By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 27, 2009
When Washington Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall first approached Mark Craig and asked for his help, Craig wasn't sure what to think. A popular boxing coach in the area, the 42-year-old Craig had just wrapped up his third summer working out with a handful of Redskins players.
But Hall's proposal was different. He wanted to take part in training camp's two daily practices, lift weights at Redskins Park and then hook up with Craig in the evenings for a boxing workout -- a 14-hour day of pain and sweat.
"I thought instantly, 'Why in the world does he want to do this after a full day of practice?' " Craig said. "But later on, thinking about it, you can see that the kind of person he is, he wants his bases covered. He wants to do more than other athletes because he wants to be the best."
So on a half-dozen nights during camp, Craig and Hall met and slipped on boxing gloves. Craig put Hall through the same routine he'd give any of his fighters: heavy bags, mitts, speed bags, jump ropes. Thus far, Hall says he couldn't be more pleased with the results.
"I haven't missed a practice, haven't been hurt, everything has felt good," said Hall, a sixth-year veteran who says he's in the best shape of his pro career. "I feel like this was one of the easiest training camps I've been a part of."
While it took Craig a couple of workouts to fully understand Hall's motivation, the two-time Pro Bowler had decided months earlier that he'd approach his first full season with the Redskins with a new mind-set. Hall has told anyone within earshot that he is playing this season with a chip on his shoulder.
"I feel like I'm still one of the best in the game," said Hall. "But I know I have to go out and prove it. I feel like I did slack a little bit last year. I got a little bit lazy."
In 2008, the Oakland Raiders traded their second- and fifth-round draft picks to acquire Hall from the Atlanta Falcons. The Raiders immediately made him the game's highest-paid cornerback, signing him to a seven-year, $70 million contract.
It isn't easy for him to admit, but looking back, Hall says the money might've affected his play during his brief stint in Oakland.
"When you get the money, it's easy to be content," he said. "Regardless of whether someone thought I was the best or not, I was the highest paid at what I did. Period. I felt like that solidified me as being the best. I didn't feel like I had to keep proving anything to anyone."
Already this year with the Redskins, Hall has seen more preseason action than he did in a Raiders uniform. Last year, hampered by a hand injury in training camp, Hall played just a single series in two of the Raiders' four preseason games. A year later, he's played in both preseason games, including seeing significant time last week against Pittsburgh. He is expected to play an entire half Friday night against the New England Patriots.
Hall fared only slightly better during the regular season last year. He had three interceptions in eight games before the Raiders released him Nov. 5. Even after the Redskins signed Hall to a one-year deal three days later, he said the way his stint in Oakland ended continued to motivate him during the offseason.
"Nothing like that had ever happened to me. Being released, people questioning my ability, my talent level, my focus," Hall said. "That makes you hungry. That makes you go back to the drawing board, refocus and start doing the things that got you there in the first place."
Splitting the year between two teams, Hall was still tied for sixth in the NFL with five interceptions, two of which came with the Redskins.
After playing the final six games in Washington, Hall re-signed with the Redskins in the offseason, a six-year deal worth up to $54 million, $22.5 million of which was guaranteed. Hall says he has matured in the year since he signed the mega-deal with Oakland, and entering 2009, he wanted to prove to skeptics that he's worth the money.
As the recent offseason came to a close and players began reporting to camp, Hall got in touch with Craig. When he was younger, the veteran boxing coach was a two-time Golden Gloves champ out of Columbus, Ohio. He briefly fought as a pro and served as a sparring partner for former heavyweight champion Chris Byrd. More recently, Craig has helped train Redskins players with boxing workouts.
He started a few years ago with Shawn Springs, the former Redskins cornerback who will suit up Friday night as a Patriot. In past seasons, Springs would undergo boxing training throughout the regular season.
As Craig's reputation grew, more players began seeking him out. Before Hall, he'd slipped gloves on Albert Haynesworth, Derrick Dockery, Reed Doughty, Mike Williams, Stephon Heyer, Rocky McIntosh and Jeremy Jarmon, among others. Offensive line coach Joe Bugel especially likes his players undergoing the training because of the toughness it instills.
But the others said goodbye to Craig when camp opened and two-a-days began, which is when Hall was ready to increase his workout load.
"Sometimes in this league, guys tend to fall back when they feel like they don't have anything to prove," said fellow cornerback Fred Smoot. "He's not acting like a guy who's been in the league for six years. He's hungry like a rookie still."
In addition to honing footwork, for cornerbacks and linemen, Craig says boxing helps players with their hands; that initial contact off the snap should have a lot more pop.
"When you shoot your hands, you want to get them in the right spot, put it right where it needs to go and with force," Hall said. "But really, I took this on for conditioning more than anything. I wanted to add another element to my game. I don't like to run on the treadmill, but I knew I needed to work on my conditioning. So this was an easier way to do that."
Motivation hasn't been a problem, and Craig says he doesn't have to bark in Hall's ear. Instead, it's Hall who's constantly talking about getting better, about the work he does while other defensive backs sleep.
"The main thing I noticed with DeAngelo is his competitiveness," Craig said. "If he's going to do something, he wants to be the best at it. I really think he could be a fighter, if he wanted. It'd take some more work, but you can see he has the tools and he has the work ethic."
Hall isn't shy about his athletic exploits -- from youth gymnastics to high school basketball -- but he laughs at the idea of being a pro fighter.
"Maybe if I cut 35 pounds," he says with a smile. "I can't go out there and fight like this."
Besides, his attention is directed solely on football right now -- and reminding fans, coaches and league observers why he was once considered among the top defensive backs in the game.
"I needed to retool and refocus," Hall said. "I feel good mentally and physically. Last year, I got a little lazy. But now I'm hungry again. I want to be the best. I just have to go out and prove it."