THE RED ESCALADE
rolled into the upscale suburban Seattle neighborhood at around 9:30 p.m.,
three hours after the Seahawks' 34-14 victory over the Carolina Panthers in the
NFC Championship Game on Jan. 22. Inside the vehicle, Seahawks fullback Mack
Strong and his wife, Zoe, discussed the plan they had made in the event of a
win: They would blare the horn as they drove down their street, rousing the
neighbors into a celebration of Seattle's first trip to the Super Bowl. After a
surprisingly tame postgame reception at Qwest Stadium, the Strongs were eager
to cut loose before calling it a night. They'd waited too long for this.
But the Strongs,
it turned out, were late for their own party. A crowd had already gathered on
their front lawn, cheering and waving their arms wildly as Mack and Zoe drove
up. The neighbors had decorated the Strongs' three-story house with balloons
and blue and gray streamers. They had painted a giant XL on the garage door.
"It was overwhelming to see how happy people were for Mack," Zoe says.
"You could see how much they want to see him succeed."
The show of love
for Strong, who has spent all 13 of his NFL seasons in Seattle and is the
longest-tenured player on the roster, didn't end that night. Over the next few
days the Strongs had to find room for bouquets, more balloons and platters of
homemade cookies. The telephone rang continuously, and the e-mails piled
Bettis in Pittsburgh, the 34-year-old Strong is the soul of his team. He
doesn't have Bettis's Hall of Fame numbers--in fact, Strong has rushed for only
741 yards in his career--but he does the dirty work. This season he opened
holes that helped Shaun Alexander become the league's leading rusher, score an
NFL-record 28 touchdowns and win the MVP award. He also caught 22 passes for
166 yards and, when the rare rushing opportunity arose, was an effective
short-yardage option. (Seven of his 17 carries in the regular season went for
first downs.) "I don't have amazing athletic ability or great size, but I
can do the things that are asked of me," says the 6-foot, 245-pound Strong.
"I think all of my coaches have appreciated that over the years. They've
known I'm somebody they could always count on."
And the Seahawks
no doubt will need Strong to come through again in the Super Bowl. For Seattle
quarterback Matt Hasselbeck to be successful against Pittsburgh's blitzing
defense, Strong will have to pick up pass rushers attacking from all angles.
"I've talked to Mack about this in practice," says coach Mike Holmgren.
"As good as he is and has been for us, he's going to have to have his eyes
wide open in this game."
respect Strong--"Anytime your running back gains 1,800 yards in a two-back
set, the fullback is doing some damage," says Pittsburgh inside linebacker
Larry Foote--but his value to the Seahawks extends beyond his on-field
performance. Humble, hardworking and selfless, Strong embodies the qualities
that Seattle coaches and players point to when they talk about the improved
chemistry that helped carry the club to an NFC-best 13-3 regular-season record.
"Mack has been a leader from the first day I got here [in 1999]," says
Holmgren. "It's just that we didn't have enough guys like him until
WHEN HE arrived
in 1993 as an undrafted free agent out of Georgia, Strong knew he faced long
odds. At the opening of training camp he was one of nine running backs crammed
into a small room for the first position meeting. Clarence Shelmon, then the
Seahawks' running backs coach, announced that only five, maybe six, of them
would make the final roster. Strong glanced around the room and saw that he was
the only rookie. He decided right there and then that, though plenty of backs
could outrun him, no one would outwork him.
To this day
Strong approaches his job as if he's an underdog. And each year that he dug in
and kept his spot when the Seahawks brought in potential replacements endeared
him more to teammates and fans. "I've always been about doing the right
thing and giving it my best," says Strong, who with Zoe has established a
tutoring program at the Seattle Indian Center and a counseling program for
young parents, among several causes they support. "That's been the key to
my longevity. The young guys always ask me how I've stuck around so long, and I
always tell them the same thing: You have to be blessed, but you also have to
Strong finally received the ultimate reward for his contributions when he was
voted by players, coaches and fans to his first Pro Bowl. The Seahawks were
stretching during a practice in late December when Holmgren informed the team
that Alexander, Hasselbeck, left tackle Walter Jones and left guard Steve
Hutchinson were going to Hawaii. After a pause the coach revealed that a fifth
Seattle player would be making the trip. When Strong's name was announced, the
entire team erupted in cheers.
A few weeks
later, in the fourth quarter of the Seahawks' divisional playoff against the
Washington Redskins, Strong experienced another career highlight: a 32-yard
dash that helped seal Seattle's 20-10 victory. It was Strong's longest run as a
pro, and Holmgren was so excited he called for his fullback to get the ball
again on the next play. But Hasselbeck looked to Holmgren and shook his head
firmly, because Strong was wheezing so hard that he needed a breather. Such
moments make Strong an easy target for friendly barbs from teammates about his
age. He doesn't mind them--in fact, he chuckles himself as he recounts the many
conversations he's had with Zoe about retirement.