Monday, December 17, 2007
By Tim Struby
Joseph Addai is a true workhorse.
It's a mild Sunday afternoon in Indianapolis, 40 minutes before kickoff of the biggest game of the year, and Colts running back Joseph Addai stands alone. Well, not technically alone. There are the 57,000-plus fans in the RCA Dome, plus 106 other players, not to mention cheerleaders, coaches, vendors and throngs of media types—all here for Patriots vs. Colts.
Addai walks to the 5-yard line, a good 20 paces from where any of his teammates are contorting on the turf. No. 29 plants his compact, 5'11", 214-pound body on the field, chomps some gum and stretches his anaconda-thick neck. The high-wattage sound system has turned the Dome into a particle accelerator, but Addai's broad face remains cool and placid. There he is, about to validate a lifetime of perseverance, a lifetime of playing in the shadows of others, and the 24-year-old acts as if it's no big deal.
But maybe it isn't so daunting. After all, a football weighs less than a pound. And Addai's got someone in the stands to help him carry it.
EIGHT YEARS EARLIER, a thousand miles away, a Friday night in September. Sharpstown is playing Westbury for supremacy of the Houston Independent High School League. Three of Sharpstown's junior stars—quarterback Joseph Addai, wide receiver and cornerback Marcus Alexander and safety LaJuan Moore—are also inseparable friends. Moore is the lady-killer, Alexander the playful one, Addai the quiet-unless-you-know-him type. They do everything together. They swim in the pool at the Creekbend Apartments, where Addai lives with his mom, Joyce, older sister, Josephine, and younger brothers, Derrick and Jeffrey. They go to the dollar movies. They even orchestrate their own extra football practices. "We were like the three amigos," Addai says. "We could finish each other's sentences."
Their bond is cruelly tested that Friday night. From the sideline, Addai hears the collision. He isn't the only one. There are 7,000-plus fans, other players, cheerleaders, referees and members of the school bands who also hear the crunch as Moore sweeps across the Butler Stadium field into the Westbury tight end. A clean hit. A typical LaJuan hit. But Moore knows something is wrong immediately. "No," he says when a teammate offers to help him up. "Not this time."
Addai runs onto the field. Standing over his friend's motionless body, he prays. He watches paramedics take Moore to Memorial Hermann Hospital. Later, in the emergency room, Addai breaks down and cries for the first time in his life. Moore, paralyzed from the chest down, will never walk again.
ADDAI HAD ALWAYS been a good kid, only a bit too carefree. He knew he wanted to play football at Texas, but beyond that he thought little about his future—and spoke of it even less. He just wanted to hang out with his boys. "We wondered what he planned to do with his life," says Josephine. "Then the accident woke him up."
Addai no longer missed a minute of the SAT prep course for which he'd regularly been late. He and Alexander tried to spend every spare second with Moore, cracking jokes, staying positive. "I was ready to stop playing football," says Alexander, now an assistant manager at a Houston Home Depot. "But Joe insisted that we couldn't let LaJuan see us down. Joe kept us together." With Addai's encouragement, Moore was back in school four months after the accident and graduated on time with his friends.
Meanwhile, Addai, a lefty, option-style QB, blew up on the field. During his junior season, in 1999, he won District Offensive MVP over Vince Young from nearby Madison High. He lost out to Young as a senior, but his 1,429 rushing yards and 26 TDs convinced recruiters he could star as a tailback at the next level. Letters poured in from powerhouses like Nebraska, Oklahoma and, yes, Texas. But tragedy can change a young man's perspective. "Texas had been my first choice," Addai says. "But after the accident, I wanted to experience something else, learn more about life."
Addai decided the best place to do that was at LSU. Baton Rouge was four hours away—close enough for hometown visitors, but far enough away to serve as exotic. He had only one request for the Tigers: a wheelchair-accessible room.
During Moore's game-weekend visits (he'd drive out with Addai's siblings), he needed little introduction. Addai bragged about his friend every chance he got. "When I showed up on campus, everyone knew my name," Moore says with a smile. The two bunked together. They went to parties together. They spent Sunday nights watching their favorite show, Family Guy.
Addai says having Moore around helped him feel at home at LSU, even as he began to feel lost on the field. He sat out his first season, in 2001, due to a high school knee injury, then played sparingly as a redshirt freshman. He won the starting job as a sophomore, but when he missed most of October with a sprained MCL, freshman Justin Vincent stole his spot. Next season brought more disappointment. Addai led the team with 6.7 yards per carry, but stuck in a job share (with Alley Broussard and Vincent), he didn't start a single game and ran the ball only 101 times.
Through all of his struggles, Addai could have whined or grumbled about transferring. He never did. Instead, he thought of his friend. "With what LaJuan has been through," he says, "why should I complain?"
Addai finally broke out during his senior year. The fumble-prone Vincent fell out of favor, and Broussard injured his knee in the preseason. Addai ascended to the starting role and posted quality numbers: 911 yards on 187 carries, nine touchdowns. Of course, no one mistook him for the star of the Tigers' show—that role belonged to quarterback JaMarcus Russell. But when a separated shoulder sidelined Russell for the Peach Bowl, it was Addai who stepped up with a 130-yard, 2-TD performance in LSU's 40-3 blowout of Miami. "Joe had never been one to win fans or friends with his mouth," says LSU coach Les Miles. "But in the Miami game, he didn't have to. He went out on the first play and ran for about 10 yards. He simply led by example."
MOST SUNDAYS, LaJUAN MOORE watches Addai's Colts games in his bedroom. On the walls hang his old Sharpstown team portrait, glossy magazine girls and an autographed picture of Dolphins cornerback Travis Daniels, with whom he palled around at last year's Super Bowl. A collection of pill bottles sits atop his bedside table. The plasma TV perched on his dresser was a gift from a certain former teammate.
LaJuan's mom, Charlotte, looks after him at their three-bedroom house in Southeast Houston. He receives state aid, and Addai is working to set up a trust fund for his friend. Although Moore will never again walk and has limited use of his arms—enough to steer his wheelchair—he is quick to laugh or talk football with friends, who call constantly on his cell.
On the Sunday of November's Patriots-Colts game, though, Moore catches the action from a spot directly behind the home team's bench. It's Moore's first-ever visit to Indianapolis, and sitting in his motorized wheelchair, he wears his customary gameday outfit: gold chains, baggy jeans, backward baseball cap and No. 29 Colts jersey.
When the 25-year-old Moore smiles, a gold grill peeks out from his bottom row of teeth. As the game begins, Moore smiles often. From his first touch, Addai begins slicing up the Pats defense—an eight-yard catch here, a first-down run there. At the close of the second quarter, with his team down 7-6, Addai slips into the flat, grabs a pass and jukes his way down the left side of the field 73 yards for the score. Winded, Addai celebrates with his teammates for a moment. Then he makes another jaunt, this time over to LaJuan, to whom he delivers his TD ball.
That turns out to be the high point of the day for Addai and the Colts. But even though Indy ends up losing 24-20, Addai has eliminated any holes from the case for his being a headline talent. In fact, with 112 yards rushing and 114 receiving, he becomes the first Colt ever to top 100 yards in both categories in a single game.
Clearly, Indianapolis chose wisely when it made Addai the 30th overall selection of the 2006 draft. Despite his limited exposure at LSU, he impressed scouts with his polished, all-around game. Then, at the NFL combine, he blew everyone away by finishing first among backs with a 38.5-inch vertical and second to Maurice Jones-Drew with a 4.4 in the 40.
Yet the Colts made Addai their first-round pick as much for who he is as for what he does. "I can't even remember any of his particular college games," says Indy running backs coach Gene Huey. "But when we met him, he wasn't brash or overflowing with confidence. We found a serious young man." In other words, someone who could handle the challenge of taking over for the departed Edgerrin James.
It's easy to assume that you can plug almost any running back into Indy's juggernaut of an offense and he'd put up big numbers. Reality is, like James before him, Addai possesses a hard-to-find mixture of talent, brains and temperament, without which he'd be doomed to fail. Because the Colts rarely use a fullback, Addai has to find and hit holes without a lead blocker. In the team's pass-protection schemes, he often has to decide in an instant whether to pick up a blitzing linebacker or to peel off and become a safety valve as a receiver. Then there are the team's phone-book-size playbook and all of Peyton Manning's endless improvisations. "It's like learning three languages," says backup running back Kenton Keith. "You've got to know the audibles, then the code words, then the code words to the code words." Did we mention that the Colts love to take advantage of Addai's soft hands on short curls and wheel routes?
Overwhelmed by all his responsibilities as a rookie, Addai struggled to harmonize right away, hitting his holes too early, not letting open spaces develop. But he responded exactly as you would expect: He quizzed Manning about the codes, veteran running back Dominic Rhodes about how to read his blocks, and his linemen about those blitz pickups. A wiser, more patient Addai found his groove by midseason, then exploded in the playoffs: 122 yards in a wild-card win over the Chiefs, 56 yards and the deciding touchdown in the Colts' AFC title game upset of the Patriots, and 133 total yards on 19 carries and a record-tying 10 catches in Super Bowl XLI. Says center Jeff Saturday: "He's as good as he is because he asks so many questions."
When the Colts let Rhodes walk in the off-season, the message was clear: Their backfield belonged to Addai. He has more than rewarded that faith. Despite missing the Colts' Week 5 win over Tampa Bay, Addai is third in the NFL with nine rushing TDs. He's rung up 943 yards on the ground and another 269 through the air. More critically, ever since that Patriots loss, he's been a stabilizing force for an offense that suddenly looked just a bit shaky. While Manning has thrown nine picks in four games, and Reggie Wayne has dropped a handful of key passes and Marvin Harrison has been sidelined by a bruised left knee, Addai continues to grind out the yards. Fumbles? Not one—all season.
But as Addai plays his leading role, he makes a point of staying real. He checks in on his brother Derrick, a freshman defensive back with Kentucky State, every day. When he visits Houston, he stays with his family. He goes out with his boys, occasionally clubbing downtown, but he comes back to his bed every night. He does his own laundry. He drops in on Alexander, now a father of three. And of course, he makes sure his other amigo is smiling.
Thirty minutes after the last whistle of the Patriots game, LaJuan greeted Addai with a smile. Side by side, they headed down a tunnel toward the exit.
"Good game," said LaJuan, still holding Addai's touchdown football in his lap.
"Appreciate it, dawg," Addai replied. "You guys have fun?"
"Yeah. We sure enjoyed ourselves."
The two made their way outside, into the cool Indianapolis night air.
"Why are you limping?" asked LaJuan.
"My knee," Addai replied, revealing a bag of ice wrapped around his leg, sore from a hard day's work. Then he shrugged, much like he shrugs whenever LaJuan asks him if something is wrong. Injuries, learning a playbook, fighting for a starting job—to Addai, none of his struggles are a big deal.
And he has all the help he needs.