By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 14, 2006
SEATTLE, Jan. 13 -- He was always too headstrong for his own good. Like the time at Boston College when Matt Hasselbeck learned he would not be the starting quarterback. This discovery filled him with a rage that sent him storming into the office of the coach, Dan Henning.
"You should wear big red shoes and a big red nose because you are a clown!" he said he shouted.
Perhaps not the kind of thing a college junior should be saying to the man who holds his future in his hands. But this was always the way of Hasselbeck, with his cherubic smile and unfailing politeness. Underneath bubbled a fury and that fury would come bursting out in the most peculiar ways.
The coin twirled in the frigid air of his first playoff game two years ago. The Seahawks were going into overtime in Green Bay, a whole country was watching, Seattle won the toss. What to do? The official looked at Hasselbeck and the quarterback lifted his head, then startled everybody by yelling, "We want the ball and we're going to score!"
They didn't. And when he threw a pass into the hands of a Packers cornerback named Al Harris, who ran 52 yards across the turf for the winning touchdown, there was much laughter at the expense of Hasselbeck. Just who did this guy think he was?
But there was something in the brazenness that made the same men put in charge of him smile. Henning, the clown, absorbed the verbal assault, then said, "I'm proud of you Matthew," and soon gave Hasselbeck his starting job. Mike Holmgren, the Seahawks coach who disdains any public displays of cockiness, instead doubled his faith in his quarterback, quietly believing even more that this was the person who could someday take him back to the Super Bowl.
And so here they are, two wins away from that dream, with the best football season Seattle has ever seen. And it is Hasselbeck who has become the Seahawks' unquestioned leader, the unwavering voice of authority who has turned chaos into what might be the most potent offense in the NFL.
Even if the process tried every bit of patience that coach and quarterback possessed.
This thought made Holmgren smile a bit as he stood in the team's empty practice bubble after a workout this week. There were so many times he screamed at his young passer, stared him down and looked as if he wanted to break him in two. At last, it seems, they had finally gotten past those days.
"One of the things that has always been attractive to me is his competitive spirit," Holmgren said. "If he wants answers to questions and he asks questions, then it is my obligation to give him the answers. The problem with players on occasion is they don't like the answers. Or they think they have the answers until every once in a while they get hit in the mouth and then they come and say, 'Okay, maybe you are right.'
"This is kind of what happens with thoroughbreds. You get high-strung and good players. But this is one of the reasons they are good. Then all of a sudden you go through those bumps and you get to a point where you trust one another. Then all sorts of good stuff happens."
It has come to the point where Hasselbeck, along with Shaun Alexander, is the most vital of all the Seahawks players, the one the team can least afford to lose. If he goes, they will lose their head, the one who makes them move. And this wasn't always the case.
"I think sometimes as a player you think you understand what the coach is looking for and you're wrong," Hasselbeck said. "A coach starts to coach you or starts to explain something to you and it's very easy for me -- I'm not a good listener -- to say, 'Yeah, yeah I got it,' but you don't really 'got it.' You're missing the point exactly."
Perhaps the mistake was Holmgren's in the very beginning when Hasselbeck was an unwanted graduate of Boston College, looking for work in an NFL that thought so little of him it didn't even invite him to its pre-draft combine. Holmgren, then coaching the Packers, took a chance and stuck Hasselbeck in a locker next to Brett Favre, perhaps the most rambunctious and bull-headed of all of Holmgren's quarterback proteges.
Too much of Favre rubbed off on the kid who was determined to make a whole league pay for not paying attention, to make the super agents kick themselves for not signing him, for leaving him in the Boston snow to run the icy steps of the team stadium telling himself he was Rocky Balboa.
Soon, the Packers' backup was scrambling across the field, throwing off one foot, figuring he, too, could fire a football between three defensive backs. This was fine to the coaches in Green Bay because being Favre's backup in those days meant you wouldn't see the field in a real game. But then in 2001, Holmgren, two years into his job in Seattle, traded for Hasselbeck. And before the quarterback had even pulled on a cap for his introductory interview, he was anointed the starting quarterback.
Which was funny because the only action photo one newspaper could produce to run with the story about Seattle's new quarterback was a snapshot of Hasselbeck holding the ball on an extra point, since throwing a pass was something he had only done 29 times to that point.
Still, the disciple of Favre would not be deterred. He burst into the Seahawks' headquarters determined to show everyone just how much he already knew. He met the new quarterbacks coach, Jim Zorn -- a man still unfamiliar with Holmgren's West Coast offense -- and began drawing the team's plays all over the chalkboards.
Zorn smiled politely, then set about to work on more important things like footwork and throwing and beating the Favre out of a quarterback who was not Favre.
It was a hard fight. Hasselbeck, so eager, was pounded early. He lost his job to Trent Dilfer and sulked at the demotion. By the middle of 2002, it appeared the scouts who thought so little of Hasselbeck were right. Then Dilfer went down with a torn Achilles'. Given a second chance, Hasselbeck thrived. His breakthrough came the last game that season, when he threw for 449 yards in a game Seattle won in overtime against the Chargers. The tying score came at the end of regulation when he shook off two tackles and plunged headfirst into the end zone.
He kept his shoes from that day as a reminder of what he could become. Holmgren was so touched that two days later, he agreed to stay and coach Hasselbeck even as management was stripping him of his general manager title, all but inviting the coach to walk away. But Holmgren had staked his future on the promise of Hasselbeck. If they were going to go down, they would go down together.
"I never lost faith in him," Holmgren said. "I think I did a little bit of disservice by throwing him in there [at the start]. If I had to do the whole thing again I would probably do it the same way. I just maybe would call the game a little different. I would protect him a little bit more if I could to stay healthy."
Then Holmgren paused and said, "To Matt's credit, after sitting down and then coming back, I think he learned a lot."
On the eve of the most important game in his career so far Hasselbeck smiled. He said the person who got him through the bleakest times when he lost his job was Dilfer, just as it was he who helped get Dilfer through the death of his son. It is Dilfer who he says showed him how to deal with the embarrassment of losing a job. He watched his replacement and he learned.
"I think when I did a better job of being a little more humble and really being a better listener and being more coachable, I think that made [the] relationship [with Holmgren] better," Hasselbeck said.
Soon Favre will be gone and there will be a gap at the top of the NFC for the next great quarterback. More and more, it is the last one anyone expected, the one who used to sit in the locker just next door.