Tamba Hali turns 33 on Thursday, and in almost any other part of the world this would make him a relatively young man. Someday, perhaps after this season or next or the year after that, he will retire from professional football with millions in the bank and a music career he wants to build and see himself as young again. With so much time left.
Not now, though.
Not in the middle of one more push through the sting of bone-on-bone knee pain, of spending six days a week preparing for one day of violence against mostly younger men, then six more days spent rehabbing and preparing for the next.
All so he can play limited snaps, with what is at the moment the lowest production of his career.
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Hali is a proud man. He doesn’t need this. Any of it. The Chiefs star linebacker has more than enough money, and unlike many of his peers, a second career to walk into.
Physically, this is the toughest of his 11 NFL seasons.
Emotionally, he believes it can be still the most rewarding. Someday. In January, then February. If all of this goes right.
“It’s bittersweet,” he said. “I have to bite the bullet right now. Just because. I love the game. I want to be in there. I want to contribute.”
That Hali is even talking for this story took some maneuvering. The Chiefs have a rule that essentially prohibits players from talking to the media unless they practiced the previous day and are scheduled to practice again that day. But Hali only practices once a week, on Thursdays, which makes it hard to hear from one of the team’s most thoughtful, accomplished and longest-tenured players.
Hali is willing to work around the rules here, at least this once, to talk about what he does to get through a week and why — when he could be in his music studio, or on a beach somewhere.
Really, he could be anywhere else than the middle of another day of rehab and obsessive dieting to keep his weight low enough to keep his knee pain and swelling manageable.
He is still a good player who requires attention from the opposing offense, and he has always been a model of work ethic. But he is now at the point where he needs more diligence just to maintain some of what used to come more easily.
Hali is accustomed to being an every-down force. Last week, he played just 46 of 75 snaps — and it was his busiest day of the year. The Chiefs are essentially limiting him to third downs and other passing situations. In some ways, this is the first season of the rest of Hali’s career.
“I miss the whole (experience of) football,” he said. “The whole aspect of me being on the field, starting, playing, playing the whole game, working my guy, setting my guy up. I miss the whole facet of that. Being a one-dimensional player, I think that’s the worst thing you can do to a guy — to just be a designated hitter.”
Hali is doing it, though, for three reasons. The first is that he sees this current reality as only temporary. His right knee has not responded as quickly to offseason surgery as he hoped, but he feels it getting a little stronger every week.
This current pitch count isn’t forever, in other words. Hali is past the point in life of caring about numbers, about a sack total, or what anyone other than his teammates and coaches think. He is six games into a season he expects to last 20, or at least 19 if the Chiefs get a first-round playoff bye. He wants to be at his strongest two and three months from now.
A year ago, he went the opposite direction. His knees swelled up like melons after games, at one point so big he couldn’t push off without them giving out. He finished the season, but by the end, it was obvious he wasn’t the same. He was not sure he would come back for another year.
Fellow star teammate Justin Houston hardly played at all in the Chiefs’ playoff loss to the Patriots. Hali still wonders what might’ve happened if they were stronger at the end, and he has heard from others both inside and outside of the organization who say the same.
“They were kind of putting blame on Justin and I,” Hali said. “Like, ‘When the playoffs came, when we needed you guys, you guys (weren’t) available because you (weren’t) healthy.’ We took heat to it. I took heat to it. We want to be healthy in January. We saw what that did for the Broncos — when Demarcus Ware and Von Miller were both healthy, they kind of took over.”
The second reason he’s still here is that he still loves football. Loves all of the sport he took up at age 13, three years after escaping the civil war in Liberia to join his father, a college chemistry professor, in the United States.
Hali loves the friendships in the locker room, and the jokes, and the rush of playing in front of some of the biggest crowds in American sports. But he also loves the grind. Loves the rough parts. Other than the supernaturally gifted, nobody ever made it this far in this sport without loving the dirt.
He’s at the facility by 8:30 on Monday mornings. He sprints, dribbling a soccer ball up and down the field 10 times, both ways, then does it again. He lifts. Abdominal work. Knee rehab. Lots of knee rehab. He refuses needles, except for a shot before games. He insists on draining the knee naturally, even though it means more sweat and takes more time.
On Tuesdays, it’s the same routine, except he runs in the pool — saving his knees — instead of lifting weights. He begins his film work, too, both picking out what he did and didn’t do well two days earlier and what his next opponent will try to do to beat him.
Wednesdays and Fridays are mental days. A full slate of meetings and walk-throughs, more film and more lifting. Hali thinks he could practice on these days, too, and is one of the few who can honestly say he’d prefer to practice. But the coaches talked about this briefly before he signed his contract in the spring, deciding against it, and he’s come to accept that this is for the best.
“From my point of view, I think I’m still an every-down guy,” Hali said. “I can play 60 snaps. Do I need to? I don’t need to.”
The third reason he still does it is that, at full strength, this could be the best of his 11 Chiefs teams. An NFL player’s cycle of life begins with proving he belongs at the sport’s highest level, and continues with wanting every honor possible. Player of the week. Pro Bowls. Recognition from peers is important, and Hali has all of that. One day his name will be added to the team’s Ring of Honor.
But at the moment, something is missing, still. Most of his teams here have been bad. Since drafting Hali in the first round in 2006, the Chiefs have lost 20 more games than they’ve won. They’ve gone 2-14, twice.
This team here, this team can win. Hali knows that. He feels that. He wants to be part of that. Maybe he’s not the same explosive combination of strength and speed that he was at 26 or 27, but he can still be one of the guys contributing to wins, not just one of the guys along for wins.
He’s never won a championship. He lost consecutive state finals in high school. Won an Orange Bowl at Penn State, but that’s not really a championship. He’s felt close a few times in Kansas City. The blown lead in the playoffs in Indianapolis three years ago still haunts him. Last year could have ended up different if he and Houston were healthy, or maybe if they’d won one more game during the regular season and had home-field advantage in the playoffs.
That’s part of why he’s OK playing less, too. For now, at least. Hali wants to be at his strongest at the end of the season, because that’s the only thing that matters now.
He’s been to the Pro Bowl.
But not the Super Bowl.
“I’ve never won a championship, never won that game,” he said. “This is the first time in my career — like, this year — I feel like we have a legitimate chance to be in the Super Bowl. To go to the Super Bowl. To be in that game, and win.”
This will be Hali’s 168th NFL game, including the playoffs. The turf at Lucas Oil Stadium will grind his knees more than the grass at Arrowhead. He’s played in Indianapolis five times before. His first team lost in the playoffs there. His eighth team blew a 28-point lead in the second half of a playoff game.
He cannot be sure how many more seasons he has left. Football players rarely get to choose their own ending, but Hali isn’t ready to think about any of that. He can still be productive, dammit. He sees it every week on film. It just takes a little more work.
Most will remember his two neutral-zone penalties that cost the Chiefs at least four points last weekend. Hali makes no excuses — “never happened before in my life,” he said — but he also knows he can still affect the game. He doesn’t bring it up on his own, but against the Saints he beat his man on an inside move, forcing a throwaway by Drew Brees that made it third and 12. On an obvious passing down, the Chiefs had it scouted well enough that Eric Berry jumped a route and deflected a pass that turned into Daniel Sorensen’s pick-six.
Hali was part of that. Maybe a small part, a subtle part, but a part.
And that is why he’s still doing this, after all these years, and in spite of all the reasons to do something easier.
“At times, I do feel like maybe I don’t got it anymore,” he says. “Then I feel like, ‘No, I do have it.’ The day I feel like, ‘You just don’t got it no more; you can’t bend as well no more; you’re not as strong’ ... Then I’ll leave. Because I’ll feel within myself that the game has passed me.
“But I still love the game. I still enjoy playing. I still enjoy practicing. I’d practice more if they’d let me. I know I’m still affecting the game. I know I can still help these guys win. So that’s what I’m going to do.”