Darius Leonard is Never Far From Home

PHOTO BY MARK STETLER

On a Thursday afternoon in June, Darius Leonard and a few friends stopped to eat at a Chipotle in Florence, S.C. The group — four black men and a bi-racial woman — was talking about the Black Lives Matter movement when the restaurant manager approached to ask if there was a problem. The All-Pro linebacker for the Indianapolis Colts wasn’t very far from home.

Leonard, 25, has a place in the tiny town of Lake View, about 40 miles from Florence and a stone’s throw from the North Carolina border. This is Dillon County, where freight trains on the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad once rolled through, transporting local crops, especially tobacco, to markets beyond. Today, it’s a rusty rural town with a population of about 800, and few young people who decide to stick around.

The nearest “big city” is Florence, population 39,000. At the Chipotle, the manager told the group that a white customer had accused them of verbal abuse, then asked them to leave, threatening to call the police.

“That’s the white privilege we’re talking about,” Leonard said on Instagram in an angry post following the incident. “And y’all wonder why all the protests and all this stuff is going on right now. We are tired of this. You white people don’t understand what we go through. … Y’all got it made; we don’t, and I’m tired of it. I need non-blacks to take a step in our shoes and realize the [expletive] that we go through and why we feel the way that we feel.”

 

"Knowing my history, about my town, knowing where I came from, knowing the struggle I had to go through, keeping that at the back of my head, that’s going to keep that drive. I’ve got to keep going. I’m not just doing this for my family, I’m doing this for my city."

As a child, Leonard was little aware of racial animosity. He often played with the white kids in town. He was treated well, he said. Until, at 15, he started dating his sweetheart Kayla (read their story here), who he had known since elementary school. Kayla was white.

Leonard is the eighth of nine siblings. When he was 2 years old, one of his brothers was convicted of murder and incarcerated. A little more than a decade later, another brother was found guilty of accessory to murder. A third brother was killed in a bar brawl. That violence has served as a point of reference, like the lighthouse upon the sharp rocks — something to steer clear of.

 

 

Another point of reference is his older brother Anthony Waters, who attended Clemson University and was drafted by the NFL in 2007, playing for the San Diego Chargers and New Orleans Saints. Waters and his football career represent safe harbor, where talents can be exercised and dreams realized. The waves there are mostly self-generated.

 

A QnA with Darius Leonard

Q: What was life like for you growing up?

DL: Mamma worked maybe two or three jobs at a time, working at a nursing home in Marion, doing small stuff like cleaning houses for people, trying to make ends meet. That really is what made me realize early that nobody will hand you anything; you’ve got to go out and make things happen on your own. Nobody can pay your bills for you.

We moved house to house. I stayed in Marion, Mullins, Lake View a little bit, Nichols. Finally, now we’re all back in Lake View.

Q: What was the racial dynamic for you as a young person in South Carolina?

DL: Up to 15, everything was fine. Everybody still had a great vibe from me. But once I started dating my wife, that’s when things took a turn. There were so many people who talked bad about me, talked bad about me and her, called us names. (At that age) you don’t see color, you see love. … A lot of people looked at Kayla and I very differently. There were plenty of times we didn’t want to go in public together; we hid or just hung out at someone else’s house, hung out at night, staying out of the public eye. Just hearing the racial slurs to her about dating a black guy — she lost plenty of friends that she grew up with just because she was dating me.

(My in-laws) were not accepting right away. They were concerned about protecting their baby girl. They were trying to protect Kayla from all the backlash, all the trash talk. As a parent, your first instinct is to protect your child no matter what. We were undercover for maybe two years.

Q: Why didn’t you seek your fortune in the big city?

DL: I hate the city. Coming from Lake View, this town watched me grow up, this town made me who I am. Playing sports growing up, meeting so many people, I’m still having contact with every coach that I had since I was 8 years old. Even now that I’ve got money, they say, “Hey Darius, need anything, need me to buy you something?” We still have that great bond.

I think I fell in love with this town once I went to college and came back. I was trying to find things to do to make money. I started a car-washing business. I wanted to work for my money. They just look out for everyone in this community, especially for me when I was coming through high school and coming through college.

My high school coach always said, “Never forget where you came from.” Knowing my history, about my town, knowing where I came from, knowing the struggle I had to go through, keeping that at the back of my head, that’s going to keep that drive. I’ve got to keep going. I’m not just doing this for my family, I’m doing this for my city.

Q: It’s easy in your profession to be corrupted, yet you seem to keep your head on your shoulders.

DL: I see it all the time. I see it with some of my teammates. I really feel like, that’s not the way to go. I always go back to: Treat others the way you want to be treated. You treat someone negative all the time — someone speaks to you, you don’t speak back — that’s one of my biggest pet peeves. Make sure you speak to people. You never know what someone is going through.

I’m a big goofy guy, I love to have fun. A guy, or whoever, could be having a terrible day and you just say “Hey” to them, make them smile, and pick them up. … This world could be so much better if everyone treated others with kindness.

I’ve seen both sides of it. With two brothers incarcerated, one dead, family not having too much — I’ve been there. My brother (Anthony Waters) making it to the NFL — I’ve been there. I know exactly how it feels not having anything; I know how it feels to have everything that you want. So I know in my mind that I don’t want any slipups. I’m no better than anybody. Yes, I do what I do, but that doesn’t make me a better person than you.

Read more about Darius Leonard's homcoming and the full Q&A in the Summer Issue digital edition here.

 

To view this cover feature in its entirety, subscribe now to the print edition for the full article or get instant access to our full interactive digital edition.