RIVER FALLS, Wis. — Something unusual happened one day last week at the Kansas City training camp.
John Tait got beat.
During one of those one-on-one drills between linemen, Duane Clemons actually got past the second-year left tackle to where the imaginary quarterback stood.
It hasn't happened often in this first camp for the 6-foot-6, 320-pound Tait, the 14th player taken in the 1999 draft. He has been almost unbeatable. After a bitter and delayed start to his NFL career, Tait is making giant strides toward taking his place as Kansas City's finest offensive lineman.
"Football's tough enough," he said. "But now I know the offense and I have confidence. Confidence in myself and what I'm doing."
Last year, Tait sat out training camp while agent Ethan Lock and Chiefs' president Carl Peterson snarled at each other over details of his contract. At one point, the mild-mannered and deeply religious Tait stormed out of Peterson's office to protest Peterson's foul language.
Even after the contract was finally signed, Tait was so far behind he wasn't activated for the first four regular-season games. Then he began working his way slowly into the lineup, getting helpful tips from veteran Glenn Parker, the man whose job he was drafted to take.
By the end of the season, he was solidly entrenched as the starter, and it was clear why the Chiefs made him the first offensive lineman taken in the 1999 draft.
"He didn't have training camp last year, and training camp is really where you can hone your skills," center Tim Grunhard said. "He's done a good job of coming in here and working hard and getting a feel for what it's like to be in training camp."
At one explosive moment during the holdout, Lock referred to coach Gunther Cunningham as a "foot-shuffling porter," triggering an angry response and doing nothing to get Tait off to a good start.
By the end of the season, however, Cunningham had become a great admirer of the quiet, hardworking Tait. All was forgiven.
"I'll never divulge what I told him after the last game," Cunningham said. "That's between the two of us. But I believe I made my point about what kind of football player he's going to be."
Tait's rapid improvement has not been lost on Cunningham.
"He's coming into his own," Cunningham said. "We felt he was a tremendous prospect. When the Steelers passed him by (on draft day), talk about a sigh of relief. His pass protection is tremendous."
One of the biggest improvements has been Tait's use of his hands and long arms fending off blockers.
"Using your hands the right way is so important, more important than most young guys ever dream of," said John Alt, the Chiefs' retired left tackle who is tutoring tor the offensive linemen.
"John Tait is looking very good," Alt said. "He's very athletic and he's willing to learn."
Tait, who was out of football for two years while serving on a Mormon mission, is probably more mature, both physically and emotionally, than most second-year NFL players.
He's one guy who's in no danger of getting carried away with himself.
"I've got a long ways to go. But I have goals I've set for myself," he said. "You create your own destiny. I feel like the harder you work and the more you work toward your goals, you're going to be successful."