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You could tell Jim Leonhard was sizing up the question by the way he carefully framed his answer. In making the jump from small town walk-on (from tiny Tony in northern Wisconsin) to college All-American (at the UW-Madison) to undrafted free agent (with the Buffalo Bills ) to NFL starting safety (with the Baltimore Ravens ), has the gritty, 5-foot-8, 186-pound Leonhard exceeded his own expectations?

"I wouldn't say that," he began softly and slowly. "When you start playing this game, I don't think you ever project yourself to be an NFL player. But once I got into college and had success and once I got into the NFL, I felt like I could do this. In a way, I did exceed my expectations. On the other hand, I know I'm a good Football player and I found out that I belonged in this league."

From the beginning, Leonhard was just looking for a chance to prove himself. Especially since he doesn't fit the description of the prototypical NFL player. That seemed to be more of an issue in Buffalo than Baltimore. So when Leonhard, an unrestricted free agent, was sizing up the Ravens during the offseason, they were doing likewise with Leonhard. "We know he doesn't look the part, but that's OK," said Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan.

After three seasons in Buffalo, the 26-year-old Leonhard signed with Baltimore because he felt like the Ravens offered a good fit on defense and special teams. "I guess they just decided to go in another direction," he said of the Bills' lack of interest in re-signing him. "That's the way this league works. I don't have any hard feeling about it or towards them. It has worked out for the best maybe for the both of us."

Although he started six games during the 2007 season in Buffalo, Leonhard recognized that he had to prove himself all over again in Baltimore. "If you're undersized or lacking in some areas, I do think you have to prove over and over again that it's not going to limit your ability on the field," he said. "I noticed from the first day I got here that the Ravens don't care what you look like as long as you can play Football."

That was reinforced by none other than All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who told Baltimore Ravens .com, "Jim is probably one of the best athletes that we have overall on our team, but a lot of people don't know him. He just loves playing Football and that's what you can appreciate. When (Dawan) Landry went down and he stepped in, it's like we never missed a beat."

Landry, who started every game at strong safety last season, suffered a spinal cord concussion in week 2 against Cleveland. He has not returned. Nor will he. Landry was placed on injured reserve in early November. When Ravens first-year head coach John Harbaugh was asked about Leonhard capably filling the void left by Landry, he said, "I guess we shouldn't have been surprised because he played well in Buffalo the last few years, too."

Leonhard credited his Bills experience for shaping his mind-set and survival instincts. "I learned how to be a professional, how to go about your business and how to take care of your body," he said. "I played just enough to realize I belonged, I could make plays and I was intelligent enough to be in this league. You can't reach your potential if you don't really think you're good enough to be here."

Leonhard established his value in Baltimore during training camp, when the Ravens were without injured safety Ed Reed. "I played well in all of the preseason games," said Leonhard, who had a sounding board in the form of backup linebacker Nick Greisen, another former Badger. "As soon as you feel you've gained a little respect from your teammates, you can go out and just play and not worry about having to impress anybody."

So what was it like for Leonhard the first time that he was in the company of Lewis and Reed? "Ray has such a powerful personality," Leonhard said, "and you've seen him on TV a million times and you don't really know what he's going to be like. But he's just a great guy and teammate. Same with Ed. It's amazing how physically gifted they are. But they don't get enough credit for being really smart Football players."

The Ravens are blessed with a number of difference-makers on defense: Lewis, Reed, defensive end Terrell Suggs and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. "There is so much talent that you don't have to do anything crazy or out of the ordinary," Leonhard said. "You just need to do your job. If the play is there, make the play. You have to be able to trust all 11 guys on the field, and once you feel like you've earned that trust, you can just play Football."

There are thousands of kids throughout Wisconsin who are growing up every year with the same dream because of the path that little Jimmy Leonhard has blazed. What does the population of Tony (all 100 or so) think of their favorite son today? "I think they're proud," said Leonhard, who makes his offseason home in Madison with wife, Katie. "It's Packer country, but at least they're cheering for Baltimore, too." How could anyone not ROOT for Jim Leonhard?


Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: November 27, 2008

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