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Washington Redskins defensive back DeAngelo Hall is driven by a family tragedy

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 27, 2010; 11:20 PM

Just more than a month ago, the Chicago Bears trailed the Washington Redskins by three points with less than three minutes remaining at sunny Soldier Field. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler dropped back in his own territory and looked downfield for receiver Johnny Knox. There, as he had been all day, was cornerback DeAngelo Hall.

To that point, Hall had three interceptions, and his fourth may have been the easiest, a jump ball thrown right to him. Having tied an NFL record for most picks in a game, Hall fell to the ground, then propped himself up and knelt on both knees at the 15-yard line. He held the ball in his right hand and spread his arms, looking skyward, the focus of a packed stadium.

"It's just become, I guess, a trademark," Hall said. "But people don't really know what it's for."

Hall hasn't ever really thought to explain why he marks such plays with that gesture. He knows well that it leaves him open for criticism. The kneeling, the pose - he seems to be pointing the spotlight directly between the numbers on his jersey, soaking in the glory. He was, after all, called "MeAngelo" during his early NFL days in Atlanta. He must be selfish, self-absorbed; people think his attitude got him shipped away from the Falcons after four years, got him cut from Oakland in the middle of the 2008 season.

"I don't really care," Hall said. "I'm misinterpreted lots of times. At the end of the day, it's a game."

Even his critics know Hall can change a game. Statistically, at least, he is having the best of his seven occasionally turbulent seasons in the league. Heading into Sunday's game against Minnesota, he has six interceptions - which already matches a career high - and has returned

one of them for a touchdown. By defensive coordinator Jim Haslett's estimate, he could have four more. The fumble he returned for a touchdown in the season opener against Dallas was the difference between the Redskins winning and losing, and his four-pick day at Chicago provided another victory.

"There's some things that he could do that he doesn't feel comfortable doing," Haslett said. "But I think he could do almost anything he wants."

What he wanted to do, after that fourth pick against the Bears, was exactly what he had done after the first three: Find his mother in the stands and hand her the ball. It made for a nice narrative that day, because Joan Hall had traveled to the game - as she has for each of DeAngelo's games as a pro - with three family friends, and by game's end, each of them had a football.

The exchange between mother and son was captured on film. Their story, though, couldn't be.

"Everybody's been through something," Hall said.

But not everybody knows what Hall has been through, why a flashy cornerback with a reputation for seeking attention falls to his knees and looks to the sky.

'The real world is crazy'

On the night that changed the Hall family forever, 10-year-old DeAngelo - the youngest of Joan Hall's six children - was in his bed, sleeping, at home in Chesapeake, Va. Joan Hall watched the television news and saw a report about a shooting in neighboring Norfolk. She shut off the television, feeling uneasy. She went to sleep, still unsettled.

At 1 a.m., the phone rang in the Hall household, and in no time, Joan Hall's chilling screams woke DeAngelo and his brother, Tyrone, then 12. Things began moving quickly. DeAngelo's oldest brother came over immediately, then other people began arriving. Nosy little DeAngelo, always able to hang out and hold his own with the grown-ups, had a firm grasp of what was going on: Kevin Smith, Joan Hall's 25-year-old son and DeAngelo's confidant, had been out watching a basketball game on television. Somehow, he had been shot. The police told Joan Hall over the phone: "I'm sorry, but your son didn't make it."

There is no describing the effect such an event can have on a family. DeAngelo Hall's word - "tough" - is no doubt accurate.

"We don't have answers for the tragedies of life," said James Smith, who, at 49, is Joan Hall's oldest child, a government worker during the week and a preacher in Aberdeen, Md., on the weekends. "We sometimes throw out quick solutions and quick answers, but they don't soothe your pain."

For so long, it was the pain that defined Joan Hall's existence. She was a schoolteacher for whom nothing - nothing - was more important than her children, the first of whom came when she was still a teenager, the last when she was in her late 30s. The circumstances surrounding Kevin Smith's death - the killer, who pleaded self-defense, was acquitted, though his family believes to this day that Kevin was set up - sent her into a tailspin. Though three of her surviving children, all from her first marriage, were grown, she still had DeAngelo and Tyrone at home. Their father was a non-factor in their lives. How could Joan Hall properly grieve and still stand strong for her kids?

"I did a lot of my crying when they were at practice or nobody was home but me," Joan Hall said. "I just kind of wore a mask. I tried to make them feel better, and tried to make everybody else feel better. But most of those days that followed, I did a lot of my grieving in private because my sons, the younger ones, they are so compassionate. I thought that would just tear them apart even more, to deal with their own grief and to deal with me, with mine."

To the older children, Joan's misery was obvious. "My mother was almost going to check out of this world," James Smith said. But DeAngelo had his own loss to handle. Though James was his most forceful father figure - "Strict Pops," DeAngelo said - it was Kevin who was closest with DeAngelo, "kind of a cool father figure." To this day, when DeAngelo Hall performs a back flip on an NFL field, it is because Kevin Smith taught him the trick when Hall was a precocious kid known to his family as "Speedy Dede," always able to outrun the older boys.

"I don't think he's really ever gotten over it," Joan Hall said.

DeAngelo Hall believes, though, that Kevin Smith's death altered his own course. He believes the loss somehow grounded him.

"Growing up, you always feel invincible, especially as a kid," Hall said. "You feel like can't nothing hurt you, can't nothing harm you. To see that happen, it was kind of like, 'Man, this is crazy. The real world is crazy.'

"It kept me, I guess, out of the streets. It kept me listening to my mom more, more than I probably would have had I not went through that. And it kept our family tight."

Tight enough that, to this day, when DeAngelo Hall heads home to Chesapeake - to the new home he built for his mom, where she keeps a room for each of her kids - if he chooses to go out with friends, his mother waits up for him. If he goes out when he's at home - or on the road, or on vacation, or anywhere - Joan Hall expects a call or a text saying he's back safe. So that is precisely what Joan Hall gets.

Confident and cocky

On the Fox broadcast of the Chicago game, former Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman criticized Hall for showboating after one of his interceptions, saying he should have been penalized for excessive celebration.

"Who cares what Troy thinks?" Hall said. "He's nothing but a Cowboy guy anyway."

This is the Hall dichotomy. "He's a completely different person on that football field," Joan Hall said. So he carries with him a reputation, from Blacksburg to Atlanta, from Atlanta to Oakland, from Oakland to Washington. He has come off, he realizes, as a troublemaker. Now, as a co-captain of the Redskins defense, he believes he is a problem solver.

"When you're confident, and then you're, I guess, a little cocky on top of it," Hall said, "I guess you could tend to rub people the wrong way."

So DeAngelo Hall can tend to rub people - particularly opponents - the wrong way. When he was with the Falcons, Hall had legendary scraps with Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith, the last of which led to a sideline argument with then-Atlanta Coach Bobby Petrino after Hall was penalized for arguing a call against him while he checked Smith. Hall has jawed with Terrell Owens. Earlier this month, some Philadelphia players accused Hall and safety LaRon Landry of mocking Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson - who had been out with a concussion - during pregame warmups, after which the two teams scrapped.

"Everybody in the National Football League has some sort of ego," said Haslett, the Redskins' defensive coordinator. "The really good ones probably have a little more confidence and ego - or whatever you want to call it - than the ones who are just average. And DeAngelo's a good football player and he has great confidence in his ability."

This is no different now, at 27, than it was when he was a 17-year-old freshman at Virginia Tech. Hall was well aware that, the previous year, Hokies coaches would all but threaten the other cornerbacks, telling him they had a kid on the way that would take their jobs if they failed to shape up. In his first college game, Hall broke up a pass, made a diving interception and was named the defensive MVP.

"Most freshmen are kind of tentative and not willing to step out there on their own and say, 'I can do that,' " said Lorenzo Ward, who then served as the defensive backs coach at Virginia Tech. "But that's what D. Hall did. That was his goal."

By his sophomore year, Hall started every game. As a junior, he not only played corner and returned kicks but served as a receiver on offense. Hall's attitude wasn't just apparent on the field. Even when he was small, when Joan Hall was overseeing writing tests DeAngelo needed to complete for school, he would challenge his mother intellectually.

"Oh, Mama, I know that," he would say.

"I have two degrees, DeAngelo," Joan would say. "You're not smarter than I am."

"I am, I am," he would respond.

"I've never been able to convince him I was smarter than him," Joan said.

Still, in Hall's mind, the confidence, the cockiness doesn't give a glimpse of the whole picture of a young man's life. After Hall snared that fourth and final interception against the Bears, he took another ball to the stands, to Joan Hall and her best friend, Beverly Felder, who is close enough to DeAngelo that he considers her an aunt. Two other friends, close enough that DeAngelo calls them cousins, were there, too, and each member of the Hall party had a football. That was apparent to the Bears fans who surrounded them, some of whom snapped pictures.

"They were just so nice," Joan Hall said.

But they did not, they could not, know why DeAngelo Hall fell to his knees after the interception, why he looked skyward. They did not and could not know that on his left arm, he has, tattooed, a pair of praying hands draped with rosary beads, with two dates and one name, that of his late brother. The dates are July 1, 1968, when Kevin Smith was born, and Feb. 1, 1994, when Kevin Smith died.

So neither those Bears fans surrounding Joan Hall nor Troy Aikman, nor, frankly, most of DeAngelo Hall's teammates and coaches could know he thinks of his late brother at such moments. He then, invariably, turns to God. Falling to his knees and looking toward the sky? He has done it, he said, since middle school. He does it still, he said, to praise the Lord.

"They think I'm just, 'Look at me,' " Hall said. "That ain't what I'm doing. I never explained it to anybody, though. I ain't never really seen the point to."

The best explaining, he believes, is how he lives his life. He may stir controversy on the field, but he has never been in trouble off it. He has never really explained that, by high school, he was talking about marriage, about having his own family. So few people know that by 20, he did, because he married the cheerleader he first saw on a recruiting trip to Virginia Tech. Jada Hall, his sweetheart all through college, is now the mother of his four children: Tyrel, 8; Mya, 4; Ta'lia, also 4; and Breana, seven months.

"That wasn't by coincidence, that he has his own family," James Smith said.

Nor is it by coincidence that, on Sunday morning, before the Redskins face the Vikings, DeAngelo Hall will get on the phone with his mother, and he will pray. He will get on the phone with his brother James, and he will pray. He will get on the phone with his brother Tyrone, and he will pray.

And if he makes an interception against the Vikings, he will fall to his knees and look to the sky. The fans at FedEx Field just might think he is seeking attention. He won't care. He will look to heaven. He will think of his late brother. And he will find his mother in the stands, because only they truly know what it took to get to that point.

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