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Walter Payton Man of the Year

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Shaquille Leonard on being Colts' Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee: 'It was pure happiness'

Shaquille Leonard knows his words can be powerful.

Since last year, when the Colts linebacker shared his story about his own mental health journey as part of the team's Kicking the Stigma campaign, countless people -- both young and old -- have reached out with their accounts of hardship, pointing to Leonard's willingness to be vulnerable and work to push forward as motivation in their own lives.

"It was important for me to tell it because if I can sit here as an NFL player, making a lot of money, being a face of the franchise and still be able to talk about mental health, I felt like it would touch so many more people," Leonard said in a phone interview this week.

The three-time All-Pro's willingness to use his platform to help others, promoting mental health awareness and facilitating charitable work in his communities (in Indiana and his home state of South Carolina), led him to be named the organization's 2022 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award nominee earlier this month. Leonard is one of 32 players vying for the NFL's most prestigious honor, the winner of which will be announced during NFL Honors prior to Super Bowl LVII.

"It means a lot," Leonard said. "Knowing the magnitude of the award and being a guy who loves to give back, it's definitely something I've been striving for. I was told by (Colts vice chair and owner) Kalen Jackson, and it was pure happiness. I don't announce a lot of the charitable work that I do, so to know that it doesn't go unnoticed, it's a great honor."

After losing his brother, Keivonte Waters, in 2012, Leonard fell into a "dark place," he said this week. Then, in 2015, a doctor told him that if he didn't get help, his life would change dramatically from a physical and mental standpoint. Leonard began talking about what was inside, and it "changed everything" for him.

In 2021, Leonard -- who quickly proved himself to be a key piece for the Colts, winning Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2018 -- became one of the front-facing players associated with the Kicking the Stigma effort. In addition, his Maniac Foundation, which he founded with his wife, Kayla, in 2020 and is dedicated to transforming communities through education, wellness and serving families in need, launched a mental health hotline in April.

2022 has been challenging for Leonard. He underwent offseason back surgery and did not play in his first game until Week 4. A concussion kept him out in Week 5, and then after two more games, Leonard ended up on injured reserve. Later in November, he underwent his second back surgery of the calendar year, cutting his season short.

"Early in the season, I got myself into a hole because I wasn't getting the results I wanted at the time. I felt like I was really taking a beating mentally," Leonard said. "Once (interim) coach (Jeff) Saturday shut me down for the season, it gave me an opportunity to reset. Now being a month out of surgery but not having to constantly try to get back on the field, I've had time to spend with my wife and kids, and I can enjoy giving knowledge to my teammates. When I was hurt, I wasn't really able to contribute in that way. It's been a battle, but it's about finding a balance."

Taking the time to focus on his mental health during a tough year with the 4-8-1 Colts, who continue their season against the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday, has been top of mind for Leonard. Outside of his family, the thing he said has been most helpful is the mental health hotline.

"I don't announce a lot of the charitable work that I do, so to know that it doesn't go unnoticed, it's a great honor." -- Shaquille Leonard

Leonard said he records a timely message once a month that the hotline features, forcing him to check in on his own well-being in the process.

"I'm not just giving a message to the fans or people battling with mental health. I'm talking to myself," he said. "If I can tell them to be strong and courageous and all these other things, then I gotta be that for myself. I gotta show them the way."

Leonard has raised thousands of dollars this year through his foundation and donated to many causes, which include: renovation projects in his hometown of Lake View, South Carolina, funding Indianapolis area schools, supporting the Uvalde shooting victims, and much more.

All 2022 Walter Payton Man of the Year nominees will receive up to a $40,000 donation in their name to their charity of choice. The winner will receive up to a $250,000 donation to the charity of his choice courtesy of the NFL Foundation and Nationwide.

Follow Brooke Cersosimo on Twitter.

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