Leonard, who practiced this week for the first time since last season, said the recent surgery to resolve a nerve issue that was causing lower-body pain has set him up to be pain-free for the first time since his rookie season in 2018.
After Colts general manager Chris Ballard on Wednesday said Leonard had been feeling discomfort since 2019, Leonard corrected the record Thursday.
"They said '19? I would say '18," Leonard said. "If you think about 2018, Week 4 against Houston, I rolled an ankle and sat out Week 5 against the Patriots and came back against the Jets, and you notice I've had it taped up ever since. So, it's been a minute since I've felt the way I feel now. It's a good feeling but it's still a process. I'm not saying I'm ready to go right now. I'm still trying to figure stuff out. But I am feeling better. So that's the main thing."
Leonard underwent ankle surgery prior to the 2021 season but was severely hampered by persistent pain throughout the season. He even went so far as to begin sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber in a leave-no-stone-unturned effort to address the injury. Leonard's agility and speed were visibly affected, though he still was voted first-team All-Pro for the third time and led the NFL with eight forced fumbles. The 2021 surgery addressed some of the issues in the ankle, but the nerve problem continued to cause him pain and was not diagnosed until this summer.
In the process, Leonard learned to play hurt.
"Pain is temporary, pride is forever," he said. "If I can go, I'm going to go. That's my mindset. I just feel like even though I'm hurt, if I'm not out there hurting the team, then I think I can be out there."
But as the recovery from his recent surgery lingered and Leonard remained sidelined, he struggled to cope.
"Football is my happy place," he said. "Football is my safe haven. It's something that I love to do. I love to compete."
Leonard would not commit to playing in the Sept. 11 season opener against the Houston Texans. But whenever he does return, the idea of being healthy for the first time in years is tantalizing.
"I just feel like if Shaquille can be healthy for a season and able to plant and cut as I was once before," he said, "I just feel like I'll be flying around a whole lot better and making a few more plays, just being more crisp out of my breaks and being in [throwing] windows more."