Hali's leadership on display in St. Joseph

Posted Aug 3, 2012

When Tamba Hali talks, his teammates listen. When he plays, they watch.

St. Joseph, Mo. – His dreadlocks are gone, replaced by a close-cut fade. The wrinkles on his forehead are just a little more pronounced than they were when he was drafted in 2006. But the question facing Tamba Hali – the one about how “old” he feels during this training camp – can’t be answered with a glance at his face or his receding hairline.

Much more thought, and even a little math, goes into a run-of-the-mill Hali response.

 “I’m going into (year) seven,” he said pensively. “So times that by three, four, and that’s 28 (extra years). You’re looking at (someone who feels like) a 49-year old.”

It’s easy to take Hali at his word when he says he feels like an aging veteran. When he speaks, Hali’s words carry the weight and premeditated thought of a player twice his senior in the league. He’s more soft-spoken philosopher than terrifying All-Pro sack master when the helmet is off.

Life is better to Hail with the helmet on. That’s when he becomes the lynchpin and leader of Romeo Crennel’s defense. That’s when he becomes the perennial Pro Bowler who notched more sacks than any other player in the AFC since 2010. And that’s when, for all his gripes about aging, Hali feels young again.

He finds the Fountain of Youth two times each day. In the morning walk-thru, his hustle is both unmistakable and unnecessary. Players are directed to jog through plays, but he jogs a little bit faster, and on a long handoff play, he gets to the gap just quick enough to meet Peyton Hillis there. He can’t hit, but if he could, his tackle would surely be for a loss.

Hali looks just as exuberant in the afternoon practice.  When the first-team defense isn’t on the field, he goes head-to-head with Tyson Jackson in an arm-swinging showdown that refines his pass rush technique. When the bullhorn sounds and players switch drills, Hail hunts the equipment managers down from behind like he would with opposing quarterbacks, stripping the balls they carry to each new station. And when the final practice whistle blows, he doesn’t walk to the locker room – he sprints.

It’s the kind of hustle Romeo Crennel begs out of his younger players during the first individual practice of the day. Players weave in and out of pads to practice footwork, and if they’re not quick enough, they hear their number called out to the entire unit by their head coach.

The number ‘91’ is never called out. And more often than not, Hali’s turn is at the end of the pack to show the rest of the defense how it’s done.

“(The newcomers to this team) understand the standard they have to live up to, if they want to be good players,” said Crennel. “He’s a high energy guy, and he’s always working at his craft, trying to get better all the time.”

“That’s what he brings to the table. The guys in the locker room appreciate the energy that he brings.”

At least once a day, Hali does something on the field that shows his teammates that he’s not slowing down. During red zone snaps, his straight-on bull rush gets denied by left tackle Branden Albert. But his move was enough to push Albert back enough to force quarterback Matt Cassel to reset his feet, giving him time to find his own footing. Before Albert or any other offensive player could react, Hali was in the backfield and chasing Cassel out of the pocket.

From the sidelines, reserve linebacker Andy Studebaker couldn’t take his eyes off Hali for the entire play.

“You watch Tamba, when he rushes the passer especially,” Studebaker said. “There are some things that he does that you just think, ‘Man, that’s something not a lot of guys in the NFL can do.’ Obviously, you watch him closely, and you think, ‘What’s he doing there? And what can we do to mimic it?’”

Hali isn’t getting any younger, and he knows it. He stays after practice to sign anything and everything Chiefs fans throw his way, as if this year was his last in the NFL.

Then, when all the fans are gone, he gets in front of a microphone and on camera. And when Hali speaks about his age – or anything else – you listen.

“My body feels old,” Hali said, then paused to collect his thoughts.

He smiles. His thoughts turn to the upcoming season, where the helmet is always on, and where he always feels like he did as a rookie seven years ago.

“But every time we touch the field we feel young again.”