- Seth Wickersham, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's Jan. 15, 2007, issue. Subscribe today!
CAN SOMEBODY tell him why he's alone?
That's all he wants as he sits in front of his locker, still wearing his uniform, the navy-blue polyester caked in dirt, the bottom of his right cleat stained with another man's blood. His heart is racing, his head is spinning, his breathing shallow. He looks around at all the empty lockers. Where are his teammates? Where are the coaches? And where, he thinks as he looks down near his feet, is his phone?
He digs through the piles of clothes and tape and towels and shoes, his hands still wrapped in lineman's gloves. He fishes it out, and his meaty thumbs feverishly tap the keypad, but not to dial a call or send a text message. He's in search of more than a number. With a few more shaky taps, it appears on the screen: a photo of his three kids, Aivery, Alanie and Ahsharri, ages 5 months to 5 years. He stares at the image for a moment, and as their innocence stares back, his head stops spinning and he begins to make sense of why he's in here. And what happened out there.
He looks at the wall, at the muted television. That's him on the screen, hovering over a fallen opponent. That's his right foot, in slow motion, striking a man's unguarded head. That's him, disgraced.
Oh God, he thinks, how could I have done that?
Albert Haynesworth, sitting alone at his locker, sweat dribbling down his face, doesn't have the slightest clue. He doesn't even know how to make sure he'll never do it again.
YOU SAW it, didn't you?
Everyone did. When Haynesworth, a Titans defensive tackle, twice dropped his foot on the helmetless head of Cowboys center Andre Gurode on Oct. 1, he did more damage than the 30 stitches on his victim's forehead could repair. He shocked us. He scared us. He reminded us that the men we cheer for are capable of atrocity, even when all of us are watching.
As Haynesworth leans back in a recliner in his suburban Nashville home on this November night, having served three games of a five-game suspension, you'd expect him to be a portrait of shame, reticent to delve into his own disgrace. But he's eerily open, eerily sincere, eerily at ease. In the weeks since he disgraced himself, Haynesworth says he has learned to enjoy his weekly NFL-mandated therapy sessions with Dr. Sheila Peters, an assistant professor of psychology at Nashville's Fisk University. Through Peters, he's learned how to mine the depths of his psyche and to accept who he is so he can begin to search for an understanding of why he completely lost control.
With a dreamlike glow in his eyes, Haynesworth rewinds to before his infamous explosion. He says his fuse had been lit by a seemingly forgettable play in the second quarter, a third-and-four at the Tennessee 7-yard line (see page 55). He is careful to say the play is not an excuse for his action but that it serves nonetheless as the beginning of an explanation of what happened next.
"I was rushing against the guard, engaging him," he begins. At the snap, Haynesworth says, he was being blocked by Cowboys left guard Kyle Kosier when Gurode ducked and launched his 312 pounds at Haynesworth's surgically repaired left knee. "Next thing I know, I'm lying on my back," he continues.
When Haynesworth got up, he felt little pain -- his knee had barely been nicked -- but the cut block's obvious intent struck him as a blow beyond the bounds of a football field. "It felt like a violation, an assault," he says, "the kind that might end your career." After pulling himself to his feet, he faced Gurode head-on.
"What's up with that?" Haynesworth screamed. "Why can't you block me like a man?"
"I'm gonna put your ass out," Haynesworth heard from somewhere on the other side.
"And that's what really set me off," he says now. The threat, even more than the block, sent him into a boiling rage. The next 35 minutes or so were a blur -- halftime, the kickoff, the Titans' series, the two plays it took Dallas to get into scoring position, the continued trash-talking. All the while, Haynesworth's anger was growing more intense. Four minutes into the quarter, after a five-yard touchdown run by Julius Jones, Haynesworth saw Gurode on the ground, his helmet knocked off. Anger met opportunity, and suddenly, there was clarity.
"It was almost in slow motion, a flash," he says. "There was no crowd noise. There was nothing. I had to lose it. I just had to." Haynesworth lifted his right foot and planted it squarely on the Cowboy's head. Then, as Gurode's bloody dome ricocheted off the turf, Haynesworth stomped again. "I thought [my cleat] went up against his forehead. I didn't know I got his face. Then the ref said, 'Get the hell out of here.' I was like, 'What?' And he said, 'You know. Just get the hell out of here. You're gone!' And I was like, 'What?' You know, playing innocent, which, of course, I wasn't."
No, he wasn't innocent. Nor was he in control. By the time he made it to the locker room -- after he'd screamed at his head coach and thrown his helmet across the field -- he was so engulfed with rage he'd literally forgotten what had taken place. "I was like, What are you doing here?" he says. "It wasn't halftime. Nobody was following me in. I wasn't getting an IV. I was just there by myself. Then I caught myself on the TV. I was appalled. I was like, Why would you do something like that?" He pauses. "I wake up with that question every day."
The next day, the NFL suspended him for five games. He forfeited $190,000 in salary. He was not allowed at the Titans' facility. He was a football pariah. To make matters worse, the talking heads in the sports media decried him as a symbol of athletes out of control.
And so it helps that every Monday morning since, Haynesworth has spent one hour with Peters. He'll tell you that the sessions have helped him reconcile his shame, deal with the aftermath. But he'll also tell you that for all the emotional doors Peters has opened, there was one door to redemption he knew she couldn't take him through.
For that, Haynesworth sought out a therapist of an entirely different sort -- one whose counseling had nothing to do with sharing feelings.
HE SAW a cry for help. Chuck Smith, sitting 249 miles away in Atlanta, saw Haynesworth's merciless act and knew what was needed. The former Falcons defensive lineman operates Defensive Line, Inc., teaching combat to struggling pass-rushers. Guys like Atlanta's Patrick Kerney, Carolina's Mike Rucker and New Orleans' Charles Grant have employed him. Smith and Haynesworth had met before, both being former Tennessee Vols, but had never exchanged more than passing hellos until the day after Haynesworth's suspension, when his cell phone rang.
"You're in a tough situation," Smith said to him. "But I want to teach you. If they play dirty, you've got to play dirty too." To Smith, Haynesworth lost control because he was letting opponents kick his butt with no repercussions. No one feared him. "You've gotta learn how to get after their asses."
Those words resonated in a way that reflection in Peters' office could not. So every Tuesday, with the full knowledge of his coaches back at the Titans' facility, Haynesworth drove his Ford F-650 four hours south to an Atlanta football field. There, Smith would set up blocking dummies and video equipment and shower his pupil with a different kind of therapy.
"Light his ass up!"
"You can shatter a guy's forearm, and it's legal!"
"You can throw your arms at a guy's unprotected ribs, and it's legal!"
Smith knew from experience that cut blocks can cause men to explode. Smith was once cut at the knees in practice when he was with the Falcons, and he retaliated by tearing off his helmet and using it to beat his teammate to the ground. Smith also knew that while fans assume defensive backs are the primary victims of the NFL's offense-aiding rule book, defensive linemen actually suffer the most. Not being able to touch a receiver five yards downfield is nothing compared to enduring play after play of 330-pound bullets aimed at your knees.
Smith showed Haynesworth that his greatest form of self-defense was unleashing his 6'6", 320-pound body. He taught his pupil how to use his hands and arms as legal weapons. And he taught him what Smith calls a pick play, in which a defensive tackle dives at an otherwise engaged offensive lineman -- a reverse cut block as dirty as any thrown by an offensive guard. "Hey, it's not illegal," Smith says.
Within a few weeks, Haynesworth had bought into Smith's credo completely. He felt empowered by the dirty tactics. Now he saw them as simply a part of the game. In fact, Smith had just reinforced what every veteran lineman already knows. Even when Haynesworth called Gurode to apologize two days after the incident, he never referenced the block that set him off.
"Was it anything I did?" Gurode asked.
"No," Haynesworth said. "It was just football."
HE LIKES the exercise. He looks forward to Monday mornings, just for the rush he gets from sitting in Peters' office and venting. He never knew it was okay to let emotions out and people in. He loves how, with Peters, it's conversational. As their sessions begin, she doesn't use psychobabble or even take notes. She simply says, "What's going on?" Then Haynesworth bleeds at his own rate, embracing every piece of selfdiscovery that might provide answers.
What's going on? Well, his confessions shade more toward the past than the present. He talks about how he and his mom, Linda, "couldn't stand each other" for most of his life; how she'd yell at him for getting C's instead of B's. About how Haynesworth saw his father, Albert Jr., "no more than 40 or 50 times" until he became a first-round pick, then suddenly Dad was around more. About how he had a fallout with his older brother over money. And how he once lost his temper and fought a teammate on the practice field. "I didn't ever tell anyone about my problems," he says. "I always tried to deal with them internally." Maybe it was the buildup combined with the loneliness that made him burst.
Then again, Haynesworth thinks, it could have been the expectations. So he digs deeper, into the beginning of the season, when his future as a Titan was on the line. His salary for 2007 would be $5.5 million, so the team was going to either redo his deal after a superb 2006 or cut him, absolving themselves of a cap hit for a player who had yet to record more than three sacks in a season.
Haynesworth recounts that in June, eager to finally prove himself, he was at the gym five days a week, doing cardio, shadowboxing while wearing sweats in the sauna, lifting weights and finishing off the day with racketball. His body fat at training camp was a career-low 14%. But still, all his coaches could talk about was what he could be doing. "It nagged at me that they're like, 'You have potential,' " he says. "I'm trying, okay? I'm trying to understand. 'You have so much potential.' What am I not doing to fulfill that? That drove me nuts."
Haynesworth figured that once the season started, he'd put an end to all the "potential" talk. But calls from his agent, Chad Speck, reminding him about his contract status, kept on coming. "It was all the time," he says. "I just hated it, you know?"
So was that what primed the pump for his explosion? Was it the persistent pressure of the expectations? All those hours with Peters, and Haynesworth still has no real answer. "I just don't know," he says.
Maybe his wife, Stephanie, knows. She, more than anyone, witnessed the pressure her husband faced this season. When he'd come home from practice and dart for the movie room without uttering a word, she'd give him space to unwind. But he'd stay sequestered until he fell asleep. When she asked him to go to church with her, he shook his head. When she asked for help with the kids, he was too busy. When she brought up his sackless start to the season, knowing how much the contract wore on him, he'd stare the other way. "It was like talking to a wall," she says. "We weren't interacting. We just lived together. I'd try to understand, but ... "
THAT'S JUST the thing: Few understand.
Haynesworth knows the hypocrisy of what we want from him. We want him to rid himself of the dark currents that pushed him to bloody a man's face, and once purified, to be a better father, husband and man. And when he's done with that, we want him to beat on his opponents and punch his way to the quarterback.
Haynesworth is human enough to be sick over what he did, but not naïve enough to be shocked. Nor was he shocked when, shortly after his return from suspension, Chargers defensive tackle Igor Olshansky was fined for punching Broncos center Tom Nalen over a cut block. Or when Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce drilled Michael Vick out of bounds as restitution for the Falcons O-linemen's doing much the same thing. Or when Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour stomped on the helmeted head of Colts offensive tackle Tarik Glenn after Glenn attacked the All-Pro's knees.
The rogues who are paid millions for their brutish talents understand; they can relate to each other's struggle to be violent on the field and virtuous off of it. That's why Haynesworth says one of the "greatest deals of this whole thing" came not from Peters or Smith or even from Stephanie. It came in October at an Atlanta Waffle House, where Haynesworth and Smith were eating. A Lamborghini rolled up, and out walked Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, a renowned hard hitter and one of the most fined players in the NFL. Haynesworth rose to introduce himself, and Harrison broke into a warm grin before saying, "Oh yeah, I know who you are." As they ate lunch, Harrison told Haynesworth that everybody makes mistakes, to ask God for forgiveness and to keep playing. Before leaving, Harrison gave Haynesworth his number and said, "If you're not back with the Titans we'd love to have you."
Haynesworth says now that "just to hear it from him, a future Hall of Famer, was awesome." It meant someone understood, in a way that even Peters can't. When Haynesworth brings up Smith's teachings in his Monday counseling sessions, he "doesn't go into detail because it's just football." And Peters doesn't press him.
What about Stephanie? After witnessing Albert traverse both of his therapeutic paths, she says, "He'll never admit this, but that play might have been the best thing that's happened to him." During his suspension, she says, she and Haynesworth went from not communicating to, well, communicating in their own way. Right before Albert's reinstatement, he and Stephanie were at
the dinner table when suddenly he pulled out his cell and started to tap. Momentarily, his wife's phone buzzed. Weeks later, she still hasn't erased the text message she received. "Thanks for being w/me thru thick & thin," it reads. "I luv you a lot."
She loves that note. She loves that her husband started going to church with her while he was suspended and even talked about getting baptized. But as soon as Albert was playing football again, helping the Titans finish the season by winning six out of the last seven, she noticed that all his emotional progress began to disappear. Stephanie had to wonder if he could be a better husband at the same time that he tried to be a better player. And if not, which path he'd take.
YOU PROBABLY didn't see what he did.
It's the second quarter of a game between the Titans and the Texans on Dec. 10. Houston calls a stretch run left, a bread-and-butter cut-blocking play. Haynesworth springs from his three-point stance, but instead of waiting for a blocker to take out his knees, he throws his left arm into the ribs of left guard Chester Pitts. Pitts is stopped cold. Haynesworth's arm continues its uppercut until his hand hits Pitts' chin, snapping back the 320-pounder's head as if flicking off a bottle cap. Haynesworth finishes him off by planting him on his ass. He doesn't make the tackle, but announcers rave about how, since his return, teams don't run so easily on the Titans. That night, Haynesworth's cell buzzes with an approving text from Smith. That week, Haynesworth's agent will get word that the Titans are open to a contract extension.
A few days later, he and Stephanie are in the corner booth of a suburban Nashville 5 & Diner. They sit next to each other but say little, touch even less.
She orders a strawberry shake with two straws, but Albert doesn't want to share and orders his own drink. As they snake away in his F-650 a little while later, an awkward silence grows more uncomfortable when Stephanie presses with a question she knows he doesn't want to hear but she has to ask. "Are we better or worse since the Cowboys game?" she asks. "I don't know," he mumbles. "You tell me." She doesn't have to answer.
What made Albert Haynesworth stomp on another player's face? His search for the answer has taken him to some surprising places.