Albert Haynesworth’s time in Washington is widely categorized as a failure on multiple fronts. The defensive lineman made headlines when he signed a $100 million deal with the Redskins in 2009, had major conditioning problems and never really contributed anything of significance to the defense. He posed a problem for coaches during his entire stint and was eventually traded.
His name is synonymous with the phrase “free agent bust.”
But on Monday we saw a side of Haynesworth that he hadn’t previously made public. In a piece called “Letter to My Younger Self” for The Players’ Tribune, the 34-year-old opens up about his life on and off the field. It’s at times funny, other times fascinating and overall quite sad. It’s clear from the way Haynesworth describes his playing days that football stopped being fun for him at a very early age.
Haynesworth, who played for the University of Tennessee under longtime Coach Phillip Fulmer, comes across as a guy who felt he was let down by people he trusted. It feels like he has as many regrets from decisions he made in college as he does from his pro days.
“Remember that you’re just a kid from a town of 4,000 in Hartsville, South Carolina. Because when you get to the University of Tennessee, you’re going to feel like a very small fish in a very big pond,” the 2001 second-team all-SEC player writes. “This feeling won’t last, but it’s going to feel that way for a while. You’re going to have some very lonely moments.”
The most telling passage comes when he describes game-day preparation at the professional level. “In 2006, everything is going to change, for better or worse. By now, you will fully understand that to survive in an NFL game, you have to work yourself up into a kind of insanity. This is what it takes. Before games, your coaches will essentially pimp you out. They’re going to use humiliation and fear as a means to make you play as hard as humanly possible. One of them will literally show you a scene from the movie ‘Deliverance’ during a mid-week meeting to demonstrate just how badly the opponent is going to own you. You will love this, in a way. It will make you go absolutely nuts,” Haynesworth writes. “The NFL culture will brainwash you into a certain mentality: ‘My opponent is trying to take food out of my mouth, and I want to embarrass him in front of his family. It disgusts me to be on the same field as him.’”
The narrative of the NFL as a hard-nosed, no-mercy league is well known. And shows like HBO’s new series “Ballers” help round out a clearer picture of what life is like off the field. But to hear a former player talk about the psychological manipulation that’s such a huge part of how teams operate can be disheartening. Sure it’s a grown man’s game and league, but there’s a small part of you, as a sports fan, that always wants to believe that on some level, the athletes are having fun.
About halfway through, his most direct advice comes before his time in Ashburn. “If nothing else, listen to me on this, Albert: Do not leave the Tennessee Titans,” he writes.
He then goes on to mention former coach Mike Shanahan, whom Haynesworth believes was misusing him.
At the time, his disputes with the coach were epic. There was his choice to train on his own during the offseason. Mind you, this was all following a season in which he’d called for accountability from his teammates and was once carted off a field only to return later in the game.
“Last year I worked out with the Redskins, and the year that we had wasn’t great by any means, very disappointed in my play and stuff like that, so I’m getting back to basics, what got me to be one of the top defensive guys in the NFL, and that’s what I plan on doing. I told Mike [Shanahan], and he was like ‘Well, I wanted you to train with our guys’ and all that stuff,” he told Sirius NFL Radio back in 2010. “And I said ‘I totally respect that, but to get me back to where I want to be, I need the serious training, I need the stuff that got me where I’m at.’ We do a lot of specialized stuff. My trainer comes up with some great stuff that’s just for me, basically. Not just maybe a defensive lineman, but just for me, stuff that I can improve on to help me get stronger and things that help me focus better. Nothing against them or whatever, but I want to get back to being the best defensive tackle in the NFL, and I need to do this.”
Then Shanahan showed him up in training camp, forcing him to run an impossible-to-pass fitness drill before not allowing him to practice.
LaVar Arrington, a talk show host on 106.7 The Fan at the time, ripped Haynesworth. “If you don’t understand that running together, lifting together, getting in shape together, learning the schemes together, fellowshipping together, struggling together — that’s what builds. That’s the building block,” Arrington said. “This is a red flag, Albert. This is a red flag. Be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem.”
Haynesworth didn’t mention that scuttlebutt, but his piece did provide details of a different conversation.
“What people aren’t going to see is Mike Shanahan calling you into his office and saying, ‘Albert, we just want you to eat up space. All we want you to do is grab the center and let the linebackers run free.’ You’re going to look at this famous NFL head coach in total disbelief and say, ‘You want to pay me $100 million to grab the center?’ ” he writes. “And he’s going to say, with a straight face, ‘Albert, if you have more than one sack this season, I’m going to be pissed.’ The last thing you’ll say before walking out of the office is, ‘Can’t you just pay someone $300,000 a year to do that?’ ”
If Shanahan really did tell his nose tackle that he didn’t want him to sack anyone, situations like the infamous “nap” play seem a tad more understandable. It also goes to show just how intense and fragile egos can be in NFL locker rooms. Haynesworth said that exchange ruined football for him.
Shanahan’s scheme aside, Haynesworth certainly acted like a jerk during his time in Washington and didn’t play very well. But this letter to himself as a high school freshman shows that he is, after all, just human.