By Tom James
INDIANAPOLIS — Call it a friendly rivalry. That pretty much describes the relationship between Indianapolis Colts weakside linebacker Freddy Keiaho and middle linebacker Gary Brackett.
Brackett, the Colts’ defensive captain, has been among the team’s tackling leaders for the three previous years. Before the 2008 regular season got underway, however, Keiaho and Brackett came up with a little wager to see how would end up as the team’s top tackler.
There was one condition placed on the bet, though. The player with the fewest tackles by the end of the season would contribute to the other’s favorite charity. Through the first six games of the current season, Brackett has edged ahead with 61 total tackles. Keiaho, who had been the team’s top tackler earlier in the year, is running a close second with 57 stops.
Such is life in the Colts’ lockerroom, especially for two guys whose lockers are close together. Their friendship shouldn’t really come as that much of a surprise since their NFL career somewhat parallel each others.
Brackett was an undersized linebacker who was not drafted after playing for a college program — Rutgers — that hadn’t received the national attention that it has in recent years. Keiaho, meanwhile, was a third-round draft pick from San Diego State whom many outside observers figured was also undersized to be an every-down player in the league.
Both have become starters for the Colts, using their speed and athletic skills to make plays all over the field. While both are relatively quiet off the field, they are two of the most animated linebackers on the Indianapolis roster come game day.
Brackett is already being recognized as one of the most underrated middle linebackers in the NFL. Keiaho is starting to become noticed more and more for his combination of power and quickness.
He’s also becoming known for the passion that he brings to each and every practice and game. This is a guy that hates to lose. Keiaho — his given name is Naivote Taulawakeiaho — was that way in college. And he has brought that emotional style to the Colts.
In the wake of last week’s 34-14 loss to the Green Bay Packers, the 5-foot-11, 226-pound native of Suva, Fiji (he’s the only Fijian-born player in the NFL) was one of the last players to leave the Indianapolis locker room. He sat in front of his cubicle long after the game was over, still in uniform, fuming about the way the Colts had lost.
As a collegiate senior, his San Diego State team struggled to get wins. It ate him up.
“I’m crying in the locker room after every loss,” Keiaho told a writer from the San Diego Union-Tribune. “It’s really emotional for me, because I put so much effort into everything I do. And to not get the return I want, it hurts.
“There are a lot of people in this community that want this team to do well, and it’s tough, because we can’t get over the hump.”
Want to see emotion? Take a look at the Colts’ 2006 Super Bowl XLI video. Watch the pregame scenes, with the military jets flying low over Miami’s Dolphin Stadium. Check out Keiaho’s reaction, the tears rolling down his face.
On the flip side, how about earlier this season when he was called for pass interference on a crucial third-down play late in the Jacksonville game. Keiaho had inadvertently bumped into a Jaguars receiver and was flagged for the play. Jacksonville was awarded a first down and proceeded to drive the ball downfield for the game-winning field goal.
He could have ranted and raved about the call, which could have gone either way. But he didn’t.
“I thought that the game was over,” Keiaho said at the time. “I didn’t know that they had called a penalty on me. But what are you going to do?”
Since being drafted in 2006, he has played strong-side linebacker and middle linebacker before finally settling in at his current position. His progress there has been relatively smooth, although he has tried to play more within himself and not go running around without a purpose.
Colts coach Tony Dungy likes what he’s seen so far. And he knows that the best may be yet to come.
“Freddy has everything we’re looking for to play that spot [weak-side linebacker]. He certainly knows it much better now and is playing fast and playing very hard,” Dungy said.
Staying healthy is the key, according to Keiaho. He’s been beset by a series of injuries over the last couple of seasons.
“‘You can’t make the club when you’re in the tub’ is the saying. It’s all about staying healthy,” he said. “Last year, I caught some bad breaks.
“Hopefully this year I won’t catch those same breaks and play in all 16 games.”
Dungy would like to see that happen.
“Freddy is coming on. He’s been very consistent for us. [Weakside linebacker] is a spot that’s probably tailor-made for him to use his speed and his instincts to run to the football,” the Colts coach said. “He’s growing as a player every week. And I think he’s going to be very good for us.”