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Best for both teams (cont.)

Posted: Thursday March 10, 2005 1:47PM; Updated: Friday March 11, 2005 1:57PM
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Trent Dilfer and Matt Hasselbeck had a very strong relationship in Seattle.
Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images

Because of Dilfer's popularity in the locker room and intangible leadership skills -- and his pedigree as the man who quarterbacked the 2000 Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl championship -- he often found himself serving as a buffer between peeved parties. During games, when players such as wideout Darrell Jackson would gripe about the absence of downfield passes thrown their way, it was Dilfer, rather than Hasselbeck, who'd walk over to calm him. Dilfer conveyed Hasselbeck's frustration to the coaches and, in turn, helped Hasselbeck understand Mike Holmgren's schematic motivations.

"Everyone knows Matt and I had the greatest relationship between a starter and backup in the league," Dilfer said. "But the bottom line is that Matt will be better with me gone. At the end, I was probably hurting Matt's ability to succeed more than I was helping him. It's now on his shoulders completely. He doesn't have the hassle of having a veteran around. I think he's going to flourish with me gone, because it's flat-out his football team."

As I started to ask another question, Dilfer began laughing. "That's Matt calling on the other line," he said. The two men forged their unlikely friendship in spite of constant professional tension: Hasselbeck, brought in as the untested starter in 2001, was outplayed by Dilfer after being benched, prompting the team to hand Dilfer the starting job and a big contract the following offseason. But after Dilfer got hurt in 2002, Hasselbeck played well enough to get his job back.

Then, on April 27, 2003, Dilfer suffered the worst tragedy imaginable: His 5-year-old son, Trevin, died of heart failure after a sudden illness. Trent and his exceptionally strong wife, Cass -- that Fresno State swimmer who put him on his path toward self-improvement way back when -- have handled the horrible aftermath with grace and dignity, standing tall for their three daughters while being ripped apart inside. After that, football obviously became secondary, and when Trent thought about walking away from the game before the 2003 season, Hasselbeck played a huge role in convincing him to return.

There were moments last season when Dilfer wondered if he'd made the right decision. "At times I thought, 'Why am I doing this?'" he admitted. "It was so exhausting to deal with all the drama, and I'm a lot less emotionally stable than I used to be."

Nonetheless, Dilfer took pride in Hasselbeck's development -- and, ultimately, in a far more tangible contribution he made to the Seahawks' success. Going into Seattle's Dec. 26 game against the Arizona Cardinals, the Seahawks were 7-7 and had flameout written all over them. Hasselbeck sat out all but one of that week's practices with a sore throwing elbow, a situation complicated the Thursday morning before the game when Dilfer went to his bedroom closet, bent down to pick up a pair of socks and felt a knifing pain shoot through his lower back. He fell to the ground and, against Cass's objections, ended up crawling all the way to the car and driving to work.

For each of the next three days, he took a Toritol injection and a Vicodin tablet just to be able to practice, all the while hiding his condition from his teammates, other than Hasselbeck. On Sunday, after attempting some warmup tosses before the game, Hasselbeck decided he was unable to play. Dilfer, having taken another Toritol shot while ingesting two Vicodin tablets, a Claritin, a Sudafed and, to counteract the accompanying drowsiness, six cups of coffee, was pressed into service.

"The first two series, I couldn't recognize anything the Cardinals were doing on defense, even though I prepared for it," Dilfer recalled. "I wasn't really listening -- I was just repeating plays that were sent in. Some of it, I actually remember. (Center) Steve Hutchinson thought I was completely stoned. He came to the sidelines and said, 'What the hell's wrong with Trent? He's killing us.' Eric Kennedy, our equipment guy, said, 'Do you know how much medication he has in him?'"

When the Seahawks got the ball back, Dilfer jogged to the huddle and was asked by Hutchinson and several other teammates, "Why didn't you tell us?"

"What do you mean?" Dilfer shot back. "It's none of your damn business. Let's play football."

The Seahawks did, in a game that typified Dilfer's career. The numbers weren't pretty -- 10 of 26, 128 yards, no touchdowns, one interception -- but the man's impact was so much deeper. He got the ball downfield to Jackson (six catches, 101 yards), kept the defense honest enough to give Shaun Alexander (30 carries, 154 yards) room to run and, best of all, produced a 24-21 victory. And with the Seahawks clinging to a three-point lead and facing third-and-6 with just over two minutes remaining, the quarterback who hadn't been able to walk the previous three days saw no one open and staggered out of the pocket, somehow reaching the first-down marker to clinch both the game and a playoff berth.

"That," Holmgren said afterward, "was the longest 7-yard run I've ever seen."

After the season Dilfer asked to be traded, and the 49ers, who expressed interest, seemed the likely destination. Then the Browns emerged as a pleasant surprise. Though Savage was familiar with Dilfer, having worked in the Ravens' front office during the team's Super Bowl season, the two men certainly weren't chummy. "That came out of left field," Dilfer said of Cleveland's interest. "And I've been around long enough to understand that's a very significant pick -- a fourth-rounder -- they gave up for me. Typically, a guy like me might be a conditional sixth, but they obviously valued me."

A year from now, I'm guessing the Browns will be pretty pleased with the return on their investment. After all, they're getting a quarterback, and a person, who's still getting better every day.