Rick Leonard’s cell phone rang around 2 p.m. Saturday. He glanced down at the caller ID and saw it was from the New Orleans Saints.
The first question that popped into his head: Were they calling for information? Or were they calling to change his life?
Leonard, a former star football player for Middletown High School who went on to play at Florida State, had spent much of the morning fielding phone calls from teams while the NFL draft played on the television of his family home in Middletown.
He was prepared for anything yet still very much unsure of what might happen. Every time his phone rang, his heart started beating a little faster.
Most of the teams had been calling to just touch base or confirm some information they needed. Leonard figured he had spoken to just about every team in the league at least once over the past two weeks. The one notable exception? The New Orleans Saints.
Now here they were on his cell phone. What were they going to tell him? Leonard glanced at the TV and realized the Saints had the next pick in the draft. That’s when everything started to feel a lot different.
“Holy sh&!” he thought.
Seated on a leather recliner in his living room, wearing black shorts and a black Florida State t-shirt, Leonard answered his phone and heard the voice of Saints coach Sean Payton.
“Oh, hell yeah, coach! Oh man!” Leonard said as Payton informed him the Saints were selecting him near the end of the fourth round with the 127th pick in the draft. Leonard did not think he’d be taken that high.
Amid hushed tones from the dozen or so family and friends gathered with him in the living room, Leonard spoke with Payton and Saints higher-ups for almost two minutes.
As he listened, he seemed to be working to contain his emotions. He bowed his head and rested it between his left thumb and index finger. Near the end of the conversation, he said, “I am so excited and ready to get to work.”
Then, he hung up, raised his long arms in triumph above his head as the rest of the room erupted in joy. His mother, Alice, broke into tears.
“It’s been crazy. It’s been unreal. It’s so hard to put into words,” Leonard told the News-Post. “I am so thankful for the opportunity to play for a great organization like the Saints.”
Over in Frostburg, his high school coach, Kevin Lynott, was gathered around a table with his family at Dairy Queen. The Lynotts were in town because Kevin Jr. plays football at Frostburg, and the team hosted a family picnic.
They weren’t paying much attention to the TV inside of the Dairy Queen showing the draft until Kevin Jr. said, “There’s Ricky! There’s Ricky!” The elder Lynott rose up and tried to get a picture of the TV screen with his cell phone.
“It’s awesome,” Lynott said. “I am unbelievably happy for Ricky. He’s a very humble kid, very hard working. It’s well-deserved.”
Leonard is the first player in the long and proud history of Middletown football to get drafted into the NFL. Evan Routzhan, a former offensive lineman for the Knights, signed with the Indianapolis Colts as an undrafted free agent in 2002. But he never hooked on with the team.
Leonard’s rise into the NFL did not happen until he switched positions midway through his career at Florida State and put roughly 40 pounds onto his 6-foot-7 frame.
Following his senior season at Middletown, Leonard was named the state’s Defensive Player of the Year after setting up camp in the opposing backfield. He finished the season with 14 sacks and 25 tackles for loss in helping the Knights win a third consecutive state title.
“He is really coachable. He soaks up a lot of things,” said Mike DeSimone, who was an assistant coach for that team before becoming Middletown’s athletic director. “He wants you to challenge him. When he first showed up, he was tall and lanky, just a wiry guy with really long arms. But he just had a motor that kept going.”
Florida State, however, saw Leonard as more of a fit on the offensive line. So, they asked him to bulk up from 270 pounds to over 300 and plugged him in as the starting right tackle, a position he held down for two seasons.
Leonard made enough of an impression to earn one of the 326 invitations to the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. He signed an agent, Brett Tessler, to help him through the pre-draft process.
Leonard had a private workout with the Saints near the end of March but did not hear another peep from the team until Payton called him Saturday afternoon.
“My agent kept telling me that’s a good thing,” Leonard said. “The teams that don’t call you, that’s where you are going to go, he kept saying. They like to keep things on the down-low. Teams don’t want everyone to know who they are drafting.”
Leonard was in regular contact with most teams throughout the process. The communication really picked up in the two weeks leading into the draft. Still, he was never able to glean where he might wind up.
In his mind, he had a chance to be a late-round selection on the final day of the three-day draft. He was even prepared to not get drafted and have to hook on with a team as an undrafted free agent.
He spent the last week going over team depth charts with his agent, trying to determine the best landing spot.
“It goes to show that anything is possible,” Leonard said.
Following his selection, Leonard rushed over to the Francis Scott Key mall and bought every New Orleans Saints item he could find.
“We cleaned ’em out,” he said.
Leonard is ready to join Rob Havenstein and Nate Hairston as athletes from Frederick County currently playing in the NFL.
Havenstein, a Linganore graduate, was drafted out of the University of Wisconsin in the second round (57th overall) of the 2015 draft. He is preparing to enter his third season as the starting right tackle for the Los Angeles Rams.
Hairston, meanwhile, is a Thomas Johnson graduate who was drafted out of Temple University in the fifth round (158th overall) of the 2017 draft. He had a fine rookie season as the primary defensive nickel back for the Indianapolis Colts.
Leonard likely won’t get his first taste of NFL life or New Orleans until sometime next week.
The Saints play the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore at 4 p.m. on Oct. 21, which is the closest he will get to home once the season starts.
“It kind of felt like Christmas when I got the call,” Leonard said. “It didn’t really set in right away. I was surprised. I was overwhelmed. I didn’t know what to say.”