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Jim Leonhard set to retire after Sunday's game against Baltimore


Jim Leonhard was always told he wouldn't make it.

Naysayers told him he was wasting his time when the 5-foot-8 defensive back walked on at the University of Wisconsin. Professional football personnel told him his nice little college career as a Badger wouldn't translate with the big boys of the NFL.

In a league that forces so many players onto the streets before they're ready, this time, Leonhard's the one calling the shots.

Sunday's game against the Ravens will mark the final time the 10-year veteran plays in the NFL. On Friday, Leonhard confirmed he's leaving the sport he loves and doing it on his own terms.

"I've got a lot of respect for this game, and I don't want to do it any other way," Leonhard said. "I know I could continue to play – the way I'm playing and how I feel … but I'm to that point where I'm ready to move on."

Coach Mike Pettine, the defensive coaching staff and members of the secondary don't want to believe Leonhard's truly leaving. The safety has spent six of his professional seasons with Pettine in Baltimore, New York, Buffalo and now Cleveland.  

Leonhard was instrumental everywhere during his time with the Browns. He helped install the defense, he returned punts, he stepped in for safety Tashaun Gipson and notched two interceptions.  Next to Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby, Leonhard was a part of establishing a new culture and identity in Cleveland.

There's no replacing a Jim Leonhard.

"I know he keeps saying it, but it will be more than just me. There'll be a whole line of guys trying to talk him out of it," Pettine said. "He's been pretty resolute but I'm sure it's going to be a situation where he'll get home, be with his family and go ahead and decompress a little bit and we'll see how he feels."

Leonhard didn't budge Friday.

"It's not happening," Leonhard sheepishly smiled. "I'm very happy with my decision. And I look forward to that next chapter."

Leonhard starting thinking about retirement a few years ago, but the 10-year marker was really something he wanted to hit.

Leonhard's parents, brothers and a few friends are making the trip to Baltimore for his final game. After the season Leonhard will return to Madison, Wisconsin, for some much-needed downtime and then embark on some exotic traveling at some point – putting to use the Go-Pro teammate bought him for Christmas.

"To be successful at this job, you have to put a lot in," Leonhard said, referring to not only the physicality of the NFL, but also the mental aspect. "I'm getting to the point where I think it's time to move on."

But this may not be Leonhard's good bye from football.

The X's and O's guru has always considered a career in coaching. In fact, a high point of Leonhard's playing career came when he helped the Jets coaches devise a defensive game plan to beat Tom Brady and the Patriots in the 2009 AFC Divisional Playoff round.   

As focused and intense as Leonhard always seems to be, goosebumps and maybe even some tears may stir for the 32-year-old as he warms up pregame at M&T Bank Stadium for the final time as a pro.

"You get to that third and fourth quarter, knowing that it's the last one, I'm sure the emotions will hit," Leonhard said. "As of now, I'm just approaching it as getting this team to 8-8 in year one would be huge. That's all I'm thinking about right now – close this thing out with a win."

If there were ever a quote that embodied Leonhard, that was it: Never thinking of himself, always thinking of his football team.

The Cleveland Browns will miss Jim Leonhard, and so will the NFL.

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