When Leonard Little made his way into the National Football League, he had a promising career all in front of him.
But a mistake one night early in his career put him on the verge of losing everything he had worked for years to earn, not to mention the potential that lay ahead of him.
Fortunately, Little overcame the incident and reached the pinnacle of his sport.
Growing Up In North Carolina
Leonard Antonio Little was born on Oct. 19, 1974, in Asheville, N.C, a medium-sized city in the extreme western portion of the state.
He was born prematurely, but he still weighed in at almost seven pounds, and he grew rapidly from there, reaching a weight of 26 pounds just six months later.
His long limbs and large head would lead to his childhood nickname of “Head,” and even as a six-year-old, he was a standout at football, thanks to a combination of speed, aggression and a love of hitting people hard.
But starting at the age of 10, he would have to divide his attention between football and his duties at home. His parent started to face marital problems, and therefore Little had to spend time taking care of his two younger siblings, filling in for his busy mom.
He started to make his name while at Asheville High School. There, he did double-duty, playing both linebacker and wide receiver, and he was a starter on the football all but one year there.
As a senior, Little won multiple individual honors, including being named a First-team All-American. All the while, he worked multiple odd jobs to help support his family and spent lots of time at church, especially for Bible study.
Even though he was relentless on the field, off it, he was low-key, polite and team-oriented.
After graduating from high school, Little spent a year at Coffeyville Community College, which is located just north of the border separating Kansas from Oklahoma. Afterward, he moved on to the University of Tennessee to play football for the Volunteers.
Starting To Stand Out
At Tennessee, Little would be the antithesis of his surname once he got on the field. At 6-foot-3 and nearly 250 pounds, he possessed tremendous strength and power for a defensive end, but he was also fast, as he could run the 40-yard dash in less than 4.5 seconds.
As a sophomore, he had 62 tackles and 11 sacks, and the following year he tallied 33 tackles, 8.5 sacks, five tackles for losses, four forced fumbles and a blocked field goal in the first seven games of the season.
But then Little suffered a knee injury that sidelined him for the rest of the year. The ailment was so severe that it wasn’t a given that he would be able to continue to play, let alone at his accustomed level.
His mother, Wanda, would help out by making her way to campus from North Carolina to comfort him and pray with him. She reminded him to tackle his problems head-on, the same way he loved to tackle opposing quarterbacks on the gridiron.
Little worked hard to recover from his injury and get his body right by the spring. However, he faced a new challenge, as linebackers coach John Chavis wanted him to play middle linebacker, which would require him to focus on dropping back in pass coverage rather than on blitzing and pressuring QBs.
No problem. Little adjusted well to his new role, putting up 87 tackles while still managing 8.5 sacks in 1997, his senior season. He was showing so much promise that Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer said that he could be the best college football player in the nation.
This was some high praise, especially considering that the Volunteers also had a quarterback named Peyton Manning.
For Little, his most important priorities were god and football, in that order. He had put his spirituality to the side, to an extent, in order to progress as both an athlete and a student.
In 1998, he graduated from Tennessee with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and he set his sights on playing football in the NFL.
Moving On To St. Louis
Heading into the 1998 NFL Draft, some pro scouts weren’t sure if Little’s success as a Volunteer would translate neatly to the next level. In football jargon, he was known as a ‘tweener, as he wasn’t quite big enough to play defensive end in the NFL, but scouts weren’t sure if he could play middle linebacker either.
The first round of the draft went by without commissioner Paul Tagliabue announcing his name, and before long, Little thought maybe no one would pick him, and he wouldn’t get to accomplish his dream of playing pro football.
But in the third round, Dick Vermeil, the head coach of the St. Louis Rams, decided to pull the trigger and take Little with the 65th overall pick.
At the time, the Rams had been going through a drought that had lasted the entire decade of the 1990s. It had led to them relocating from Los Angeles, and Vermeil was looking to build a winner.
Little didn’t play much as a rookie, spending time mostly on special teams, but he was getting back to the type of life he had always envisioned, where religion came first. He was studious when it came to football, shunning opportunities to go out with his teammates to a bar or club, instead opting to study the Rams’ playbook and make sure he kept his body right.
However, one night, he relented, and it turned into a night where his life as he was coming to know it was in serious jeopardy.
On Oct. 19, 1998, Little was finally convinced to have some fun and some drinks with his teammates. After all, it was his 24th birthday, and he was entitled to play a little bit.
He joined his colleagues at a bar located inside a high-end hotel in downtown St. Louis. Little later said he had two or three alcoholic drinks that night and a man who witnessed him drinking backed up his account.
But the rookie didn’t drink much, and perhaps the drinks he had hit him a little harder than some others.
He could’ve booked a room at the hotel to stay there overnight – after all, he was an NFL player and could surely afford to do so – but instead, he decided to drive home.
Instead of making it home safely, he ran a red light, and his new Lincoln Navigator SUV collided with the Ford Thunderbird of Sue Gutweiler, a 47-year-old personnel assistant for a federal mapping agency.
She sustained severe head injuries and passed away the following day.
When police arrived on the scene, they noted that Little only had a faint scent of alcohol on his breath, and that his speech and motor skills were not markedly impaired. However, officers said he became belligerent, and a blood sample that he agreed to give them revealed his blood-alcohol level was .194, more than twice the legal limit.
Rams fans in the area were outraged when they heard of the incident. St. Louis is a city built upon traditional, Middle American values, and the thought of one of their heroes killing someone in a drunk driving incident was about the most unwholesome thing that could ever cross their minds.
Little didn’t play the rest of the season, and he would be placed on the non-football injury list. But the outrage was only beginning.
Months later, when he pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter, he was given a sentence of 90 nights in jail and 1,000 hours of community service. Many considered it a light slap on the wrist for an incident that took the life of an innocent, hard-working member of the community who was family-oriented and a devoted mother of a 15-year-old boy.
It didn’t matter that he felt great remorse and guilt for what he did, that he lost his appetite and 30 pounds or that he put in lots of time praying and reading his Bible in order to try to repent for his big act of indiscretion.
The NFL suspended Little for the first eight games of the 1999 season, and he realized that he was extremely fortunate that he not only got such a light sentence but that he would also be able to return to his profession, a profession that most men would give their pinky finger in order to have.
“I get down on my knees every day,” Little said months after the incident, “and I thank God that He gave me a chance to play this game I love.”
In the fall of 1999, Little was starting to chase away his demons, and so were the Rams.
The team had traded for superstar running back Marshall Faulk, one of the league’s first true dual-threat backs, and it hired Mike Martz to be its offensive coordinator.
Martz employed an Air Coryell-derived offensive scheme that would stretch the field and put massive pressure on defenses while taking advantage of the skills and talents of Faulk, as well as wide receivers Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Ricky Proehl.
The final piece fell into place through sheer serendipity. When starting quarterback Trent Green suffered a season-ending injury during the preseason, the Rams turned the keys over to Kurt Warner, a signal-caller who had almost no NFL experience.
Warner immediately became the league’s newest superstar, and the Rams became the biggest juggernaut anyone had seen in years, not just on offense but also on defense.
When Little returned to the team in late November, he still wasn’t getting tons of snaps, and he still spent most of his playing time on special teams.
But he contributed to St. Louis finishing 13-3 and ranking fourth in points allowed.
In the playoffs, the Rams flew past the high-powered Minnesota Vikings, then overpowered the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a team that was the antithesis of St. Louis in terms of style of play, in the NFC Championship Game.
In the Super Bowl, the Rams faced the Tennessee Titans, who were a worthy opponent by virtual of their identical 13-3 record. They jumped out to a 16-0 lead, but Tennessee fought back to tie the game in the fourth quarter.
After Bruce scored a touchdown to give the Rams a 23-16 advantage, the Titans had one final opportunity to tie or win the game. With six seconds left, they were on the Rams’ 10-yard line, and QB Steve McNair found wideout Kevin Dyson, who was stopped by St. Louis linebacker Mike Jones just shy of the goal line.
The play, known simply as “The Tackle,” gave the Rams the win, 23-16. Little was fortunate enough to be on the field and in the game for that historic play.
Most of the attention went to Warner, who had won regular season and Super Bowl MVP honors while completing the greatest Cinderella story in league history to that point. But it also marked the end of a journey for Little.
In less than 18 months, he had gone from becoming a pariah after killing a human being to becoming a world champion.
Emboldened, Little would start to take off in the 2000 season.
Martz, who was now the head coach of the Rams, started to play him at defensive end, his accustomed position while at Tennessee. He still wasn’t a starter, but Martz would put him in during certain situations, especially when it was certain that St. Louis’ opponent was going to pass the ball.
Little was now 20 pounds heavier and stronger, and he recorded five sacks and 26 tackles (21 solo) that year.
However, the Rams won only three of their final eight games. Although they were tops in points and total yards, they finished dead-last in points allowed.
After winning 10 games, which seemed anemic compared to what they did the year before, they ended up losing in the wild card round of the playoffs to the New Orleans Saints.
Little continued his ascent in 2001, recording 14.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss. With his help, the Rams regained the defensive prowess they showed during their championship season by finishing seventh in points allowed and third in yards allowed.
Armed with a 14-2 record, St. Louis went into the playoffs looking to win its second championship in three years. It reached the Super Bowl again, but it fell to the New England Patriots and sports’ newest Cinderella hero, quarterback Tom Brady, in a contest that was decided by an Adam Vinatieri field goal at the end.
By now, Little was a star. Management gave him a five-year contract worth $17.5 million, as well as the starting left defensive end position.
He reciprocated by compiling 12 sacks, nine forced fumbles, which led the league, and 10 tackles for loss in 2002. Most notably, he had developed a knack for stripping the football from opposing quarterbacks.
Leonard Little was most certainly a nightmare for Matt Hasselbeck. Little was a master at forcing fumbles as well! My favorite pass rusher growing up pic.twitter.com/XoTE3EagDn
— RAMS ON FILM (@RamsOnFilm) January 21, 2021
In Week 17 versus the San Francisco 49ers, who would finish first in the NFC West, Little dominated with two sacks, four solo tackles and three forced fumbles in a 31-20 victory.
Unfortunately, the Rams’ fortunes were declining. Warner suffered a broken finger that would mark the beginning of the end of his Rams tenure, and there went their dominance.
They finished just 7-9 that year and missed the playoffs, but in Little, they had found a new foundational piece for the future and present.
Little reached his zenith in 2003. He put up 12.5 sacks, an NFL-high six forced fumbles and 10 tackles for loss while helping the Rams bounce back to finish 12-4.
For his efforts, Little was named to both the Pro Bowl and the All-Pro First-Team for the first time.
Of note was St. Louis’ Week 13 contest versus the Minnesota Vikings, where he had four sacks, two forced fumbles and two tackles for loss. He even caused the Vikings’ right tackles to be called for four penalties while attempting in vain to block him.
The Rams won, 48-17, and Minnesota offensive coordinator Scott Linehan remarked that Little “wrecked the game plan, just wrecked it.”
Their hopes were higher than they had been in two years, but they fell to the Carolina Panthers in a double-overtime divisional-round playoff game, 29-23.
Even though Little had largely moved on from his drunk-driving incident, he still couldn’t keep his name off the police blotter.
Early in 2003, he was arrested on charges stemming from some threats and harassing phone calls he allegedly made to his ex-girlfriend. He exited jail after posting bond.
Just over a year later, Little again took the wheel while drunk. An officer with the Ladue Police Department detained him for allegedly going 78 miles per hour in a 55-mile-an-hour zone. Police noted that his eyes were bloodshot and watery and that he had the scent of alcohol.
Little failed three roadside sobriety tests and was arrested. After he posted bond, prosecutors wanted to pursue a felony charge on him, citing his past troubles.
Instead, he got another big break, as he was acquitted of driving while intoxicated and convicted only of speeding, which was a misdemeanor. Little was sentenced to two years of probation and was forbidden from consuming any alcoholic beverages during that time.
On the field, it seemed like he was perhaps in slow decline.
In 2004, opponents more and more took to double-teaming Little, knowing what an immense pass-rush threat he was. As a result, he only had seven sacks that year, his lowest such output in four years.
But he still had a fine season overall with 38 solo tackles and seven tackles for loss. He also recovered four fumbles, two of which he returned for touchdowns. It was the first time he had ever scored a touchdown in the NFL.
Unfortunately, Warner was long gone, and the Rams won just eight games and got blown out in the divisional round of the playoffs by the Atlanta Falcons.
After 2004, the team would go into another long drought, while Little would deal with more adversity off the field, but this time of a different sort.
He got off to a stout start in 2005, getting four sacks in St. Louis’ first six games, including an amazing performance in the season opener against the 49ers with two sacks, four solo tackles and two forced fumbles.
But on Oct. 18, just a day shy of his 31st birthday, Little’s brother Jermaine was murdered in Tennessee following a dispute over $500, and his play suffered for the rest of the season.
He still finished the year with 9.5 sacks, 11 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles and two recovered fumbles.
During the 2006 campaign, Little bounced back with 13 sacks, which was second in the conference, plus 24 QB hits, 14 tackles for loss and six forced fumbles. He was given a three-year, $19.5 million contract extension for his efforts, and he was also named as a Pro Bowl alternate for the second year in a row.
Little was limited to just seven games in 2007 due to turf toe. As a result, he had his worst statistical season since 1999.
With the Rams looking to trim their payroll, he agreed to a restructuring of his contract so that he could remain with the team.
He was hampered by a hamstring injury in 2008, and although he only missed two games, he only started in five and was demoted to more of a situational defensive end.
Little had one last show of strength in 2009, recording 6.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss and 16 quarterback hits in 13 games (he sat out two contests with a knee injury).
In Week 6 versus the Jacksonville Jaguars, he made only the second interception of his career and ran it back for a touchdown. Said Greg Cosell of NFL.com about the play, “Little 36-yard interception return TD was an unbelievable read by Little. He read the flare action by [running back Maurice] Jones-Drew and the throw by [QB David] Garrard— a spectacular individual play.”
“What a play by 91! Oh, mercy, was that a play!"
— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) December 1, 2021
During the 2009 campaign, Little talked about perhaps retiring at the end of the season. The New Orleans Saints, who had just won the Super Bowl, invited him to meet with them during the offseason, but he canceled the meeting, and in December of that year, he announced his retirement.
To this day, many feel that Little still carries the stench that came with committing manslaughter in 1998.
But it hasn’t prevented him from giving back to society.
Over the years, he has spoken to high school students about the deadly, mistaken choice he made that night in an effort to prevent more drunk driving incidents. He also started a reading program in Wellston, a suburb of St. Louis, and was rewarded with the key to the city as a result.
Little was also given the Ed Block award, which is voted on by fellow NFL players to reward sportsmanship and courage.
In April 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic started to ravage the nation in more ways than one, Little decided to donate $10,000 to the Asheville, N.C. chapter of Meals on Wheels so that it could ensure the elderly individuals in the community would be properly fed.
The organization helped out his grandmother during her final years before she died in 2004, and it seemed just right that Little was giving back to it after it had assisted his family.
“I really want to shed light on these organizations like Meals on Wheels that give back to the community in this time of need,” Little said. “They are here to help where others can’t, and it’s up to us to help them where we can.”
Society can label Little a murderer all it wants, but he will keep going carrying deep remorse in his heart and looking to rectify his wrongdoings as much as he can.