- The Washington Times - Friday, October 1, 2004

Just married and still unwinding from another long NFL season, Joe Salave’a wasn’t thinking about football that day in March. Heck, he was on his honeymoon in New Zealand, on the opposite side of the earth. Just two things were on the mind of the 295-pound nose tackle:

“Eating and sleeping,” Salave’a recalled yesterday.

Think Pumbaa from “The Lion King.” “Big Joe,” as he’s known around Redskin Park, spent his days in a state of pleasant semi-consciousness, chowing on fresh fish and sunning himself. The San Diego Chargers, his 2003 team and preferred employer, said they would be in touch sometime soon. Life was good. Hakuna Matata.

Then his agent called. Washington Redskins assistant head coach for defense Gregg Williams, Salave’a’s old coach with the Tennessee Titans, wanted him in for a workout. Salave’a was in no shape to run a 40-yard dash. But he hopped on a plane, landed a minimum-salary contract and was thrust into the Redskins’ offseason program.

Six months later, Salave’a is at the center of a renaissance by the Redskins’ defensive line. With Salave’a starting for the first time in his seven-year career and anchoring a line that drew great skepticism this offseason, Washington is running the NFL’s No.1 run defense — by a lot.

Opponents are rushing for just 47.3 yards a game against the Redskins, who lead the No.2 Atlanta Falcons by 14 yards in this crucial statistic. While coach Joe Gibbs’ offense searches for consistency, the Redskins are staying in games by stuffing the run and making opposing offenses one-dimensional.

“I’ve probably been about as proud of that group [as any],” Gibbs said of the defensive line. “The offensive line for Dallas [on Monday night] we thought was very physical. We went after that about as good as you can. … I don’t think there’s been somebody who’s sustained the rush against us, which is a big deal up here.”

A good bit of credit goes to Salave’a, who as the starting nose tackle is asked to absorb several blockers and clog the interior. Brandon Noble was expected to start there, but Salave’a’s strong play has allowed Noble to take a reduced role and spend more time rehabbing the knee he blew out in the 2003 preseason.

“He’s given the coaches confidence in him,” Noble said. “That allows me not to play the 40 plays that he’s getting. I only get 15 or 20, so I can walk on Monday morning. It’s helped me a lot. I think if I had to play 40 or 50 snaps a game, I would regress probably with my leg.”

With Salave’a in the middle and a chip on their shoulders, the Redskins’ defensive linemen have made stopping the run a point of pride.

“It’s pretty much like somebody comes into your house and spits and kicks your chairs and messes up your kitchen,” Salave’a said. “It’s that kind of mentality. The group of guys we have, with [line] coach [Greg] Blache at the helm, we made up our mind in March … to be the defense that we want to be.”

What isn’t a focus for Salave’a is the rather stunning fact that, at age 29, he’s finally a first-stringer. After starting just two games in his first six seasons, Salave’a still thinks like a role player. He doesn’t want to be a star as much as he wants to be part of a great rotation.

“I’m not getting caught up in, ‘Oh, I’m starting now,’” Salave’a said. “But I also know that I’ve come a long ways, and I’m not going to overlook any opportunity. This is a privilege to be in this situation, to be playing with [defensive tackle Cornelius] Griffin and Noble and some of these guys.”

It’s understandable for Salave’a to be so unassuming. A 1998 fourth-round pick by the Titans, his contributions peaked in 2000 on Williams’ top-ranked defense (the one that finished just ahead of Baltimore’s Super Bowl-winning unit). But Salave’a spent 2002 out of football and played in just nine games as a Charger last season.

That didn’t stop Williams from tracking down his former player and offering him a chance to join the Redskins.

“No one questions his warrior mentality, his spirit,” Williams said. “We needed to have that type of mentality up front to stop the run. As we were looking at guys to bring in here and upgrade in certain areas, he was one of the guys that came first to mind. He’s so strong at the point of attack.”

When Salave’a got the call on his honeymoon, he admitted to his wife, Josephine, that this might be his last real opportunity. Each year brings him closer to retiring in his native American Samoa, a group of six Polynesian islands in the South Pacific where he runs a football clinic for about 500 children each year.

“It’s getting harder and harder to say goodbye,” Salave’a said. “I’m realizing that that’s where I want to be when all is said and done.”

All’s not quite said and done yet. Roused from the comfort of his honeymoon last winter and, perhaps, the backside of his NFL career, Salave’a is determined to continue overachieving.

“For whatever reason, this year I feel like I have to prove myself every day and settle for nothing less,” Salave’a said. “These guys I’m around, they share the same vision of working to a common goal and never being satisfied.”

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