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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Hovan hones in on new position and other changes
After a successful move to nose tackle, Chris Hovan prepares for a new season and a new baby.
By JOANNE KORTH
Published August 25, 2006
[Times photo (2005): Jim Damaske]
Chris Hovan came to the Bucs after four seasons in Minnesota. "He bought into the way we work and our system on defense," linebacker Derrick Brooks says. "The way we finished proved he's earned everything he's gotten."
TAMPA - Every morning during Bucs training camp, Chris Hovan left the practice field beaded with sweat, his face beet red.
Before heading to the locker room, he routinely stopped to receive intravenous fluids to restore his energy for the afternoon session.
Yes, Hovan knows all about rejuvenation.
Two years removed from the most discouraging season of his career in Minnesota, Hovan has reclaimed his status as an elite defensive tackle with Tampa Bay, a churning force up front for the league's reigning No. 1-ranked defense.
"Sometimes, you have to hit the low to reach the high again," Hovan, 28, said.
A former first-round draft choice of the Vikings in 2000, Hovan started 13 games as a rookie and every game the next three seasons. His future seemed as bright as his trademark flowing red hair.
In 2004, it all fell apart.
Hovan fell out of favor when the Vikings changed defensive schemes. After 70 starts, 243 tackles and 17 sacks in four-plus seasons, he was labeled an attitude problem and declared inactive at the end of 2004, including two playoff games.
In 2005, he needed a job.
Hovan sat at home waiting for the phone to ring. Some days he was so depressed it was all he could do to get off the couch.
When few were willing to give the former All-Pro a second glance, Bucs coach Jon Gruden saw something he liked in Hovan.
"A lot of people, for whatever reason, have real highs and then all of a sudden they have a bad experience or a bad year and things don't go right," Gruden said. "I really believe a lot of the things that were said about him, written about him, believed about him, were not true. He needed a new start."
Hovan signed a one-year contract for the veteran minimum of $540,000. He had his second chance. His hair shorn and his focus narrow, Hovan reported to Tampa Bay with a lunch-pail approach to rebuilding his reputation.
One play at a time.
"I knew I had another chance to go out there and show that I could still produce," Hovan said. "I had to come out here and prove it.
"You can talk all you want, but you have to put it on tape, let everyone evaluate you, let them come to a conclusion. The only thing I could do was work, take coaching and bust my butt."
Hovan, who spent most of his Vikings tenure rushing the passer from the under-tackle position, took on the run-stuffing role of nose tackle with the Bucs. With Hovan the only new starter among the front seven, Tampa Bay's run defense improved 30 yards per game, from 19th to sixth in the NFL rankings at 94.7 yards.
Built like a 6-foot-2, 296-pound soda machine, Hovan used a combination of brute strength and deceptive lateral moves to disrupt opponents' blocking schemes.
He led Bucs linemen with 64 tackles.
"A lot of guys don't get a chance to start their careers over," linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "He embraced the opportunity in Tampa. We didn't worry about his past. He bought into the way we work and our system on defense.
"The way we finished proved he's earned everything he's gotten. I'm grateful to have him as a teammate."
Though plenty of teams in the NFC South drew accolades for adding high-impact players in the offseason - defensive end John Abraham in Atlanta, receiver Keyshawn Johnson in Carolina and quarterback Drew Brees in New Orleans - the Bucs made it a priority to bring back one of their own. Hovan signed a five-year, $17.5-million contract in March.
"He's become a leader here, a cult hero in the community and one of my kids' favorite players," Gruden said.
"I really think a lot of Hovan. He means a lot to me. He's got tremendous heart and passion for football, and that stuff's contagious."
Now, it's back to work.
His trial period is over, but Hovan plans to work just as hard. There are always ways to improve, he said, and he plans to do so with the help of teammates, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and first-year line coach Jethro Franklin.
Hovan likes the team's culture of accountability.
"It's a competitive environment," he said. "We watch the film as a defensive group and everyone's watching you. So if you make a mistake, if you're not hustling, if you're loafing, all eyes are on you."
At home, Hovan is engaged, with fiance Jaimi Kittay expecting the couple's first child.
His future looks bright again, and he wants it to stay that way.
"I've been through the high of highs and I've been through the low of lows," Hovan said. "I know what the two extremes are. I'm going to stick with the highs.
"Sitting on the couch isn't what I was born to do."