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Titanic Force

Nov. 10, 2008
Nov. 10, 2008

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Nov. 10, 2008

SI Players: LIFE ON AND OFF THE FIELD
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Titanic Force

In the two years since Tennessee tackle Albert Haynesworth's infamous face stomp, he has tempered his rage, ramped up the energy and become the game's most dominant defensive player

HE USUALLY wentthere first thing in the morning, pulling into the parking lot of a two-storymedical building on the fringe of downtown Nashville and making his way toSuite 200. Early in the day there were fewer people on the street, less chanceof a 6'6", 320-pound defensive tackle being noticed walking into apsychologist's office. ¶ This was where the Tennessee Titans' AlbertHaynesworth attended counseling sessions two years ago, during a five-gamesuspension issued by the NFL after he stomped on the head of a helmetlessDallas Cowboys center Andre Gurode, creating a gash that required 30 stitchesto close. This was where Haynesworth was shielded from the outrage of theopinion pages and the talk-radio banter and the editorial cartoons, like theone that depicted two eyes, a tongue and a row of teeth attached to hiscleats.

This is an article from the Nov. 10, 2008 issue

These days beingin the spotlight is easier for Haynesworth. Time, All-Pro-caliber play and theTitans' 8--0 record will do that. But every so often he will be taken back tothat October 2006 game against Dallas. "Sometimes you still hear, 'Oh, hehit that guy in the head,'" Haynesworth says. He tries to let it roll offhis back, but there are occasions when he wishes he could escape the notorietyand even the celebrity. "Sometimes I think about it, but this comes withthe territory. If you want to be Superman out there on the field, you have tobe Superman off the field."

No otherdefensive tackle has dominated in the last two seasons the way Haynesworth has.At a position that traditionally has been the home of space-eating 350-poundrun stoppers or fleet 280-pound pass rushers, he combines the strengths of bothand has the weaknesses of neither. Haynesworth is the anchor of coordinator JimSchwartz's 4--3 defense and the key to Tennessee's quick start, with six sacks(one fewer than Minnesota Vikings pass-rush specialist Jared Allen) and 29tackles (sixth in the NFL among interior linemen). And to hear his coaches,teammates and Haynesworth himself tell it, he hasn't played his best footballyet.

"The big deal[around the league] right now is having that 340-pounder who can explode offthe ball—that's what coaches are trying to develop," says Titans centerKevin Mawae, who faces Haynesworth in practice. "Albert's a huge guy, buthe's also one of the quickest guys off the ball. A lot of times when you playagainst a defense, you just scheme against their scheme. Then there are timeswhen you have to scheme against individual players. Albert's one of those guys.Teams just don't like to play against him." And Tennessee raises itsopponents' anxiety level by moving Haynesworth to different spots along theline on passing downs.

In fact, the moretimes Haynesworth can collapse a pocket or disrupt a running play with hissize, strength and speed, the better the Titans will be. "We try to funnelstuff back to him, to keep him alive on every single play," Schwartz says."Albert's not a one-trick pony. He's not the guy who can't rush—the guy anoffensive lineman can't move off the line of scrimmage, but he can't move offthe line of scrimmage himself. Albert is a big man who can do a lot, and thoseguys are extremely valuable."

Schwartz says hechuckles every spring when the media's mock draft boards are heavy on widereceivers and light on defensive linemen. "It should be the other wayaround," he says. "General managers, head coaches, position coaches,coordinators—we all know how important those guys are and how hard they are tofind."

HAYNESWORTH'SPATH to the NFL began at Hartsville (S.C.) High, where he developed areputation as a fierce pass rusher—and as a player who lacked discipline.Though he helped his team reach the state 4A championship game his juniorseason, his play tailed off as a senior. "He was never really a bad personin the school, he just didn't reach his full potential as a student or aplayer," says Lewis Lineberger, Haynesworth's former high school coach."He went to summer school between his junior and senior years and didn'twork out like he had before. He put on some weight, and things started kind oftough for us. I think he pretty much had a scholarship wrapped up, andsometimes people like that play not to get hurt."

Haynesworth'sspotty record continued at Tennessee, and with the Titans, who drafted him atNo. 15 as a junior in 2002. With the Vols in 2000 he got into an altercationwith a teammate during practice, walked off the field, then returned swinging ametal pole before coach Phillip Fulmer intervened. At Titans training camp in2003 he kicked center Justin Hartwig in the chest during a scuffle.

In Haynesworth'sfirst few years in the pros, he became known for picking up minor injuries and,even when healthy, needing rest on the sideline during games. That led to anunflattering nickname in the locker room. "A lot of people used to call himTwo Plays," says safety Chris Hope. "He'd give us two plays, and thenhe was done."

It took theGurode incident for Haynesworth to get noticed outside of Tennessee, albeit forthe wrong reason. Though in the days after the incident he apologized to theCowboys center and called his own actions "despicable," Haynesworth wasswiftly and severely punished by the league, receiving the longest suspensionfor an on-field altercation in NFL history. The Titans also assigned himsessions with Dr. Sheila Peters, a clinical psychologist on the faculty at FiskUniversity. (Through the league's player development department, players arematched with therapists and counselors to deal with anger management and otheroff-the-field issues when needed. Peters has also met with quarterback VinceYoung, among other Titans.)

During hissuspension, which began in October 2006, Haynesworth met with Peters for onehour a week at her office. Though bound by doctor-patient privilege not toreveal the content of her sessions, Peters says she tries to provide anenvironment for people to examine and discuss elements of their lives that theywish to improve. "Certainly, if you watch television or listen to any ofthe call-in shows, you hear people saying, 'Why did they do that?'" Peterssays. "I try to stay away from that so I can be more objective."

Haynesworth sayshe used the sessions to unburden himself about the daily pressures of being aprofessional athlete. "It gave me a chance to open up; everybody hasproblems," says Haynesworth, who acknowledges now that his behavior issueson and off the field were a hindrance to him personally and professionally."An injury or [the Gurode incident] or whatever—there was always somethinghindering me from reaching my full potential. You have to adjust. I have afamily. I have three young kids who look up to me. You have to present yourselfwell." (His wife, Stephanie, with whom he has two children, filed fordivorce last spring.)

While Peters wasworking with Haynesworth to sort out his emotions, Chuck Smith, a formerTennessee Volunteer and Atlanta Falcons defensive lineman, invited him toGeorgia for some physical conditioning, defensive schooling and friendlycounseling. "I saw a guy who was at the crossroads," Smith says. "Isensed fear. He was nervous. I had to give him the professional business, the'Albert, you did a terrible thing. It was weak of you to step on Gurode'shead.' I chastised him like he was a little brother."

Smith also taughthim pass-rushing techniques such as head fakes, rip moves, club moves,spins—tactics Haynesworth could use to punish offensive linemen within therules of the game. "He taught me the art of pass rushing, how to look athands and be more in control," says Haynesworth. "You can set a guy upand bust a move. It's a game of chess, really, and he'll tell youthat."

Says Smith,"Give credit to the player. In a day when we have all these knuckleheadswho say they're going to change, say they're going to improve themselves, givehim credit. We're all flawed. We all make mistakes. But the key is how yourespond."

TO BE sure,Haynesworth has not suddenly become a total angel on the field—nor do histeammates want him to. It's more about keeping his head amid the chaos. "Idon't think he's changed his attitude," Hope says. "He just plays tothe whistle. Everything is still aggressive, still nasty."

Says Schwartz,"Football is a violent game played by violent people. You have to have thatin you to be able to compete on the field. But you also have to be smart enoughto know that it's between the lines and between the whistles. He's done a much,much better job in that regard."

Since returningfrom his suspension, Haynesworth has received mostly accolades—his first ProBowl and All-Pro selections last season, the AFC's defensive player of themonth award for September 2008. After being tagged as Tennessee's franchiseplayer this season, Haynesworth is on track to reach playing incentives thatwill make him an unrestricted free agent and likely the most coveted player onthe market in 2009. "Teams that are serious about winning will takehim—it's that simple," says one NFL personnel director. "There areselect teams that will stay away from him, but if Tank Johnson can get signedby somebody, I'm sure he will too."

"I would liketo [stay with the Titans], but that contract stuff will have to work out,"says Haynesworth. "If it doesn't, I guess I have to prepare to goelsewhere. This is my first choice, but it's not my only choice."

In the meantimethere are offensive linemen to blow past and quarterbacks to chase and runningbacks to smother. Haynesworth says that at the snap of the ball, he is onlythinking about two things: moving fast and working his arms. "It's beengetting better and better every year," he says. "At one point the gamewas in fast-forward. Two or three years later it slowed to play [mode]. Now,it's almost like slow motion. In a couple more years, I'll be like theMatrix."

The best at hisposition will suffice.

Says Haynesworth of his new outlook, "If you wantto be SUPERMAN out on the field, you have to be Superman off it."
PHOTOPhotograph by Bob RosatoSTILL A LITTLE NASTY Aggressive but more inclined to play to the whistle, Haynesworth has been crucial to Tennessee's scorching start.PHOTOPhotograph by Bob RosatoMASS APPEAL Huge and nimble, Haynesworth excels at disrupting plays, creating chances for fellow defenders.PHOTOPhotograph by Bob Rosato[See caption above]