Tamba Hali heard the beginning of the very first question he fielded during a teleconference on Thursday — “Did you give any thought to leaving in free agency ...” — and didn’t need to hear the rest of it.
“None,” Hali responded before the question was finished. “None at all.”
That’s how much the 32-year-old Hali valued being in Kansas City. The 11-year veteran — who signed a three-year, $22 million extension with the Chiefs on Wednesday — went on to explain that he has been a Chief for so long he couldn’t imagine playing for anyone else.
Unprompted, he spoke of how he takes pride in being the last first-round draft pick of Chiefs founder Lamar Hunt, who died about seven months after the Chiefs selected Hali in 2006 draft. He also said that he has grown so accustomed to the Chiefs’ way of doing things that he had no interest in learning a new football culture in a new city.
“For me, staying here, it means everything,” Hali said. “I couldn’t imagine going somewhere else and needing to establish myself as a player again, especially being in the game this long.
“I wanted to end my career here. It’s a family atmosphere here, and everything (general manager John) Dorsey, coach (Andy) Reid and the Hunt family stand for, everything they say, has been right on point.”
Hali recalled that when the Chiefs signed him to his previous pact in 2011 — a five-year, $60 million deal — Chiefs Chairman and CEO Clark Hunt told him that they were going to try to keep him in Kansas City past that contract, which expired after the 2015 season.
Hunt made good on his word.
“I didn’t know how serious that was, but obviously it was serious, and I’m thankful. It doesn’t happen in our league anymore for a player to be in one position the way I’ve been and then finish out his career where he got drafted,” Hali said. “And I’m thankful.”
Hali also made it clear that he’s focused. He garnered his sixth Pro Bowl nod in 2015, finishing with 48 tackles and 6 1/2 sacks for a Chiefs team that finally ended its playoff misery with a 30-0 wild-card win over the Houston Texans. It was the club’s first playoff victory in 22 years and Hali’s first in four tries.
After the season, Hali expressed a desire to return to the Chiefs and seemed genuinely excited about the direction the team was going. The Chiefs clearly felt the same way about him.
“Tamba is one of the most passionate and competitive football players I’ve had the privilege to be around,” Dorsey said in a statement announcing the deal. “His leadership and playing ability have been critical to our success defensively. He’s a great teammate and a true professional. We are pleased he is staying in Kansas City.”
Hali also noted, however, that if he did continue his career, he wanted to make sure he could play better than he did in 2015. He has dealt with balky knees the last two years.
In 2014, one knee swelled up during the season and required offseason surgery. In 2015, the other knee swelled up and required the same treatment. Now he says the knee that gave him problems last year feels good.
“I feel like I’m right on time with healing,” Hali said. “I had the same process done last year. Around the two-month mark, I was able to start running. I’m only a month out of surgery, and the progress of rehab, I’m happy where I am right now.”
Hali expressed optimism that neither knee should be a problem going forward.
“Well, I hope not. I hope we don’t have that problem,” Hali said. “I do well when the season starts, through camp and all the workouts. ... It’s the wear and tear. I feel with what the doctor was able to do, I feel I’ll be able to bounce back and play my best season coming up. So I don’t foresee these things happening where my knee just swells up because it chooses to.”
The Chiefs will do what they can to help Hali, just as they did in 2015. He was allowed to rest during most of the practice week for the majority of last season, keeping him fresh for Sundays.
“I know they want to limit my role as in how much I play, just to be able to sustain me over the 24-week period of playing a season,” Hali said. “But I believe there will be times where I may have to play the entire game, and then I believe there will be times I have to step back. ... There are games we’ll be winning and Coach basically says, ‘We don’t need you for the rest of the game,’ and they’ll pull me, maybe, in the third quarter, fourth quarter.
“I get upset, but growing into the type of player that they see me becoming at the next stage of my career only make sense, because there’s no reason to go out there and pad the stats. Our main goal here is to win the Lombardi Trophy, and risking injury, trying to do more than is needed, is not going to help our team.”
Increased rest for Hali in 2015 also allowed the man who was considered to be his eventual replacement — 2014 first-round draft pick Dee Ford — to see the field more often. Ford contributed more in the increased role, recording four sacks.
Hali said he’ll continue to help Ford, who will be entering his third year as a 3-4 outside linebacker after being a 4-3 defense in college.
“At this stage, if I had to speak for him, I would like for him to take the next step in being a professional and, basically, why they drafted him here and him taking over the role,” Hali said. “The season is too long for me to be focused on being a starter or a backup. I mean, we all have to contribute.
“But I think he’s in the position where he can kind of take the torch and go forward, and that’s really mental. Physically, the kid is gifted, and he has it. But mentally, we have to just make sure he understands why we’re in this building and what needs to be done while we’re here.”
When asked how long he expects to keep playing, Hali said it depends on several factors.
“Well, as long as I love the game, as long as I continue to have the will to play at a high level and enjoy being around the guys, and there’s no distraction that’s leading to me exiting before I need to, I’ll play as long as my body lets me,” Hali said.
The moment he’s not serious about it anymore, the moment he doesn’t feel like working out anymore, that’s when he says he’ll know it’s time to leave.
“But I still love playing football. I still love proving to myself I’m one of the best pass-rushers out there into the world. Those things still drive me to be in the game,” Hali said. “And at the top of the list is to win a Super Bowl. That’s the biggest drive. If we can get that done, it would be nice to do it again and again.”
And what about his legacy? The new contract sets up Hali, who has 86 career sacks — one half-sack behind Neil Smith for second in club history — to retire as a Chief. He’ll surely be in the Chiefs’ Ring of Honor one day, and that matters to him.
But not as much as taking advantage of the opportunity that’s currently in front of him.
“I’m living in the moment, so I can’t really focus on what’s going to happen five, 10, 15 years from now, when I’m removed from the game,” Hali said. “It means a lot to even think that people think that high of me, but for now I’m just living in the moment and enjoying the time I’m here and trying to get something done.
“When it’s all said and done, we can look back and see what was accomplished.”