“You ever been in a car wreck?” Jason Hatcher asks. “How did it feel?”
The 33-year-old defensive end — now in his 10th NFL season, with 140 regular season games and too many practices to recall under his belt — was trying to explain what his 6-foot-6, 293-pound body feels like the morning after a football game.
He thought for a couple of seconds, scratching his beard. Then the car wreck analogy popped into his head.
“Sore. Stiff, right?” he continued. “Do that, in my case, about 40 times a day. See how you feel. That’s about how it would feel.”
The repeated collisions have taken their toll. So, too, have the many squats, lunges, the crouches in a three-point stance, the explosions off the line, the sprints to quarterbacks and ball carriers.
Father Time is flexing his muscle, Hatcher knows. But the defensive lineman is determined to squeeze out every last drop and finish his career and the Washington Redskins’ season on a strong note.
On his quest for age-defying effectiveness, Hatcher has found that humility, creativity and balance are all necessary.
This season, he has had to admit to himself, to teammates and coaches that his body no longer allows him to rebound quickly from those punishing Sundays.
A proud man who has always embraced leadership roles, Hatcher has always preferred to show rather than tell. But with his joints stiff and throbbing, Hatcher has had to beg off of Wednesday practices. He watches from the sideline, then gets back to work on Thursday and Friday, sometimes as a limited participant.
“It sucks because I can’t go out there and lead by example,” Hatcher said. “Your actions speak louder than words. . . . It’s so hard to do when you’re not out there in practice. . . . That’s the part that sucks, but I’ve got to do what’s best and just be out there with them on Sundays.”
The pace-yourself approach is new for Hatcher this year but not for his career. He handled a similar workload later in his eight-year tenure in Dallas, and that helped keep him fresh, he said. But last season after signing with Washington, as a new member of the team, Hatcher didn’t feel the freedom to request an altered workload.
“You have to follow the protocol of the team, especially as a new guy,” recalled Hatcher, whom the Redskins in 2014 signed to a four-year, $27.5 million deal with $10.5 million guaranteed in the first year. “I mean, I know I’m a vet and all that, but you’ve got other guys that are established on the team, and you’ve got to go by what they do.”
But Hatcher, who in the summer of 2014 had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee and spent much of training camp working to regain full strength, paid the price for the heavy workload.
After recording 21/2 sacks in the second game of the season, Hatcher mustered only half a sack in the next six games. He finished the year with 51/2 and went on injured reserve with knee problems, missing the final three games of the season.
“It was bad. It was bad,” Hatcher recalled. “I’m the type of guy that I don’t complain and I don’t give up. So I took my knee to the limits. So when I went on IR, I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t walk.”
Hatcher went into the offseason convinced he needed to change if he expected to make it through another NFL season. He altered his offseason training program and also embraced the new regimen installed by strength coach Mike Clark. Hatcher also changed his eating habits. He lost weight to ease pressure on his joints.
Hatcher also had a talk with his coaches, and they reached a conclusion on how to handle his workload throughout the week.
“You know what? I think each case is different. . . . I think you have to have a trust factor with the player, too,” Coach Jay Gruden said. “Jason lays it all on the line. He had a great training camp, busted his butt. He’s been a veteran guy, played a lot of football, and I know that his knee has some soreness to it after he plays on Sunday and he needs maybe some extra time. . . . Some guys you need to push a little bit more. Some guys need a little bit more rest.”
As he did in Dallas, Hatcher has incorporated resistance bands into his daily training program. For him, there’s less of an emphasis on heavy lifting and more focus on flexibility and quickness.
In Week 4, Hatcher took up Bikram yoga — a type of yoga that features a series of postures and breathing exercises performed in a room heated at a high temperature. Every Monday starting at 9 a.m., Hatcher takes a 90-minute class, and he brings with him a gallon of water because he sweats so much during the session. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, Hatcher takes the 6 a.m. class. Hatcher says the exercises have helped his muscles recover more effectively.
“I do the hot yoga after the game to get all the toxins out of my body that I put in to be able to play the game all day — energy drinks and stuff like that to get energy. . . . The yoga speeds things up,” Hatcher explained. “The yoga, it tones you. It elongates you. As we get older and you get tight, throughout the week, you feel heavy and like you’re walking through mud, but [with yoga], you just feel light.”
After recording a sack in the season opener, Hatcher has yet to get back to the quarterback. Last week, he failed to record a tackle for the third time this season. But he says he feels the strength in his legs returning, and he hopes his playmaking form returns as well.
On Thursday, defensive coordinator Joe Barry said after the day off Wednesday, Hatcher “came out like gangbusters,” in Thursday’s session. Hatcher hopes his coaches can use that adjective to describe his play on Sundays for a while longer.
“Ten years of ball, you’re on the other side of the track. But my will and love for the game, I want to leave my legacy,” Hatcher said. “I don’t want to just quit because I’m in pain. I don’t ever want to give up. God knows my days are numbered. Could be soon, could be later.”