Heads whirled and eyes popped when a scruffy-faced giant ambled
into a training room at the Astrodome on Feb. 21 and started
working out. Tony Boselli, a five-time Pro Bowl tackle with the
Jacksonville Jaguars, was all business on the morning after
becoming the Houston Texans' first selection in the expansion
draft. He not only quizzed trainers and grimaced through an
assortment of stretches and strengthening exercises designed to
rehab his two surgically repaired shoulders, but he also found
time to flash his familiar, ultraconfident grin. No one would
have guessed that when he arrived in Houston earlier that week he
had looked so somber that his wife, Angi, had wondered, Who died?
Boselli soon put aside his sadness over leaving Jacksonville, his
home for the last seven years, and focused on living up to the
Texans' high expectations of him. "We all thought, Boselli is
here working out already?" recalls team owner Bob McNair. "I was
impressed. He was going through a big change, but he also wanted
to get started in the right direction."
Boselli saw no reason to waste any time. At 30, he has something
to prove. Widely regarded as the best tackle in football during
his early years with the Jaguars, he has been plagued by injuries
for the last five seasons. He missed four games in '97 with a
high right ankle sprain, sat out the playoffs at the end of the
1999 season after tearing the ACL in his right knee, and missed
13 games last year with torn labrums in both shoulders. Now
Houston is looking for Boselli to be a cornerstone of its
franchise, just as the expansion Jaguars did in 1995, when they
made him their first college draft choice. The Texans will absorb
a hefty $7.55 million hit on their salary cap this season to
account for his $4 million salary and a portion of the signing
bonus from the four-year, $26 million extension he signed with
Jacksonville in 1999. While Houston can afford such an outlay in
its inaugural season, the investment will look foolish if
injuries again sideline Boselli.
"I know there are questions," Boselli says. "That doubt gives me
extra motivation, but it won't be my only reason for working
hard. I'll work hard whether people believe in me or not."
The Texans' goal is for Boselli to play three seasons, thereby
fulfilling the remainder of his contract. Before Houston selected
Boselli, general manager Charley Casserly got assurances from two
doctors about the health of the 6'7", 320-pound tackle, whose
shoulders were operated on last fall. "This wasn't a 50-50
proposition," says Casserly. "Tony was guaranteed $4 million this
season, so we weren't going to risk that kind of money without
being sure of what we were getting." In 2000 Boselli proved he
could come back from serious injury, making the Pro Bowl 11
months after his knee surgery. Says Tennessee Titans general
manager Floyd Reese, "It's tough for some older guys with his
size to shake the injury bug, but there's probably nobody better
to take a risk on."
"If Tony can block the guy in front of him without help, that's
all we want," Casserly says. "He won't be content unless he's the
best left tackle in football, but he doesn't have to be that for
us to be happy."
Boselli's football activity remains limited. On April 29 he
underwent minor arthroscopic surgery on his left shoulder to
remove excess scar tissue and increase his range of motion. He
expects to be at full strength for training camp in July. "We
always saw the goal as having Tony ready for the opener, and that
meant having him back at some point in training camp," says
Casserly. "That's still our plan."
A humble, intense workaholic who speaks his mind and can rally
teammates around him, Boselli will make life easier for rookie
quarterback David Carr, the first pick in the college draft, and
the Texans' running backs. As a run blocker, Boselli uses his
massive frame and his surly streak to dominate at the point of
attack. He's even more impressive in pass protection, drawing on
his intelligence to cut off opponents' rushing angles, his
agility and balance to compensate for any mistakes, and his
massive wingspan to ward off defenders.
"He doesn't let pass rushers get close to him," says Pittsburgh
Steelers defensive coordinator Tim Lewis. "He just blocks them
out, and they can't use their moves against him. It's like when
you used to hold on to your younger brother's head and let him
punch at you while holding him at bay."
When he joined Jacksonville out of Southern Cal as the second
pick in the '95 draft, Boselli says he was "just hoping to not
get run over." But in his second season he made the Pro Bowl and
helped Jacksonville reach the AFC Championship Game. Recalling
Boselli's dominating performance in a wild-card playoff win over
the Buffalo Bills that season, Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin says,
"I can still see a counter play where he took Bruce Smith [the
Bills' perennial Pro Bowl defensive end] and put him on his back
in the end zone." Reese says that from the day Boselli entered
the league, he "was very strong and had tremendous size, a nasty
temperament, great feet and an understanding of the business. It
was child's play for Tony if you weren't rushing a top-caliber
defensive end against him."
Early on Boselli also assumed a leadership role, speaking his
mind at team meetings and making inspirational speeches when the
need arose. "Everything he does is about winning," says Coughlin.
"He plays hard and physically, and he puts pressure on others to
perform the same way."
Even after his body failed him again last season, Boselli never
thought about calling it quits. But with both shoulders injured
(he tore the left labrum during the 1999 season, the right early
in 2001), he became a liability. Tennessee defensive end Kevin
Carter bull-rushed Boselli in one game, driving him into
quarterback Mark Brunell. In another game Seattle Seahawks
linebacker Chad Brown raced around Boselli for a sack,
astonishing Jacksonville coaches. "It was obvious that he wasn't
the same player," says Baltimore Ravens vice president of player
personnel Ozzie Newsome.
Even simple tasks became a struggle. Brushing his teeth was
torture. He was so uncomfortable in bed that he had trouble
sleeping. "He would play in a game and he couldn't lift his arms
when he got home," Angi says. "But he's so stubborn that he
wouldn't tell anyone. He thought he was letting the team down.
He couldn't lift his children [the Bosellis have two sons, ages
3 and 2, and a six-month-old daughter], yet he wanted to play
against 350-pound men."
"I just didn't have the strength to defend myself on the field,"
Boselli says. "It got to the point where everyone was saying I
was hurting myself, and I had to listen."
He didn't think life could get much worse than going on injured
reserve last October and watching Jacksonville finish 6-10. Then,
on a sunny Saturday morning in mid-January, Coughlin trudged up
Boselli's driveway, called his star tackle out on the porch and
talked about the Jaguars' salary-cap woes. (Jacksonville was
about $23 million over the cap at the time.) When Tony walked
back inside, Angi says, "He looked like he had seen a ghost."
"It was difficult because I've always tried to be loyal and I
believe players should spend their careers with one team,"
Boselli says. "I wanted to stay in Jacksonville, but I was
reminded that this is a business."
Owner Wayne Weaver says Jacksonville left Boselli exposed in the
draft purely for financial reasons. "It was the toughest decision
I've ever been a part of with this franchise, but you've got to
bite the bullet somewhere," says Weaver. Others close to the
situation, however, say Boselli's injuries were a central factor
in the decision. "Tony hadn't practiced much in two years," says
one Jaguars source. "The team kept saying he's better than anyone
even if he's only 75 or 80 percent, but the percentages kept
Boselli, one of Jacksonville's most popular athletes, reveals his
disappointment mostly through humor now. Between bites of a ham
sandwich, he joked recently about being the only player chosen
first by two expansion teams. When told that the distinction
proves his value, Boselli chuckled. "It means you have value the
first time," he says. "The second time, it means you're valued by
the new team, not the old one." Still, he sees plenty of
potential with the Texans. "We have far more talent than we had
in Jacksonville my rookie year," he says. "We could have a
quality team if we communicate."
Houston coach Dom Capers and offensive coordinator Chris Palmer
agree. They worked in Jacksonville as assistants and have been
head coaches of other expansion teams (Capers with the Carolina
Panthers, Palmer with the Cleveland Browns). They could have had
Jaguars defensive end Tony Brackens or cornerback Aaron Beasley,
both of whom Jacksonville offered to place on the expansion list,
according to Jaguars sources. But Capers and Palmer knew the kind
of leadership Boselli would bring to the Texans. "Tony was the
guy who told people how things were going to be in Jacksonville,"
says Texans defensive tackle Seth Payne, another Jacksonville cap
casualty. "Once he's ready to play, he'll be the leader here,
extra motivation, but it won't be my only reason for working