INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Darius Leonard chose No. 53 so he could follow in his half-brother's footsteps.
The Indianapolis Colts rookie linebacker soon learned he had much larger shoes to fill.
Leonard has embraced the legacy of Edwin Jackson, who wore the same jersey number with the Colts before he was killed in a February traffic accident. Now Leonard will honor Jackson's memory during the NFL's annual My Cause My Cleats celebration, something Jackson's family endorses.
"When my family and I watch Darius, we see the same passion and fire Edwin played with" said Adam Jackson, Edwin's brother. "Edwin often talked about how he represented a lot of people when he was on the field, and that he wanted to make them proud and give them a show. It seems like this is similar for Darius Leonard. From what I have read about Darius, he was considered an underdog coming out of college just like Edwin. They both used this underdog mentality as fuel to become NFL starters for the Colts."
The similarities go far deeper than numbers and resume lines, though.
Both were largely overlooked by big-name colleges because of their size. Both far exceeded expectations at Football Championship Subdivision schools and impressed NFL coaches with their ability to run from sideline to sideline. Both won over their pro teammates with fun-loving personalities and their passion for the sport and both embraced giving back to their communities.
Leonard knew nothing about Jackson when the Colts drafted him in the second round, No. 36 overall, in April.
It wasn't until he requested the number of his half brother, former NFL player Anthony Waters, that Leonard got a crash course in what Jackson meant to the organization.
"He was a great person, he came from a great family and he was great to be around," second-year linebacker Anthony Walker said. "He was one of the guys I was closest to last year, and he kind of took me under his wing and showed me how it worked in the NFL."
Now Walker finds himself fulfilling Jackson's old role by serving as a mentor, to Leonard the league's leading tackler heading into Sunday's game at Jacksonville (3-8) and a bona fide candidate as defensive rookie of the year.
The starting tandem and locker mates seem to thoroughly enjoy trading stories, doubling as comics and playfully teasing one another during locker room interviews in the same fashion. They're loud and full of joy just like Jackson, who was nicknamed "Pound Cake" after walking on at Georgia Southern and being cut by the Arizona Cardinals in 2015 before landing in Indy.
"It seems like his personality and who he was is very similar to who I am," said Leonard, who was dubbed "Maniac" during his college years at South Carolina State following an 19-tackle game against Clemson in September 2016.
Leonard's performance caught the attention of Colts general manager Chris Ballard, who also was a huge fan of Jackson and his radiant smile that seemed to welcome anybody who came into the locker room.
And it led Leonard to this place where he, Walker and injured safety Mathias Farley intend to wear specially-designed cleats to help raise money and awareness for the Edwin Jackson 53 Foundation. In this, the third year of the cleats program, organizers have expanded it to a three-week window so every player has a chance to participate in front of their home fans.
Indy's chance comes Dec. 16 against Dallas a potentially huge game for an organization that has won five straight to climb back into playoff contention and Jackson's brother will attend the game.
It will be Adam Jackson's second trip to Indy for a tribute. He and his family also came back Sept. 30 when the Colts played a highlight reel of Jackson on the stadium's big screens and donated $32,000 to the foundation. Indy lost that game in overtime but won over the hearts of the Jackson family.
"It was a special moment for all of us," he said. "We followed him everywhere from elementary school to Georgia Southern, all the way up to Indianapolis. It was a touching moment to walk in the same footsteps Edwin had walked and see how much his hard work was appreciated and how much it still is appreciated."
And now Adam Jackson will get to see the appreciation once more through the fittingly fancy footwork of Walker and Leonard.
"Darius is also part of the same college fraternity as Edwin's grandfather, Omega Psi Phi," he said. "So I think if anyone is going to wear Edwin's jersey, it should be Darius, and he has represented the number 53 quite well."