FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Jim Leonhard took off his helmet and banged it a few times against his surgically repaired right leg.
With each clank off the protective sleeve, the New York Jets safety was just showing how far he’s come in eight months. Even though it had coach Rex Ryan more than a little nervous.
“He’s taking his helmet and hitting it and it’s just like, ‘Stop it. Just stop right now. You don’t need to do that!'” Ryan said laughing. “He doesn’t think there is any difference. He literally was smacking it. He feels that good.”
So good, in fact, that Leonhard will be completing his comeback from his injury when he starts for the Jets in the team’s preseason opener at Houston on Monday night.
“It feels good,” Leonhard said of his leg. “It feels pretty much as good as it did before. I haven’t had any pain, any swelling or anything like that. Still, up to this point, no setbacks and I feel very comfortable going into this game.”
Leonhard broke his shin last Dec. 3 when he collided with wide receiver Patrick Turner during team drills. A stabilizing rod was placed through Leonhard’s tibia, but his season was over and his future in doubt.
“It was really tough during the season, just seeing the guys go through that run and knowing that we had a team that could’ve done something special,” Leonhard said. “Missing that, that was frustrating.”
While the Jets made a run to the AFC championship game for the second straight year, Leonhard was stuck at home as a spectator and knowing the team could’ve used him.
“I was mainly watching the games at home and I was driving my wife crazy,” he said. “She almost turned the TV off a couple of times.”
The loss of Leonhard was a huge blow to the Jets, who acknowledged that their safety, who called the defensive signals in the secondary, would be sorely missed.
“Actually, we felt like our season was over with,” cornerback Darrelle Revis said, “because of the type of impact he has on the defense.”
Leonhard stayed around the team at the beginning of his rehabilitation, zipping around the training facility in a scooter that had a handmade Wisconsin license plate with “JIM 36” on it. He traded that in to the Jets’ training staff a few months ago when he was able to walk on his own again.
“I’m done with that,” he said, laughing. “I hope I never see it again.”
So do the Jets. That’s why they eased him back into things at the start of training camp, relieving him of punt return duties — for now. Ryan wouldn’t completely rule out having Leonhard return punts again at some point, which is something the safety enjoys, but rookie Jeremy Kerley, Joe McKnight and Kyle Wilson are expected to fill that role to start the season.
“See, he’s changing his tune already,” Leonhard said with a big grin. “He said this whole time I’m done, but I don’t believe it. If something needs to happen, I’ll go in there and take care of it.”
That spunky, aggressive attitude is what has endeared him to Ryan. The two were together with the Baltimore Ravens for a year, and when Ryan became the coach of the Jets, one of his first moves was to bring Leonhard with him to New York.
“He’s looking good,” safety Eric Smith said. “He’s looking like he’s back to his old self. It’s great to have him back there, leading the guys on defense.”
Leonhard insists he stayed mostly positive during his rehab, and leaned on former teammate Leon Washington, who overcame an even more devastating leg injury to have a terrific season last year with the Seattle Seahawks. Washington told him to never get discouraged and keep sticking to the plan.
“I never felt like, ‘Oh, this could be it,'” Leonhard said. “I knew I was going to come back, and if I took care of my body, I would be prepared for this season. I never really had that questioning whether I would be on the field (again) or not.”
Leonhard hasn’t really thought about the injury since camp started, other than the times he gets asked about it. He did acknowledge that he might think about it during his first few plays in a game, but isn’t worried about it.
He wears protective sleeves on the leg, like the one that looks like a fake tribal tattoo — a playful jab at Ryan’s leg tattoo that created a buzz at the beginning of camp.
“I just pull that out for big occasions,” Leonhard said, “like when Rex gets too high.”
That’s fine with Ryan, who’s just happy to see one of his leaders out there again making plays.
“I know Jimmy is working out like a mad man to get back,” Ryan said. “They had to slow him way down because he was ready to go five months ago. That’s Jim Leonhard. I knew he’d give us everything he had rehabbing for the opportunity to get back.”
NOTES: Ryan said the starters will play for about a quarter in the team’s preseason opener. WR Plaxico Burress (ankle) and C Nick Mangold (stinger) won’t make the trip. Backup QB Mark Brunell (finger) is also questionable. … Ryan announced the team captains chosen by him for this season: Revis, Smith, QB Mark Sanchez, WR Santonio Holmes and DT Sione Pouha. … Ryan praised Holmes, who was a playmaker in his first season with the Jets and was re-signed this offseason. “He went from a rental to an owner, a guy that was here, we tested, we tried it out and now he<s one of us," Ryan said. "I expect the last jersey he'll ever wear to be a New York Jets jersey."