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Huge question

Haynesworth’s talent is undeniable - but can he keep himself in line?

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / August 21, 2011

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He came as a refugee, his talent commensurate with his ability to stir controversy, to induce acid reflux in those charged with getting the most out of that big body and those tantalizing skills. The list of Albert Haynesworth’s crimes - confirmed and alleged - is long enough to depict a player seemingly worthy of the scorn he receives.

For instance, Haynesworth knew in the immediate aftermath of his 2006 stomping of Cowboys center Andre Gurode’s head that it was a despicable act. He made the rounds to apologize, to the many family members who had gotten their first chance to see Haynesworth play professional football in person that day, to the coaches at the Unversity of Tennessee who had whirled him away from his small-town upbringing and, eventually, to Gurode.

Yet the list of bad deeds and bad choices kept growing.

He has a chance to make good again in New England, though he has yet to take the field in any meaningful way for the Patriots. He has a chance to refocus himself and his detractors on his ability to play on the defensive line better than just about anyone in the National Football League.

“It’s a great chance,’’ Haynesworth said to the media just after his trade from Washington. “It’s a great chance to be on a great team. It’s a chance to restore my name or whatever you want to say. It’s a great chance to get back on the field and play football.’’

Haynesworth didn’t have that opportunity at the end of last season. The adulation and excitement accompanying his nine-figure arrival in Washington had vanished in the wake of ugly accusations by teammates, instances of road rage, a four-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the Redskins, and charges that have led to his misdemeanor sexual assault trial that is set to begin Tuesday. That trial is the result of a February incident at the W Hotel in Washington in which Haynesworth allegedly fondled the breasts of a waitress.

He had disappointed the people who signed him, those who had cheered him, and those who had been there in the beginning. Those people still believe there is inherent goodness and greatness in the large man from small-town Hartsville, S.C.

“He is a prideful guy,’’ said Dan Brooks, who coached the defensive line when Haynesworth was at Tennessee and who now holds the same position at Clemson. “You learn that that’s the one thing nobody can take away, is your name.

“So when you’ve done some things yourself to do that, it is important to restore that. Now hopefully that’s the way he’ll go about it and get back to the caliber of guy that he was.’’

Obvious potential The pressure started early, as soon as the community realized his potential in football - and where all of that food was going. He would clean out his grandmother’s pantry, “eat everything up in the house,’’ as his cousin, Chip Gilliard, said. Drink all the milk he could find, as Chip’s father Evans said. Haynesworth didn’t start growing quite so large until he hit about the fifth grade. And by the time he was in high school, they knew what all that size and all that talent might mean.

There was the day he missed an assignment in ninth grade, in a class taught by his uncle. He was called to the front of the class. As Evans Gilliard said, “I told the class that I want you to look at this kid. Two or three years after college, he should be a millionaire. If he’s not, it’s because he has not put forth the effort that’s required. And he knows that in the end.’’

“My comment to him was, ‘Go forward, young man,’ ’’ said South Carolina State Senator Gerald Malloy, a longtime friend of the family. “You have been blessed and you have the opportunity to be something very special. God didn’t make many people 6-6 and 300 pounds [actually 335] that can run and make a better living for your family for generations to come.

“So he told me then that he would not disappoint me, that he would go forward.’’

And Haynesworth hasn’t disappointed, at least in terms of those millions, or in providing for his family. He proved his worth with the Titans, who drafted him out of Tennessee in 2002, then moved to the Redskins as a free agent on a $100 million contract.

It’s in all the other ways that Haynesworth hasn’t lived up to expectations.

“Growing up in a small town and having the success that he’s had, is it like growing up in a big city where it’s common for athletes to thrive and succeed in that area?’’ Chip Gilliard said. “This was an anomaly of sorts, him being the way he was.

“There’s a lot of people that cater to Albert, and some ego comes into play, potentially. You never know when kids that young get a lot of attention like that.’’

Need for discipline Maybe it was all that attention. Maybe not. It was clear, though, that something had gone wrong.

Not only had Haynesworth become embroiled in the Gurode incident, in the episodes of road rage, and in the assault trial - which could have consequences to the tune of 180 days in jail - but the issues began to extend onto the field. His teammates and coaches in Washington had gotten sick of him. Accusations swirled regarding his lack of interest in football and his selfishness.

“He can do almost anything he wants. He doesn’t want to do anything. To me, that’s the issue,’’ Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said on ESPN radio in St. Louis earlier this year. “He’s one of those guys you walk in a meeting and you tell him, ‘Put down the phone.’ The next day you have to tell him to put down the phone. The next day, you tell him to put down the phone.

“You tell him, ‘Don’t read the newspaper in meetings.’ The next day you have to tell him the same thing. It doesn’t stick; it’s an everyday thing.’’

Haynesworth earned the enmity of teammates for not listening to coaches or being where he needed to be. He clashed with Washington coach Mike Shanahan, who handed Haynesworth a four-game suspension at the end of last season. He was considered a bad teammate, and it was clear that his days in Washington were nearing an end.

Those issues, though, hadn’t started in Washington. They had been there all along - the lack of focus, the need for a strong hand. Former teammate Phillip Daniels criticized the coaching staff for not stepping in fast enough when problems arose.

“I love Albert Haynesworth, he’s one I went and signed, I recruited him, I coached him,’’ said Brooks. “He wasn’t a guy that missed class and you had to run him down or do any of those things, it wasn’t that.

“He was a competitor, and if he felt like somebody wasn’t doing something right, then that’s when you had to step in. If he had somebody holding him, an offensive lineman, then that’s where you had to have some discipline because he could kind of lose it a little bit.’’

His time with the Redskins ended in July, when Haynesworth was shipped to the Patriots for a fifth-round pick in 2013.

“He just needs to be around discipline and I think New England’s a great place for him,’’ former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. “The expectations from coaches and teammates, getting 100 percent control of his personal life as well. His mother brought him up right and he certainly knows right from wrong.’’

Voices of support When Haynesworth arrived in New England, the coach gave him a sort of absolution, a moment of forgiveness. Pressed about his decision to take on the troubled Haynesworth, Bill Belichick said, “I think we can look at every player, every person in this room’s past, and find something that was a mistake and is less than ideal - on any team, in any group of people. We’ve all made mistakes.’’

Haynesworth, though, has made many. Too many, perhaps. And yet he still has support from his past coaches, as well.

“When he’s really really focused, he’s a heck of a young person,’’ Fulmer said. “He has to control those emotions.’’

When he’s really focused, when he’s on a winning team, he’s also a heck of a football player. That’s the allure of Albert Haynesworth - that big body, that ability to inflict damage, that need for multiple blockers to keep him contained.

That’s why the Titans drafted him in the first round in 2002. That’s why the Redskins lavished $100 million dollars on him. That’s why the Patriots were willing to take a chance on a player who perhaps has had more than his share of chances already.

“I think he has a shield, so to speak,’’ Chip Gilliard said. “He doesn’t let a lot of people into his inner circle. I think that’s kind of a defense mechanism.

“A lot of times when you do that, people are going to form their own opinions about him. If you know him, then you know that he’s genuine about things, that he’s a considerate person, so on and so forth. And if you don’t, you know what you see and you know what you read.’’

For most people, there haven’t been a lot of positives in what they’ve read lately about Haynesworth. And given his record, it won’t be easy to change the minds of a doubtful public.

As Brooks said he has told Haynesworth: “The past is one thing, but you have to go forward. You have to be humble, go about doing things, work hard, do the very best you can do because God blessed you with a lot of ability.

“I think it’s a life-changing deal here. Where do you go from here? I think it’s big-time important that he handles things right. It could be a career-changing deal for him, to take the fresh start and go with it.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmalieBenjamin.

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