HE USUALLY went there first thing in the morning, pulling into the parking lot of a two-story medical building on the fringe of downtown Nashville and making his way to Suite 200. Early in the day there were fewer people on the street, less chance of a 6'6", 320-pound defensive tackle being noticed walking into a psychologist's office. ¶ This was where the Tennessee Titans' Albert Haynesworth attended counseling sessions two years ago, during a five-game suspension issued by the NFL after he stomped on the head of a helmetless Dallas Cowboys center Andre Gurode, creating a gash that required 30 stitches to close. This was where Haynesworth was shielded from the outrage of the opinion pages and the talk-radio banter and the editorial cartoons, like the one that depicted two eyes, a tongue and a row of teeth attached to his cleats.
These days being in the spotlight is easier for Haynesworth. Time, All-Pro-caliber play and the Titans' 8--0 record will do that. But every so often he will be taken back to that October 2006 game against Dallas. "Sometimes you still hear, 'Oh, he hit that guy in the head,'" Haynesworth says. He tries to let it roll off his back, but there are occasions when he wishes he could escape the notoriety and even the celebrity. "Sometimes I think about it, but this comes with the territory. If you want to be Superman out there on the field, you have to be Superman off the field."
No other defensive tackle has dominated in the last two seasons the way Haynesworth has. At a position that traditionally has been the home of space-eating 350-pound run stoppers or fleet 280-pound pass rushers, he combines the strengths of both and has the weaknesses of neither. Haynesworth is the anchor of coordinator Jim Schwartz's 4--3 defense and the key to Tennessee's quick start, with six sacks (one fewer than Minnesota Vikings pass-rush specialist Jared Allen) and 29 tackles (sixth in the NFL among interior linemen). And to hear his coaches, teammates and Haynesworth himself tell it, he hasn't played his best football yet.
"The big deal [around the league] right now is having that 340-pounder who can explode off the ball—that's what coaches are trying to develop," says Titans center Kevin Mawae, who faces Haynesworth in practice. "Albert's a huge guy, but he's also one of the quickest guys off the ball. A lot of times when you play against a defense, you just scheme against their scheme. Then there are times when you have to scheme against individual players. Albert's one of those guys. Teams just don't like to play against him." And Tennessee raises its opponents' anxiety level by moving Haynesworth to different spots along the line on passing downs.
In fact, the more times Haynesworth can collapse a pocket or disrupt a running play with his size, strength and speed, the better the Titans will be. "We try to funnel stuff back to him, to keep him alive on every single play," Schwartz says. "Albert's not a one-trick pony. He's not the guy who can't rush—the guy an offensive lineman can't move off the line of scrimmage, but he can't move off the line of scrimmage himself. Albert is a big man who can do a lot, and those guys are extremely valuable."
Schwartz says he chuckles every spring when the media's mock draft boards are heavy on wide receivers and light on defensive linemen. "It should be the other way around," he says. "General managers, head coaches, position coaches, coordinators—we all know how important those guys are and how hard they are to find."
HAYNESWORTH'S PATH to the NFL began at Hartsville (S.C.) High, where he developed a reputation as a fierce pass rusher—and as a player who lacked discipline. Though he helped his team reach the state 4A championship game his junior season, his play tailed off as a senior. "He was never really a bad person in the school, he just didn't reach his full potential as a student or a player," says Lewis Lineberger, Haynesworth's former high school coach. "He went to summer school between his junior and senior years and didn't work out like he had before. He put on some weight, and things started kind of tough for us. I think he pretty much had a scholarship wrapped up, and sometimes people like that play not to get hurt."
Haynesworth's spotty record continued at Tennessee, and with the Titans, who drafted him at No. 15 as a junior in 2002. With the Vols in 2000 he got into an altercation with a teammate during practice, walked off the field, then returned swinging a metal pole before coach Phillip Fulmer intervened. At Titans training camp in 2003 he kicked center Justin Hartwig in the chest during a scuffle.
In Haynesworth's first few years in the pros, he became known for picking up minor injuries and, even when healthy, needing rest on the sideline during games. That led to an unflattering nickname in the locker room. "A lot of people used to call him Two Plays," says safety Chris Hope. "He'd give us two plays, and then he was done."
It took the Gurode incident for Haynesworth to get noticed outside of Tennessee, albeit for the wrong reason. Though in the days after the incident he apologized to the Cowboys center and called his own actions "despicable," Haynesworth was swiftly and severely punished by the league, receiving the longest suspension for an on-field altercation in NFL history. The Titans also assigned him sessions with Dr. Sheila Peters, a clinical psychologist on the faculty at Fisk University. (Through the league's player development department, players are matched with therapists and counselors to deal with anger management and other off-the-field issues when needed. Peters has also met with quarterback Vince Young, among other Titans.)