game.”

          On both counts, Little did exactly that. Fighting off the red, puffy eyes, dehydration and overall fatigue that goes with his ailment, Little’s performance against the Jaguars was nothing short of courageous.

          “I think so,” coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “I think he takes a little bit of pride in that. I think that sent a message to the rest of the team. I know they respect him and appreciate what he brought yesterday.”

          What Little brought was six tackles, his team leading fourth sack of the season, a pass defended, an interception and one dramatic dive for the end zone that resulted in a touchdown. He nailed the landing, by the way.

          After his big and – admittedly long – day, Little trudged around the Rams locker room as though he had just been put through boot camp a few times over. The eyes were still red as Little walked gingerly back to his locker and slowly dressed in his pinstripe suit.

          Worn down by his illness and the fatigue of being on the field for many of the 88 plays Jacksonville ran and much of the 42 minutes and 12 seconds the defense was on the field, Little could barely even recall what happened late in the fourth quarter with his team desperately needing a big play.
          “I don’t even know what happened,” Little said. “I just know I ended up with the ball in my hands. I just tried to get to the end zone as quick as I could. That’s all I remember about the play. I just thought the only person I had to beat was the quarterback. I knew he had the angle on me so I told myself if I got close to the end zone I would dive for it because I knew he would dive at my legs and try to knock me out of bounds. I just tried to get in there as best I could.”

          With 4:46 to go, Jaguars quarterback David...
          -10-19-2009, 08:56 PM
        • r8rh8rmike
          Little Carries Legacy
          by r8rh8rmike
          Wednesday, May 13, 2009

          By Nick Wagoner
          Senior Writer

          After 11 seasons in the league, all spent with the Rams, Leonard Little is the last man standing.

          With the offseason departures of Orlando Pace, Torry Holt and Trent Green, Little is the final player on the team’s roster from the 1999 Super Bowl championship team as the 10-year anniversary of that magical season approaches.

          At the team’s second minicamp earlier this month, that reality began to set in for Little.

          “It goes by fast,” Little said. “For me to be sitting here and be the longest tenured Ram, I never thought it was going to happen. But it is here, so I have to try to lead the young guys as much as I can and try to bring them along. Once you’ve been in the league over 10 years you already know basically what the steps are of being successful. I just try to do what I need to do to make this team better and plus try to talk to the young guys and try to help those guys out too.”

          What Little has done to help make the Rams better throughout his career is simply be one of the league’s best pass rushers. In his time in the league, Little has racked up 81 sacks, the most in the history of the franchise since sacks became an official statistic in 1982.

          At 34, Little is the team’s elder statesman but remains its most viable pass rush threat. And though he is the first to admit he doesn’t have the speed rushing from the outside he once did, he believes he still has plenty in the tank as he heads into the final year of his contract.

          “I’m energized every year,” Little said. “What people don’t realize is this is like my eighth year in the league. I didn’t really play my first three years here. I still have the energy I usually have. I just try to go out and get better every day.”

          Having Little at his best would be a tremendous advantage for a revamped Rams defense that is still in the process of coming together.

          With new head coach Steve Spagnuolo and defensive coordinator Ken Flajole in the fold, the Rams are incorporating myriad defensive ideas into the new scheme.

          That scheme is expected to be an aggressive, attacking type of unit that takes bits and pieces from what the Eagles, Giants and Panthers do in getting after the quarterback.

          In Spagnuolo’s defenses, pass rushers are at a premium.

          “It’s exciting for me because this is my first defensive head coach,” Little said. “He has had success in the past and it’s a matter of us knowing what we have to do first and then we can play fast and create turnovers and do the things we need to do. This defense is going to rely on the guys up front to put pressure on the quarterback. That’s going to be the biggest thing about this defense, so it really puts pressure on the front four to be great pass rushers and get to the quarterback.”

          -05-14-2009, 08:29 PM
        • RamWraith
          Extra attention is holding back Leonard Little
          by RamWraith
          By Jim Thomas
          Of the Post-Dispatch

          In the third quarter against Seattle last month, Leonard Little got offensive tackle Chris Terry on his heels with a bull rush. Little then turned inside toward Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck but never got there.

          That's because Terry grabbed Little with his right arm and held on for dear life. After the play ended, Little raised his arms in protest, but there was no holding call by referee Bill Leavy's crew.

          The following week in Buffalo, Little darted inside on a stunt late in the first quarter. But before Little got in the backfield, Bills guard Chris Villarrial yanked on his facemask to slow him down. Again, no flag.

          Those are just two snapshots illustrating the kind of attention Little is getting from opposing blockers this season. He gets double-teamed or chip-blocked on the majority of passing downs. For a defensive end in the National Football League, it's the ultimate form of flattery.

          "They never leave him alone," Rams coach Mike Martz said. "Very seldom is he left alone on (the edge). If he is, then it's a quick throw. They have great respect for him."

          Not that that's much consolation to Little. All the extra attention has at times been exasperating and disconcerting.

          After the Rams' 31-14 loss in Miami, a frustrated Little was one of the last Rams to leave the visitors' locker room at Pro Player Stadium. The Dolphins had been particularly attentive - and particularly effective - in slowing Little that day.

          While reporters were milling about the locker room in search of postgame quotes, Little was huddled in a corner with teammate Tyoka Jackson.

          "He was looking for answers ... and trying to figure out what he can do to overcome what they're doing," Jackson said. "Because he's seeing things that he hasn't seen before.

          "The (Miami) guys were telling him after the game was over: 'Coach said we've got to do this all game. We've got to take you out of the game. We decided to do this and do that.' So teams are scheming him, and that's something he's got to deal with."

          The extra attention shouldn't be considered surprising, given Little's well-established reputation as a defensive playmaker.

          "Over the last three years, with the numbers he's put up, and the intensity and everything with which he plays, teams feel they've got to slow the guy down," Rams defensive line coach Bill Kollar said. "Without a doubt."

          The real surprise is that it has taken the league three years to figure this out. From 2001 through 2003, Little averaged 13 sacks a season, the third-highest total in the NFL. Over that period, Little had 39 sacks in just 41 games. (He missed three games in 2001 with a knee injury and four games last season with a torn...
          -12-17-2004, 04:23 AM
        • RamWraith
          Little is prepared to make big impact
          by RamWraith
          By Jim Thomas
          Thursday, Jul. 31 2008

          MEQUON, WIS. — As injuries have mounted all around him during the first week of
          training camp, Leonard Little's surgically repaired toe hasn't flinched.

          Through nine practices over six days — with most of the work done on
          unforgiving artificial turf — Little says he has yet to need treatment on the
          toe. He feels a little soreness now and then, but that hasn't prevented him
          from going about his business from practice to practice at Concordia University
          Wisconsin as he prepares for his 11th NFL season.

          "I think Leonard looks just like he did two years ago," defensive coordinator
          Jim Haslett said. "I'm excited about it, because Leonard two years ago had 12˝
          sacks, and we really never had a presence on the other side.

          "So now you add Chris (Long) to it and James (Hall) and get Victor (Adeyanju)
          back, and I think Leonard's going to have a great year."

          Little, who actually had 13 sacks two years ago, is planning on nothing less.
          Over a six-year period from 2001 to 2006, Little was one of the game's most
          feared pass-rushers, averaging 11 1/2 sacks per season. Then came the toe
          injury last season, robbing him of his quick get-off, and limiting him to only
          one sack before landing on the injured reserve list at midseason.

          At age 33, it looked like the injury might be career-threatening, but Little
          never viewed it that way.

          "I didn't ever think it was going to be an issue," Little said. "But everyone
          else did. I just had to rehab it, and do the things I needed to do to get back
          to 100 percent. I think it's real close to that right now."

          Little says his body always has responded well to surgery. In college at
          Tennessee, he recovered impressively from ACL and MCL surgery in his knee. As
          painful as the toe injury was last season, Little said he was confident surgery
          would make it right.

          "It's just a toe," he said. "It stopped me from being the explosive player that
          I normally was. But I know how my body reacts to stuff like this. I knew if I
          got it fixed, my body would react in a positive way."

          As early as the spring organized team activities in May and early June, Little
          said he felt he had his old quickness back. And that was even when the Rams'
          training staff was bringing him along slowly.

          So far in training camp, his practice reps have been limited to some extent,
          but he's still getting a lot of work.

          "I know what it takes to be successful," Little said. "Hopefully, I can stay
          injury-free and play like I did (before) or better."

          As he has progressed...
          -07-31-2008, 04:08 AM