Rodney McLeod won’t do it.
Not yet at least.
The 5-foot-10, 195-pound, veteran safety went from a somewhat undersized undrafted free agent out of Virginia signed by the then-St. Louis Rams, to becoming an unsung leader of the Philadelphia Eagles for the last six years, stabilizing a dubious secondary on the field, while developing a selfless, winning culture off it.
He’s 31 and has spent a decade in the NFL.
He’s not ready, however, to reflect on his career—because he feels there is more left. He’s currently a free agent, after starting 13 games for the Eagles last season, coming off surgery in December 2020 to repair an ACL tear in his left knee. By the end of 2021, the vintage version of McLeod resurfaced, coming up with two clutch interceptions in the Eagles’ playoff drive in victories over the Giants and Washington. He was so valuable to the Eagles that he was held out in the regular-season finale against Dallas, so he could be saved for the playoffs. Playing in a new defensive scheme that made him a dot in the distance all season, McLeod was one of a few bright spots in the Eagles’ 31-15 playoff loss to Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
McLeod would like to return to the Eagles.
This has been a good offseason for him. In February, McLeod was the Eagles’ recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award for the 2021 NFL season, which honors “those National Football League players who exemplify commitments to the principles of sportsmanship and courage” and is determined by a player vote. On Friday, March 18th, at the annual Maxwell Club gala in Atlantic City, McLeod will be receiving the Maxwell Football Club’s Steinberg DeNicola Humanitarian Award for the work he and his wife, Erika, continue to do through their Change Our Future foundation.
McLeod would like to top his award-winning offseason with a new contract and finish his career as an Eagle.
The Eagles need leaders.
McLeod checks every box.
So, he refuses to take a look at his own journey and the measure of what he’s done: From the high school freshman stepping into a new culture at prestigious DeMatha Catholic (Md.) who got an ‘F’ in English and thought his world was crumbling around him, to the University of Virginia, where he received a scholarship and graduated with a degree in sociology, to making the Rams as an undrafted free agent, to playing a vital role in the Eagles’ 2017 Super Bowl drive, and in their current rebuild to make the Eagles Super Bowl contenders again.
“I really haven’t taken a lot of time to truly reflect, but I am often reminded what I have accomplished, beating the odds tremendously in a lot of different ways, but because I’m still in the moment and realizing I have so much more to get done,” said McLeod, who had 58 tackles over 13 games in 2021. “When you do sit down and reflect, that’s when you start to think, ‘Is this over, am I done?’ I don’t want my mind to get confused. So, I’m kind of hungry to achieve more. I know I can and there still is more to do before I’m satisfied.
“I can still play. It would be huge to come back to the Eagles. I was always one of those guys who didn’t want to be a journeyman when I got to the league. I always wanted to play my entire career with one team. I thought I was going to accomplish that with the Rams. Then, I came here to Philadelphia, and it’s been everything I thought it would be—and more. Now, I would like to finish my career truly as an Eagle. I want to bring back another Super Bowl to this team, and I feel we have the people to do it. It would mean a lot to come back. I understand how I value this team, and I feel they can reciprocate on how they value me and what this means to both of us for me to be in that locker room.
“Everything is in God’s hands. I hope we can work it out. I want to finish my career here in Philly and that would be a dream come true.”
The story McLeod’s life has fallen under the definition of being underappreciated.
Underappreciated, despite the fact McLeod has carved out a strong 10-year NFL career. Underappreciated, despite making six tackles with one pass defended in Super Bowl LII, a strong game that was overlooked. Underappreciated, despite being a highly respected piece to the new Eagles rebuild and viewed as a leader to a young core.
“Like I said, it’s been the story of my life,” McLeod said. “But I continue to show otherwise and show my worth. When I talk to the kids, I tell them about the adversity I faced. I tell them about my experiences and how I became the man that I am. I’m not who I am today without the experiences. I’ve suffered a few injuries over these past three, four years, though it’s not the first time I ever experienced real adversity. All the adverse moments I went through shaped me and told me something about myself. Those times gave me perspective and they have given me strength.
“Those moments gave me the toughness you need in life. I tell the kids how life is challenging and how it’s filled with choices that you must make every day after you wake up. It’s all about your response to those choices. How are you going to face a tough obstacle? I’m a man of God, I grew up in the church and I pray often. I try to be relatable to the kids. I didn’t get drafted. I was at public school all of my life, and I transferred into DeMatha my freshman year.”
And was greeted with an ‘F’ in English his first semester.
“I just couldn’t adapt, I was stubborn, and I didn’t want to take the time to do the work,” McLeod said. “I had to learn the hard way. I found out early that I wouldn’t be able to live out my dreams if I didn’t get through high school. The first thing college coaches ask about a high school player is how are their grades and their character. I had an awakening moment and I had re-evaluated myself. I was being very mediocre. I wasn’t challenging myself. I changed a lot of my mindset. High school became a lot easier, once I applied myself. If that story helps one kid, that means everything.”
In April 2020, McLeod and his wife, Erika, started Change Our Future, which carries the mission statement to “seeks to empower people through education, advocacy, and awareness in the areas of youth development, healthy lifestyles, and community enrichment. Our passion is to collaboratively eliminate barriers seen in healthcare, education, and civic engagement by advancing programs, opportunities and resources that give youth, families, and communities a path toward a healthy and hopeful future.”
“The (Steinberg DeNicola Humanitarian Award) is a huge honor for me, and my parents (Rodney McLeod Sr. and Kimberly Holloman) contributed a lot to who I am and why I do the things that I do, and that comes from the things that they instilled in me,” McLeod said. “More importantly, I understand we all come from certain communities, and my wife and I and our foundation is about sharing and our compassion for kids. We know that it’s the best to change things in society and we feel as though education is a huge reason why we are who we are today. That came with the resources my wife and I had at a young age.
“But there are a lot of kids out there who don’t have the opportunities I did. I was fortunate enough to test in a few programs that gave me a different chance and receive a different form of education, based on where we lived. I was able to play sports, so that was another outlet for me to go to a DeMatha Catholic High School, and then go on to the University of Virginia to receive a scholarship. There are a lot of people who are very deserving of that, but don’t have the funds or the chance for whatever reason. That can ultimately determine your fate. You see this and wonder why there isn’t an equal opportunity for all kids.
“It’s why my wife and I started this. We would like to save every kid, and if we could, we would, but we know that’s impossible. We do know with the determination that we’re working we can affect one percent. Maybe we can change the life cycles that have been going on. That starts with the first generation of kids going to college. If we can really start that trend for their families, that’s very important for an African American family specifically.
“I want to make a difference.”
In six years with the Eagles, he has.
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who has written feature stories for GQ, SI.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com, MLB.com, Deadspin, PhillyVoice and The Philadelphia Daily News. In 2006, he was nominated for an Emmy Award for a special project piece for ESPN.com called “Love at First Beep.” He is most noted for his award-winning ESPN.com feature on high school wrestler A.J. Detwiler in February 2006, which appeared on SportsCenter. In 2015, he was elected president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.