MINNEAPOLIS — Rodney McLeod, the Philadelphia Eagles starting safety, never came off the field at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, starring as a cornerback, wide receiver and kick returner.
While former DeMatha coach Bill McGregor couldn’t predict an NFL career for his star player, McLeod’s speed and poise made him hopeful.
On the first play of overtime in the 2006 Washington Catholic Athletic Conference Championship game against Good Counsel, DeMatha was lined up on the 25-yard line. Instead of trying to gain short yardage, the Stags threw a fade to McLeod in the end zone on the first play. McLeod caught it, sealing one of the four league titles he won with DeMatha. The Clinton, Maryland native stills keeps a picture of that catch in his mother’s house.
“He’s not backing away from anybody,” McGregor told Capital News Service.
McLeod has used that explosiveness to power a six-year NFL career, now with a defense that’s surrendered a combined 17 points in its two playoff games and will play for the franchise’s first-ever Super Bowl win on Sunday.
“At DeMatha, the culture is knowing hard work does pay off,” McLeod told reporters at the Super Bowl Opening Night event Monday. “It’s mandatory for you to be a great player. Those things helped me and keep pushing me everyday.”
McLeod and his high school teammates spent their lunches in the film room, a tradition McLeod said shaped his work ethic. That principle stayed with him in his college career at the University of Virginia.
McLeod could’ve been caught around the Virginia football facilities at almost any time of the day carrying a notebook between 2008 and 2011, taking notes while sitting in former coach Mike London’s office or at quarterback and wide receiver meetings.
While McLeod played safety, he wanted to get inside offensive players’ minds, so he knew when to cut off receivers’ cuts on certain routes or how many players should blitz based on the running scheme. McLeod also chose about five plays from film of every game to break down his weaknesses and notice small details in formations, a practice he continues in the NFL.
“His football knowledge was as high as anything I’ve been around,” said London, who now coaches Howard University.
In addition to his study habits, McLeod’s toughness stuck out to London.
In one Cavaliers home game, McLeod predicted a run play and filled the hole the back was running through. Against a bigger player, McLeod sent the crowd into a frenzy after finishing a big hit.
The collision bent McLeod’s facemask, and his helmet hardly fit him properly with turf grass sticking out of the sides. Still, he flashed a wide grin for minutes and yelled, ‘Did you see that?’ to London as he celebrated on the sideline.
McLeod, though, is only 5 feet 10 inches tall, a factor in him going undrafted in 2012 and facing an uphill battle to make an NFL roster. But McLeod separated himself with his knowledge and work ethic when the St. Louis Rams signed him after the draft.
Dennard Wilson, who played at DeMatha in the late-1990s and was coaching defensive backs with St. Louis at the time, told McGregor that McLeod impressed the team with his intelligence and his defensive positioning, McGregor said. Competing against players drafted ahead of McLeod motivated him to adjust to the speed of the game, he said.
A few weeks into practice, Wilson told McGregor he thought McLeod would sustain a 10-year NFL career.
“When you’re a student of the game, and you study, that allows you to play faster, and it allows you to play more positions,” said Tony Paige, McLeod’s agent. “That’s what coaches in the National Football League are looking for.”
Wilson’s prediction has panned out so far. McLeod cemented a starting role with the Rams in 2013 and signed with the Eagles as a free agent in 2016, recording three interceptions in each of the past two years, while also recovering two fumbles this season.
On Sunday, McLeod will be tasked with stopping Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, who have won two of the past three Super Bowls and averaged the second-most points per game during the NFL regular season.
As he looks to become the first DeMatha alum to win the Super Bowl, McLeod will likely spend much of his time planted in front of a screen in the film room, the same place that’s propelled his career.
“He can’t help that he’s 5-10,” Paige said, “but he’s got a 7-foot heart.”
This story is a collaboration between Capital News Service and the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism.