It was almost midnight last Jan. 5 when the effects of an emotionally wrenching month began to seem too much for Packers defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. The night before, the Packers had lost a wild-card playoff game to the Falcons at Lambeau Field, the first postseason home defeat in the franchise's 84-year history. The loss came on the heels of the death of his mother, Bola, who was killed in a one-car accident in Los Angeles on Dec. 1—the same day his wife, Eileen, had given birth to the couple's first child, Abdul-Rashid—and Gbaja-Biamila became distraught.
He got into his car and began tearing down the streets of Green Bay, running red light after red light. "I thought nothing mattered anymore," he says. "I know it was ridiculous, but I'd lost control." Green Bay being what it is, he soon ran out of intersections, and he returned home. There, he sat in his garage and cried.
Many nights with the Bible have since helped the devoutly Christian Gbaja-Biamila (pronounced BAH-jah BEE-ah-MIL-lah) right his ship. That's crucial because he's a key figure in fixing the weakness that haunted last year's Packers, who were not as strong as their 12-4 record might indicate. Green Bay buried its NFC North rivals by Halloween, but as the wins piled up, so did the injuries along the defensive line. The starting front four lost 23 games to injury; only twice did its best quartet suit up for the same game.
Though Green Bay's defense forced the most turnovers in the league, its attacking style, when executed by a patchwork line, too often resulted in uncovered gaps and blown assignments. As a result the Packers allowed 4.84 yards a carry (only the Seahawks were worse) and 124-9 rushing yards per game, their highest total since 1990. "Even after a win, as a D-line it felt like a loss," says defensive tackle Cletidus Hunt. "We just wore down."
Meanwhile the stunning 27-7 loss to the Falcons was just the final blow to Cheese-head Nation, which earlier had been shaken by quarterback Brett Favre's intimations that his retirement is nigh. Though he returns this season (looking as spry as ever), the time for a last push in the Favre era is now. To do that the team will count on a retooled, reinvigorated defensive front led by Gbaja-Biamila—fitting for a man whose name in his parents' native Nigeria means "Big Man Come and Save Me." "Other teams don't want to see him on the field," says Packers defensive coordinator Ed Donatell. "With mobile QBs and constant substitution, you need a dominant, hybrid linebacker like Kabeer."
There's no question that Gbaja-Biamila, in his fourth year out of San Diego State, can be a disruptive force. Playing almost exclusively on passing downs in 2001, he had 13� sacks; pressed into full-time duty last season, he again led the team, with 12. He struggled with his presnap adjustments, though, and at 255 pounds he labored to shed blocks. "I was undisciplined," says Gbaja-Biamila, who has a new seven-year, $37.3 million deal. "Now I'm ready. Playing the run isn't just a skill, it's an attitude."
With Gbaja-Biamila entrenched at right end, Joe Johnson, last year's big free-agent acquisition who suffered a season-ending tear to his left triceps in Week 5, will replace the departed Vonnie Holliday at left end. Joining Hunt at tackle will be the ageless Gilbert Brown, returning for his 10th year. Rookie Nick Barnett, a first-round draft pick out of Oregon State, is being penciled in at middle linebacker, while All-Pro safety Darren Sharper leads the secondary. "We wanted to get faster on defense, and we did," coach Mike Sherman says. "We've won 24 games in the last two years. We'll be fine."
As for the other big question mark in Green Bay, Sherman made a trip to Hattiesburg, Miss., in March to visit Favre. Recalling the conversation during the early days of training camp, Sherman said the two talked "about everything." So Favre isn't retiring anytime soon? "Everything" repeated Sherman, who leaned hard into his chair with a smile that suggested it wouldn't be too soon.
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