DeAngelo Hall came to the NFL when he was 20. He is now just more than a week from his 34th birthday. Of the 31 players taken around him in the first round of the 2004 draft, just five remain active; none are defenders. The man he replaced in the Washington Redskins’ starting lineup Sunday in Seattle, Montae Nicholson, was a senior in high school in 2013, right when Hall completed his 10th NFL season.
Why keep doing this?
“I got an addiction,” Hall said Wednesday. “It’s like I’m a smoker, and I need another cigarette. Maybe I’ll get to the patch or something someday. But right now I got to keep smoking. I got to keep playing football.”
Don’t put out that butt yet, because Hall is finishing off not just a career but a complete image overhaul, from hothead to old head, and wise one at that. Once a Pro Bowl cornerback, now a sometimes safety, Hall played in his first game in 14 months against Seattle. And by “played,” we don’t mean subbed in on a nickel package or covered some punts. That would be 82 snaps on defense — every single one — plus six more as a punt returner, somehow an integral part of the season’s most important victory.
“A 20- to 22-year-old man, that’s what I saw,” said Nicholson, who watched his mentor from the sideline as he sat out with shoulder issues. “Man, he’s playing like he’s my age.”
But Hall isn’t Nicholson’s age. At all. Not physically, because after 171 NFL games in the regular season and the playoffs, he needs all the cold tubs and massages he can get. But not intellectually, either. It’s funny to think about what Hall was perceived as when he got here back in 2008 — cut by Oakland midway through the season, a selfish troublemaker who might be a short-timer. His talent came with a temper and with not a small amount of drama.
And yet as the injuries mounted — torn Achilles’ tendon in 2014, groin and toe problems in 2015, blown out anterior cruciate ligament last year — Hall somehow got more dedicated, not less. At voluntary offseason workouts, he couldn’t take the field but sat in at all the meetings. When the season began and he landed on the physically-unable-to-perform list, he took in every practice, holding a script and watching with coaches.
“I guess I just didn’t want to be forgotten,” Hall said. “When you disappear when you’re hurt, it’s easy to be forgotten.”
Except Hall has never been the type who is easy to forget. When Hall looks back on the expanse of his career now — four turbulent seasons in Atlanta, a half-year in Oakland and his unceremonious dismissal, and somehow 10 seasons with the team he rooted for growing up in Chesapeake, Va. — he can laugh about the missteps, and there were many. But he does not dismiss them. They are part of his full picture. And his full picture has depth, nuance — ah, who’s kidding who? His full picture has warts.
“I can remember not running a conditioning test,” Hall said Wednesday, sitting on a couch outside the locker room. This particular test came in Atlanta, where then-coach Jim Mora had handpicked him out of Virginia Tech — and then coddled him upon arrival. Mora pleaded, saying he would even run with his new cornerback.
“I’m like, ‘I ain’t running that [stuff],’ ” Hall said. “Just being an [ass] for no reason.”
It didn’t stop. The Falcons would head to a team function, and Mora’s instructions were for everyone to ride the bus.
“I’m like, ‘Man, I ain’t riding the bus,’ ” Hall said. “ ‘I just got a new Ferrari.’ ”
He was what he was portrayed as: kind of a jerk.
But to get to this point, where he has more interceptions than any active player and will start Sunday in a crucial game against Minnesota, there had to be some sort of transformation. Jerks might survive, particularly if they’re in their early 20s and have ungodly athletic ability. But when they break down physically and start creaking toward their mid-30s, they can’t stick without a reason.
Hall said he started to realize how his actions could be interpreted under former Washington coach Mike Shanahan. Hall initially thought Shanahan couldn’t stand him. Then he went to talk to him. Hall recounts the conversation thusly:
“Guys are looking at you,” Shanahan told him. “If you don’t want to run or condition, guys are looking at you. If you’re not going hard in practice, they’re looking at you. And they feel they can do it, too. But in order to make these guys work harder, I need you to work harder.”
“And I’m like, ‘Damn, Mike,’ ” Hall said. “ ‘I never thought about it like that. I just thought you wanted to dog the [excrement] out of me.’ ”
So what are we left with, here in the autumn of Hall’s career? He played just 17 games from 2014 to 2016 — and somehow used the time to get better?
“All the guys, they really look at him with an aura,” said Torrian Gray, in his first year coaching Washington’s defensive backs. “He’s got a great presence about himself. He was in those meetings, and he was paying attention when he didn’t really need to. My perception of what he might have been and what I actually found was blown off the charts. He was like a coach. He was very professional.”
DeAngelo Hall, a professional. Was that always the case?
“No,” he said, and he couldn’t have responded quicker. “No.”
When Hall left practice Wednesday, he went home to his wife, his college sweetheart from his Hokies days, and their six — count ’em, six — kids. Hall relocated the family from Atlanta this offseason because he knew his future, both in football and after it, was in Washington. His youngest are twin boys who will turn 6 this week.
“They didn’t really know me as a player,” Hall said. So he’s trying to show him now, for these final eight games of this, his 14th NFL season.
And then what? There could be a career in the media, and Hall has studied that, understands the preparation involved. But he can also look back on his younger self, when he didn’t really know what it took to play 82 defensive snaps, and understand how to evaluate a kid like himself. So he thinks about the front office, about player personnel. He’s seen all manner of players — even in the mirror.
“That’s why I think I’d be a good GM because I can see bull[dung],” Hall said. “Because for years, I bull[dunged] everybody I sat down with.”
DeAngelo Hall’s not here to bull[dung] you, not anymore. He is here, in his 10th season in Washington, to finish out his career. He’s going to do it on the field, too, taking one long, last drag off that cigarette before stomping it out and walking away to whatever might come next.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.