Feelings of anguish
INDIANAPOLIS – To grasp the foundation of Joseph Addai's career, you first have to wrap your head around one reality. He wants you to understand this, so he stops snacking on a cup of pineapple slices and sits up on the curved leather couch in his spacious brick manor.
"Every day," Addai says, "I'm scared someone might take my position."
He drops the line with absolute sincerity, then slides to the edge of his couch with conviction when a visitor rolls his eyes skeptically.
"Naw, really," the Indianapolis Colts running back insists. "Even now, when they bring another running back in, I think about losing my job."
It's not exactly a valid concern these days. Not for a player who has replaced Edgerrin James as seamlessly as James once replaced Marshall Faulk. And certainly not likely for a player who became the star of last season's talent-packed class of rookie running backs. Reggie Bush can have the throne as the NFL's new messianic advertising force, but it's Addai who has earned the title of dependable go-to running back.
"When you talk about Joe," Colts safety Bob Sanders says, "you're talking about the guy who has the full, full, full package."
And yet, there was Addai, sitting in his living room a few days before going back to his hometown to play the Houston Texans last week, legitimately worried about losing his job. It's paralysis by analysis, but you can hardly blame him. It's a worry most other stars have never had to consider, but in the last seven years Addai has bounced between running back, quarterback, fullback, wide receiver and back again. You tend to get a little self-conscious about your hold on a position when this is the first year you've had it all to yourself.
Indeed, it wasn't until a four-hour drive from Baton Rouge, La., to Houston during Addai's sophomore season at LSU that he was able to come to grips with the many roles that would ultimately define him as a running back.
"Whatever the coaches wanted, whatever chances I got, I was jumping on them," Addai says. "People say things about making the best of your smallest opportunities. I realized what it meant that day."
Three years later, and maybe for the first time in his career, Addai is the unquestioned centerpiece of a backfield. But he's been fighting for this for so long that even the remote possibility of losing it keeps his mind turning.
Hidden on an offense flush with perennial Pro Bowlers and Madison Avenue darling Peyton Manning, Addai's anonymity has become something of a self-inflicted dagger. Like teammate Marvin Harrison, he abhors the spotlight and would rather let his play – and not a string of national ad campaigns – define his blossoming career.
"The goal is to win football games, right?" Addai asks rhetorically. "Well, that's what I'm here for. And if those other things come, they come."
With his sudden rise as one of football's elite running backs, those things may be coming faster than anyone could have predicted.
FORK IN THE ROAD
Even now, Addai feels like the drive that defined his career happened yesterday. He can feel his hands wrapped around a steering wheel, his body packed into the burgundy Toyota Camry that often ferried him home to southwest Houston between semesters at LSU.
By the end of his sophomore season with the Tigers, Addai's career had been schizophrenic at best. Despite craving to be an every-down running back, he'd risen to national prominence as a scrambling quarterback in high school. And even when he committed to LSU as a nationally celebrated recruit, his visions of making the transition to the backfield were stalled by a depth chart thick with future NFL players.
As a true freshman, Addai was buried at running back behind future NFL players Domanick Davis, LaBrandon Toefield and even Devery Henderson, who had yet to be moved to receiver. After a redshirt year, then-coach Nick Saban called Addai into his office and uttered the words that would become all too familiar.
"We're thinking of moving you," Saban told Addai. "We think we could get you on the field as a fullback."
And that's how Addai's career started with the Tigers, paving the way for other NFL-caliber running backs. Eventually, he worked his way into a rotation with Justin Vincent (who would go on to play with the Atlanta Falcons) before straining his MCL in the middle of his sophomore season. To help lighten the strain on his knee upon Addai's return after missing two games, Saban made Addai a third-down back. It was a supporting role, but Addai played his part on what became a national championship team. But after touching the ball only four times against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, he wondered what was ahead.
"If I was honest about it, I'd say that I wasn't feeling that role," Addai says. "I was never going to say anything. Who was I to say anything? But there were definitely times that I doubted myself. I wondered 'Man, is this football thing really for me?' The offseason between my sophomore and junior season, I thought about that a lot."
It was during that stretch that Addai packed his car to head home during a break in classes, and then spent the ride talking to himself. Literally.
"I asked myself all kinds of things like 'What am I doing wrong?'," Addai remembered. "I really thought about it. I knew I wasn't taking any shortcuts, but I still wasn't getting where I wanted to be. … I just thought about it the whole way. At some point, I started to realize that what people say about taking advantage of your opportunities was the truth. By the time I got out of the car, I had told myself, 'Every chance I get from now on, I have to make the coaches feel bad for not putting me in games.' "
The chances eventually came. Saban gave him a featured role as junior in 2004, but it wasn't until Les Miles took over as coach in 2005 that Addai would finally be given the nod as the full-time starter. Even then, he had to carry the load with a high ankle sprain, rushing for 941 yards and nine touchdowns.
Ironically, it was that twisted path that attracted the Colts.
"That definitely opened our eyes," Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy said. "He played in a pro-style system. He played some wide receiver. He played in the slot. He played fullback. He got a chance to do everything and develop. He learned the whole game. To me, that was probably the most impressive thing about him as a rookie, the fact that he came in and understood our offense, understood our pass protections and routes. Most backs when they come in the league, if you're good enough you can come in and run, but it's all the other things that trip them up. Joe's experience in college made him become a complete player."
To Dungy, the fact that Addai never complained was proof of his character.
"He was never critical of anything during that time," Dungy said. "He never said 'Hey, I've got to play more.' We looked at that as a positive – that we were going to get a guy that was going to be able to share the load. Really, we talked to everybody. We couldn't talk to Nick Saban, obviously, because he was with Miami. But we talked to a lot of his other coaches and many of his teammates that he had been around. And we couldn't get anybody to say anything negative about him."
On the other end of the phone, Dominic Rhodes is gushing.
Rhodes talks about how Addai is destined for greatness and how his game is so similar to Edgerrin James'. Most of all, he talks about how even though Addai was essentially drafted to take Rhodes' starting job, Addai became one of his best friends.
The statement is odd for a league where running back rotations are often awkward, if not entirely strained. But Rhodes, now with the Oakland Raiders, and Addai were the antithesis of that in 2006, proving to be the foil of such emotionally disastrous pairings as the Chicago Bears' platoon of Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson.
"He came into the league like a guy who didn't expect to be a first-round pick," Rhodes said. "It's something that some of these guys need to learn, that it's not about one person. It's about the team, and Joe took that to heart."
And it's Rhodes who seems genuinely offended that Addai hasn't received more attention this season. He clucks his tongue in disgust when he thinks about Bush being branded the league next superstar. He notes that it's Addai who owns a Super Bowl ring and scored the game-winning touchdown in the AFC Championship game. And it's Addai who became the first running back in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards despite not starting a single game.
"In college, Reggie had all the highlight reels, and people kind of live on that," Rhodes said. "Maybe it takes people who have to work hard in this league to appreciate a guy like Joseph. It takes people who understand football to see the value of a guy like Joe, who can do everything on the field. You know, he's not a flashy guy, one of those guys that's going to break 80-, 90-yard runs. But he's a guy that can get between the tackles, go outside them, can catch the ball and can block.
"He can do everything a true running back can do and he can do it all well. That stuff gets overlooked in our game when you see guys running around putting on jackets that say 'Hall of Fame' and doing the flashy stuff like that."
Clearly, the on-field flash is lost on Addai but not his teammates. They marvel Addai's similarities to James. He runs with momentum and fights through tackles. He has the propensity to pick up extra yardage in limited space. And he fits what the Colts need as a total package, much the same way James did when he replaced Faulk.
"He makes it look easy, like Edge did," Sanders said. "He's really smooth and fluid like Edge was when he was running. He's always leaning forward when he runs. When he gets hit, he's falling forward like Edge did. – He's like Edge without the gold teeth and dreads."
Added Manning, "I think he's trying to create his own identity, but he certainly does some of those same great things that Edgerrin did. He's a physical runner that takes a lot of hits but always gets up. He catches the ball well. You saw him (against Tennessee) catch a three-yard pass, made a linebacker miss and it ended up being a nine-yard gain. His pass protection is extremely solid. He's physical enough to take on linebackers and sometimes defensive linemen."
Addai beams at the comparisons. He commiserates with James more than any other running back in the league, often sharing two- to three-hour phone conversations that can range from how to invest money to blocking techniques.
"The first time I talked to him, he told me about following Marshall Faulk and how Faulk used to tell him all kinds of things," Addai said of James, who has remained close to members of the organization since joining the Arizona Cardinals as a free agent in 2006. "It's like a big brother situation. When I'm making a decision, I go to him. He's the first guy I go to. He's a guy that I respect and who I can open up to."
And convincing Addai to open up – particularly about himself – is a rarity in itself.
AVOIDING THE SPOTLIGHT
Getting dressed one morning a few months ago, Colts cornerback Kelvin Hayden stood in front of the television watching a music video. As he slipped his shirt on, he caught a glimpse of a familiar face. He leaned forward and peered in disbelief at a man in the video.
"I see this guy just standing there in the background, and I was like 'Is that Joe?' And it was," Hayden said with a chuckle. "I couldn't believe it. That whacked me out. I had no idea."
As it turned out, nobody did. While working out in Baton Rouge in the offseason, Addai was invited to be in the video "Wipe Me Down" by Lil' Boosie, a hip-hop artist he met in college. While most NFL players would call every number in their phone, Addai decided not to tell anyone. Not his agent. Not his teammates. Not his coaches.
A few months later, Colts players and Addai's friends were left doing double-takes and squinting at TV screens. And when Addai was told these stories later, he broke out in a boisterous laugh and wrapped his hands around his head.
"Man, I did that for a reason," he said. "Some people will be in a video and will be telling people 'Man, watch out for this video I'm in and watch me in it.' But I was worried that, you know, what if they had cut me out? I'd be walking around telling people I'm in this video, and then it comes out and I'm not in there. That would be so embarrassing."
It's a story that perfectly frames Addai's personality.
He doesn't have a problem with attention, but it's not his way to force himself on the public. He's prone to telling reporters that he will talk "if they can catch me around the facility," he says. And few people know that after last season's Super Bowl win, Addai had an opportunity to be on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" … and passed it up.
"Yeah, it's true," he said sheepishly. "I don't know if I was ready for that. You've got to get yourself right to do something like that. If I was a little bit older and had been in the game in a while, I would have done it. But in my first year? I didn't think that was right at the time. I mean, Jay Leno, you have to be on your P's and Q's if you're going to do that.
"I don't feel like I need all that attention. I can be comfortable with it, but I don't feel the need to be out on the scene and having people looking at them and have that spotlight on me."
And while this doesn't exactly make life easy on the local media, it's not a departure from Addai's history. He's never been comfortable being the first one to talk about himself. Maybe the only subject he enjoys talking about is his friendship with LaJuan Moore, a former high school teammate who was paralyzed during a game when Addai was 16 years old.
With the help of his agent Ian Greengross, Addai set up a foundation called "Not Your Average Joe," which helps support kids who suffer spinal injuries. The foundation is meant in part as a tribute to Moore, whom Addai has kept close throughout the years, even going so far as to make his dorm handicap accessible during his days at LSU.
"After he got injured, he went through all these surgeries and pain and being told he wouldn't walk again, and still came out of the hospital with a smile on his face," Addai said. "That changed me as a man. I just thought, 'Damn, I can't believe this.' That makes you look at life totally different. That's probably why I view things the way I do. No matter how bad things are, you don't have things as bad as someone else. LaJuan smiles all the time. That's strength."
Dungy called the relationship a defining sign of Addai's character, while linebacker Gary Brackett pointed to it and said "that tells you exactly who Joe Addai is."
And yet, maybe we're still finding out about Addai. While the rest of the world races for the dazzle and flash of other players, he quietly moves ahead. And though he still frets about his job security, Addai is well on his way to settling in and embracing his own success.
"Everything in life takes time," Addai says. "I've seen young guys come into a team and just try to force themselves to fit in. That's like buying friends. You can't buy friends. You have to earn them. You have to pay for it the right way."
So Addai makes his payments with patience and silence, knowing that eventually the rest of the world will fall into place.