Haloti Ngata wraps up Colts running back Vick Ballard in the… (Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports,…)
You can see it in his gingerly gate as he moves from his locker to the shower area, in the way he leans against a wall to take pressure off his right knee.
Haloti Ngata's remarkable body hurts.
This is easy enough to forget when you watch the Ravens on Sundays. The television announcers are more apt to talk about Terrell Suggs' Achilles or Ray Lewis' triceps. The camera, always following the ball, rarely settles on the trench warfare between Ngata and two or three offensive linemen nearly as big and powerful as he.
His teammates know. Always in awe of his combined size, power and agility, they now speak in appreciative tones of the way Ngata has played through a sprained knee and a busted shoulder, never saying much about either. That's the way he learned from his Tongan forefathers — go to work every day, and if you're in pain, still go.
But this season — his seventh overall and the second straight in which he's played through debilitating pain — the Ravens defensive tackle has thought more about his football mortality than ever before. Maybe it's the joy he gets from chasing his 3-year-old and five-month-old sons. Maybe it's the suicide of Junior Seau, a hero to Ngata and many other players of Polynesian descent.
"It makes you think, especially now that I have kids, is this job worth the head traumas you're probably going to end up having when you're older?" he says in the hushed voice that belies his enormous body. "I just think about being able to raise my kids, see them through college, see them have kids. It makes me think more about how much more I want to play."
It's a weird spot for a guy who's about to turn 29 and just made his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl, a guy who signed a five-year, $60-million contract before last season. But Ngata knows he's no longer the kid from the famous rugby video that pops up during Ravens telecasts, racing past men half his size at a speed that should be impossible for a human grizzly bear.
"I know I will probably never feel as good as I did when I was younger," he says matter-of-factly.
He is wiser — better at resting during the week, better at managing his body according to the guidance of the physical therapist, stretching coach and masseuse he has hired. He's learned not to wear out his mind as well. Instead of popping in game film the minute he arrives home from practice, he's more likely to play with his boys, Solomone and Haloti Maximus. He likes to help his wife, Christina, put them to bed.
The Ravens, too, have made a point of resting Ngata more often, including for a full mid-season game against the Oakland Raiders, when he could have played if necessary.
For now, those efforts have mitigated his physical deterioration.
Opponents certainly aren't ready to write him off as a threat. "He's an excellent player – great size, great athletic ability and always a guy that you know where he is on the field," says Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who will try to avoid being flattened by Ngata in Saturday's AFC divisional playoff game.
It's hard to be 345 pounds and not fat. But you don't see a sloppy gut when Ngata pulls off his pads. He's just big all over, from his thick, meaty paws to his cinder-block noggin.
At the Ravens training facility, he sometimes wears a nit cap pulled low over his ears. Combined with his full beard and mass, it creates a Bunyanesque picture. You could imagine Ngata, in an earlier America, emerging from the deep woods with a huge cut of timber slung across his shoulders.
Teammates sound like they're describing a mythic creature when they recount his feats.
"Did you see him chase down RGIII out of bounds?" says defensive end Paul Kruger, referring to a play from December against Washington Redskins phenom Robert Griffin III. "I mean, that's pretty insane, a 340-pound guy moving that fast. No matter how banged up he is, he can still move around pretty good."
Asked where Ngata ranks among the physical specimens he has observed in football, Kruger says: "You watch the guy, he can really do anything. He can pick up a basketball, he can throw a football as far as anybody in here. He's just athletic as they come, and at that size, it's a pretty unreal combination."
Of course, if Paul Bunyan played seven years on the interior line in the NFL, his joints would probably hurt as well.
It must be quite a thing to possess gifts unfathomable even to fellow pros and yet to grasp, as a man still in your twenties, how fleeting those gifts are. Of course, Ngata talks about that as stoically as he does about everything else. He inherited the demeanor from his father — Solomone Ngata died at age 45 when the truck he drove for work slid off an icy road near Salt Lake City — and the other men in his family.