Heads whirled and eyes popped when a scruffy-faced giant ambled into a training room at the Astrodome on Feb. 21 and started working out. Tony Boselli, a five-time Pro Bowl tackle with the Jacksonville Jaguars, was all business on the morning after becoming the Houston Texans' first selection in the expansion draft. He not only quizzed trainers and grimaced through an assortment of stretches and strengthening exercises designed to rehab his two surgically repaired shoulders, but he also found time to flash his familiar, ultraconfident grin. No one would have guessed that when he arrived in Houston earlier that week he had looked so somber that his wife, Angi, had wondered, Who died?
Boselli soon put aside his sadness over leaving Jacksonville, his home for the last seven years, and focused on living up to the Texans' high expectations of him. "We all thought, Boselli is here working out already?" recalls team owner Bob McNair. "I was impressed. He was going through a big change, but he also wanted to get started in the right direction."
Boselli saw no reason to waste any time. At 30, he has something to prove. Widely regarded as the best tackle in football during his early years with the Jaguars, he has been plagued by injuries for the last five seasons. He missed four games in '97 with a high right ankle sprain, sat out the playoffs at the end of the 1999 season after tearing the ACL in his right knee, and missed 13 games last year with torn labrums in both shoulders. Now Houston is looking for Boselli to be a cornerstone of its franchise, just as the expansion Jaguars did in 1995, when they made him their first college draft choice. The Texans will absorb a hefty $755 million hit on their salary cap this season to account for his $4 million salary and a portion of the signing bonus from the four-year, $26 million extension he signed with Jacksonville in 1999. While Houston can afford such an outlay in its inaugural season, the investment will look foolish if injuries again sideline Boselli.
"I know there are questions," Boselli says. "That doubt gives me extra motivation, but it won't be my only reason for working hard. I'll work hard whether people believe in me or not."
The Texans' goal is for Boselli to play three seasons, thereby fulfilling the remainder of his contract. Before Houston selected Boselli, general manager Charley Casserly got assurances from two doctors about the health of the 6'7", 320-pound tackle, whose shoulders were operated on last fall. "This wasn't a 50-50 proposition," says Casserly. "Tony was guaranteed $4 million this season, so we weren't going to risk that kind of money without being sure of what we were getting." In 2000 Boselli proved he could come back from serious injury, making the Pro Bowl 11 months after his knee surgery. Says Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese, "It's tough for some older guys with his size to shake the injury bug, but there's probably nobody better to take a risk on."
"If Tony can block the guy in front of him without help, that's all we want," Casserly says. "He won't be content unless he's the best left tackle in football, but he doesn't have to be that for us to be happy."
Boselli's football activity remains limited. On April 29 he underwent minor arthroscopic surgery on his left shoulder to remove excess scar tissue and increase his range of motion. He expects to be at full strength for training camp in July. "We always saw the goal as having Tony ready for the opener, and that meant having him back at some point in training camp," says Casserly. "That's still our plan."
A humble, intense workaholic who speaks his mind and can rally teammates around him, Boselli will make life easier for rookie quarterback David Carr, the first pick in the college draft, and the Texans' running backs. As a run blocker, Boselli uses his massive frame and his surly streak to dominate at the point of attack. He's even more impressive in pass protection, drawing on his intelligence to cut off opponents' rushing angles, his agility and balance to compensate for any mistakes, and his massive wingspan to ward off defenders.
"He doesn't let pass rushers get close to him," says Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Tim Lewis. "He just blocks them out, and they can't use their moves against him. It's like when you used to hold on to your younger brother's head and let him punch at you while holding him at bay."
When he joined Jacksonville out of Southern Cal as the second pick in the '95 draft, Boselli says he was "just hoping to not get run over." But in his second season he made the Pro Bowl and helped Jacksonville reach the AFC Championship Game. Recalling Boselli's dominating performance in a wild-card playoff win over the Buffalo Bills that season, Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin says, "I can still see a counter play where he took Bruce Smith [the Bills' perennial Pro Bowl defensive end] and put him on his back in the end zone." Reese says that from the day Boselli entered the league, he "was very strong and had tremendous size, a nasty temperament, great feet and an understanding of the business. It was child's play for Tony if you weren't rushing a top-caliber defensive end against him."