This much of the story of mark Schlereth, the only Alaskan-born player in NFL history, is undeniable: that Fritz Schlereth, his German-born grandfather, won fame in the fatherland as a cake decorator; that Herb Schlereth, Mark's Manhattan-born father, made chump change in the Big Apple by carting cadavers out of gutters and dropping them off at the morgue; and that his Washington Redskin teammates call him Stinky, after stinkheads, a dubious Eskimo delicacy made from rotting fish noggins.
This much of Schlereth's story is unbelievable (but true): that he chose to attend the University of Idaho over the University of Hawaii because of climate; that six knee operations into his college career he announced his retirement from football, only to unretire and play during his senior year; and that he was the 263rd overall selection of the 1989 draft and yet he played in the Pro Bowl after the '91 season.
The 26-year-old Schlereth, a guard, is the youngest and most unlikely member of the Hogs, that impervious Redskin offensive front that allowed a league-low nine sacks last year and cleared a path for nearly 2,000 yards rushing by Earnest Byner, Ricky Ervins and Gerald Riggs. With Schlereth and Joe Jacoby anchoring the right side of the line at the Super Bowl, the Hogs held the Buffalo Bills without a sack and powered Washington to a 37-24 victory.
"Mark's got all the attributes to be a Hog," says Jacoby, who has been one for the past 11 years. "He's got the potbelly, the ugly puss, and he's roly-poly." The 6'3", 285-pound Schlereth also has arms like legs, and legs like people.
The main difference between Schlereth and his pet pig, Wilbur, is that Schlereth won't eat dog food. Schlereth prefers cheeseburgers—he has been a regular at a joint in Anchorage called the Arctic Roadrunner for 25 of his 26 years. In fact, his picture is enshrined on the Roadrunner's Wall of Fame between Norma Jean, the first woman to solo Mount McKinley, and Bob Henderson, who once landed a 26-pound northern pike with a muskrat in its stomach. "Mark's the only athlete we've honored," says Dick Sanchez, the Roadrunner's owner.
Football is no big deal in Alaska; the high school season ends almost before it begins. "The state championship is played in mid-October," Schlereth says, "when the Gatorade freezes." Though Anchorage gets an average of 68 inches of snow a year, school was canceled only twice during Schlereth's childhood there. "Around D.C., they call off class for just the threat of a flurry," he scoffs. "My teammates have no idea what snow is."
Nor, apparently, do they have a clue about Alaska. "They're always asking me if the roads are paved," says Schlereth, "and what my igloo looks like." An accomplished fibber, he regales them with grisly bear tales and gruesome moose tales and tales of that most apocryphal of Alaskan beasties, the Blarina shrew. The vicious Blarina, Schlereth informs you, is "kind of the piranha of the shrew world. It eats three times its body weight every day. I've seen them attack packs of wolves and swallow them whole."
For all his shrewmanship, Nanook of the NFL isn't much of an outdoorsman. His old man took him camping in the wilds only once or twice. "I never caught a single fish," Mark moans. "Everyone else pulled them out of the water like they were stuck to the end of their hooks." All Herb remembers of their camping adventures is the loons. "They scared the hell out of me," he says. "I thought someone was being murdered."
The Eskimo have nearly 100 words for different kinds of snow. But they have no word for Herb Schlereth. Here he is yelling up at some mountain goats traversing a jagged cliff near his Anchorage home recently: "Jump! Jump! Jump!" A huge grin spreads across his face. "That must be the New Yorker in me," says Herb, who when he was 16 earned pocket money by helping a friend move deceased indigents from New York City streets to a hospital morgue.
A trim and well-muscled former bodybuilder of 53 years and 182 pounds, Herb still pumps iron with his son. "Pound for pound, I'm stronger than Mark," he says.