Ravens' Haloti Ngata ponders his football mortality after another season of injuries
You can see it in his gingerly gait as he moves from his locker to the shower area, in the way he leans against a wall to take pressure off his right knee.
Haloti Ngata's remarkable body hurts.
This is easy enough to forget when you watch the Ravens on Sundays. The television announcers are more apt to talk about Terrell Suggs' Achilles tendon or Ray Lewis' triceps. The camera, always following the ball, rarely settles on the trench warfare between Ngata and two or three offensive linemen nearly as big and powerful as he.
His teammates know. Always in awe of his combined size, power and agility, they now speak in appreciative tones of the way Ngata has played through a sprained knee and a busted shoulder, never saying much about either. That's the way he learned from his Tongan forefathers: Go to work every day, and if you're in pain, still go.
But this season — his seventh overall and the second straight in which he has played through debilitating pain — the Ravens defensive tackle has thought more about his football mortality than ever before. Maybe it's the joy he gets from chasing his 3-year-old and 5-month-old sons. Maybe it's the suicide of Junior Seau, a hero to Ngata and many other players of Polynesian descent.
"It makes you think, especially now that I have kids, is this job worth the head traumas you're probably going to end up having when you're older?" he says in his hushed voice, an odd contrast to his enormous body. "I just think about being able to raise my kids, see them through college, see them have kids. It makes me think more about how much more I want to play."
It's a weird spot for a guy who's about to turn 29 and just made his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl, a guy who signed a five-year, $60 million contract before last season. But Ngata knows he's no longer the kid from the famous rugby video that pops up during Ravens telecasts, racing past men half his size at a speed that should be impossible for a human grizzly bear.
"I know I will probably never feel as good as I did when I was younger," he says matter-of-factly.
He is wiser — better at resting during the week, better at managing his body according to the guidance of the physical therapist, stretching coach and masseuse he has hired. He has learned not to wear out his mind as well. Instead of popping in game film the minute he arrives home from practice, he's more likely to play with his boys, Solomone and Haloti Maximus. He likes to help his wife, Christina, put them to bed.
Getting some rest
The Ravens, too, have made a point of resting Ngata more often, including for a full midseason game against the Oakland Raiders, when he could have played if necessary.
For now, those efforts have mitigated his physical deterioration.
Opponents certainly aren't ready to write him off as a threat. "He's an excellent player — great size, great athletic ability and always a guy that you know where he is on the field," says Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who will try to avoid being flattened by Ngata in Saturday's AFC divisional playoff game.
It's hard to be 345 pounds and not fat. But you don't see a sloppy gut when Ngata pulls off his pads. He's just big all over, from his thick, meaty paws to his cinder-block noggin.
At the Ravens training facility, he sometimes wears a knit cap pulled low over his ears. Combined with his full beard and mass, it creates a Bunyanesque picture. You could imagine Ngata, in an earlier America, emerging from the deep woods with a huge cut of timber slung across his shoulders.
Teammates sound as though they're describing a mythic creature when they recount his feats.
"Did you see him chase down RGIII out of bounds?" says linebacker Paul Kruger, referring to a play from December against Washington Redskins phenom Robert Griffin III. "I mean, that's pretty insane, a 340-pound guy moving that fast. No matter how banged up he is, he can still move around pretty good."
Asked where Ngata ranks among the physical specimens he has observed in football, Kruger says: "You watch the guy, he can really do anything. He can pick up a basketball, he can throw a football as far as anybody in here. He's just athletic as they come, and at that size, it's a pretty unreal combination."
Of course, if Paul Bunyan played seven years on the interior line in the NFL, his joints would probably hurt as well.
It must be quite a thing to possess gifts unfathomable even to fellow pros and yet to grasp, as a man still in your 20s, how fleeting those gifts are. Of course, Ngata talks about that as stoically as he does about everything else. He inherited the demeanor from his father — Solomone Ngata died at age 45 when the truck he drove for work slid off an icy road near Salt Lake City — and the other men in his family.
"A lot of cultures, the men are supposed to be kind of, I guess, fearless," he says. "Guys don't feel pain, don't show emotion, and that's how it is with Tongan culture. The men just have to go work, don't show a lot of emotion, never see them cry. And I think the same thing goes with playing football. You kind of don't want to show it, show them you're hurt. I think I've always played like that."
In a world of men for whom pain is part of everyday work, Ngata draws particular praise for his stoicism, which he maintained as he played the middle of this season with one good leg and one good arm.
'Just a class-A person'
"Haloti, honestly, is one of the most humble people I know," Kruger says. "He's just a guy who never wants the spotlight on himself, even though it should be on him all the time. Not only is he one of the best defensive tackles to play the game, he's just a class-A person. He's a good family man, he's giving. I don't like to pump him up too much, but he is one of the most humble guys I know."
"The guy never says a word," adds Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees. "He just comes out and plays, does what he's supposed to do, and it's a credit to him. I think he probably, production-wise, maybe he hasn't had the year that he has had in some other years. But he really has been hurt. The biggest thing is just nobody has really talked too much about it. We haven't talked too much about it; he doesn't talk too much about it."
Ngata faced criticism from some analysts for the way his play tailed off at the end of last season, when he played with a deep thigh bruise and other undisclosed injuries. This year, he's probably stronger now than he was at midseason, when his knee and shoulder injuries were more recent. He hasn't made as many plays as he did at his peak, two or three years ago, but he still came within a half-sack of his career high.
"For some reason, this year, I feel mentally stronger," he says. "I think it just comes with experience. I feel like I can go another month or two playing football, at least mentally. I don't know about my body."
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