As the coin hung in the frigid air at Lambeau Field last January, Matt Hasselbeck stood a 50-50 chance of remaining just another faceless Seattle Seahawk. If the coin landed on tails, he would have to watch his former teammate and mentor, Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre, get first crack at winning in overtime of their NFC wild-card playoff game. Tails, and Hasselbeck might miss the chance to extend his breakthrough 2003 season. Tails, and he might not get what he desperately wanted--the ball, and Seattle's fate, in his hands. ¬∂ That's why, after the coin came up heads, Hasselbeck was nearly bursting with joy when referee Bernie Kukar looked to him and asked if Seattle wanted to kick off or receive. After a bumpy start in Seattle that included being benched in 2001, here was his chance to show he was playoff-worthy. Hasselbeck leaned toward Kukar, whose field microphone was on, and broke the news to his coaches, his teammates, 71,457 Cheeseheads at Lambeau and millions watching on national television. "We want the ball," Hasselbeck said, "and we're going to score." ¬∂ As he ran back to the sideline, Hasselbeck heard the agitated murmur coursing through the stands, the Packers faithful asking, Did he just say that? Hasselbeck smiled. Damn right I did.
He had already completed 22 of 38 passes for 285 yards in regulation, leading the Seahawks on a 67-yard touchdown drive to tie the score at 27 with less than a minute to play. But none of that mattered when--after the teams had exchanged punts in overtime--Green Bay cornerback Al Harris jumped the route of wideout Alex Bannister in the left flat, intercepted Hasselbeck's pass and returned it 52 yards for a touchdown. In the locker room afterward, Hasselbeck was ashen, mortified that his tough talk had backfired. Asked which of his nagging injuries hurt the worst, Hasselbeck didn't miss a beat. "My feelings," he replied, tough as Jell-O.
So what if he'd thrown for a team-record 3,841 yards and 26 touchdowns during the regular season; completed 61% of his passes; guided the Seahawks to a 10--6 record; and earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl? Who would remember that, with smarts and a deceptively strong arm and exceptional mobility, he had reversed a career freefall and evolved into the steady pilot of the NFL's sixth-ranked offense, a fearless leader who had a 107.3 rating on third down (third best in the league)? To the vast majority who had heard Hasselbeck's prediction, but knew little about his best season in six as a pro, the bold statement was nothing more than hollow hubris from a mouthy quarterback.
even months later the 28year-old Hasselbeck lazes in a swivel chair in an office at the Seahawks' practice facility in Bellevue, Wash. He doffs his ball cap, runs his fingers over what remains of the hair that has been disappearing since his sophomore year at Boston College. "I got a haircut yesterday; it was getting out of control," he says, taking a shot at his favorite target--himself. The self-deprecation is an attempt to steer the conversation in another direction; he's not fond of revisiting the past. And when he does, his tone is almost indignant. "It kills me to think that the Green Bay organization or the fans or the casual observer took offense," he says of his playoff proclamation. "I never meant to upset anybody or have everybody hear it.
"[The chatter among the teams' co-captains] started before the opening coin toss, when Green Bay sent, like, nine captains out. Lots of those guys are friends of mine, good friends, and so it's only natural to rag," Hasselbeck continued. "Before OT only [running back] Ahman Green and [kicker] Ryan Longwell came out. I was giving it to Ryan, telling him not to miss any game-winners, telling Ahman he better not fumble--that sort of thing. It was good-natured.
"But there was something else this time. I was out there with [defensive tackle] John Randle and [wideout] Darrell Jackson. The place was going crazy, and I found myself thinking of all the times I'd seen the same scenario: close game at Lambeau, the visiting players starting to get tight, and then they beat themselves. I said it for John and Darrell to hear, so they'd tell the guys what a crazy thing I had just said, so they would know that I knew we were going to win.
"We've come too far as a team to let one loss ruin us. I've worked too hard, done too much to let that day define me. Every person on this team has lived with that pain for months now. We have a choice: Do we move ahead, or slip away? Last year was no fluke. Now we have to prove it."
Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren is ready to move forward with his quarterback, sounding like a gruff-but-proud papa when he talks about Hasselbeck, whom he first coached in Green Bay in 1998. "It's Matt's team now, and I think he showed that last year," he says. "He's in command of the offense and himself. He doesn't try to do too much, which was a problem in the past."
The Hasselbeck era in Seattle began happily enough in March 2001, when he was acquired in a trade with the Packers. He was handed the starting job and featured prominently in the team's marketing campaign--heady stuff for a former sixth-round draft pick who had thrown all of 29 NFL passes as Favre's backup.
Hasselbeck's inexperience quickly surfaced. His swaggering, hyperactive persona irked some teammates, and his excessive on-field freelancing exasperated coaches. "I wouldn't say Matt was making it all up, exactly," quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn says, "but...." You get the picture. By the time the Seahawks had finished 9--7 and missed the playoffs by a game, the cacophony of boos aimed at Hasselbeck had subsided--but only because Holmgren had given the quarterback job to Trent Dilfer.
"When Matt came here, I wanted to pump him up, show everybody I believed in him," says Holmgren. "Maybe I overdid all that."
It didn't help that Hasselbeck tried to play the role of veteran gunslinger, at times subconsciously imitating Favre. In unit meetings he offered unsolicited tweaks for plays, drawing the ire of coaches. On the field his manic energy made him difficult to understand in the huddle, and his freelancing confused the young receivers. In the locker room he came off as arrogant and overly chatty. "That first year I thought maybe they could get him some Ritalin," recalls linebacker Chad Brown. "He was just ... off."
Hasselbeck is quick to accept responsibility. "It was my immaturity and lack of humility," he says. "When I got here, I thought they'd want to hear my thoughts, as [the Packers had] always wanted Brett's. I failed to realize Brett was an exception to the rule. I needed somebody to say, 'You're not in Green Bay anymore.' Somebody probably did, and I just missed it."
Leaving Green Bay for the Pacific Northwest was difficult for Hasselbeck and his wife, Sarah, who gave birth to their first daughter, Annabelle, six weeks into the '01 season. (A second daughter, Mallory, was born in February 2003.) They loved Green Bay's cozy, family-friendly environs; Seattle's comparatively far-flung geography left them feeling detached. "We were miserable," he says. "I tried to hide it, but I couldn't."
His insolence and gilded excuses for bad reads and poor execution grated on Holmgren, who compared Hasselbeck to the similarly stubborn and cerebral Steve Young. As an assistant with the San Francisco 49ers from 1986 through '91, Holmgren had groomed Young to be Joe Montana's successor. "Mike would say, 'You're just like Steve, talking about wind speed and ball flight,'" Hasselbeck recalls. In practice and in games he disregarded his progressions. "Matt would say, 'But I feel so confined,'" says Zorn. "and I'd say, 'Great!' That's exactly how we wanted him--confined."
Throughout the difficult transition Hasselbeck leaned heavily on Dilfer, who, having struggled mightily himself with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Baltimore Ravens before winning Super Bowl XXXV, was a perfect sounding board. In addition, Dilfer and his wife, Cassandra, the parents of four young children, helped ease the Hasselbecks' anxiety over their relocation and offered perspective on the mysteries of child rearing. The couples became fast friends. "Trent was everything to me," Hasselbeck says. "To call him a crutch or a buffer doesn't do him justice. He showed me how to be a professional, what it means to be a teammate. He's why I was able to keep going."
So when Dilfer went down with a torn Achilles in the seventh game of the 2002 season, Hasselbeck returned to the lineup a changed man. "Matt took immediate control of the huddle," center Robbie Tobeck says. "He was totally different." He had also stopped butting heads with Holmgren, whose authority Hasselbeck had finally learned to respect. "Yeah, things were different," says Zorn. "Mike talked, and Matt listened."
"I'd been humbled," Hasselbeck says. "I'd realized that it had been 10 guys on one page, and me on another. I learned to trust that the coaches knew better than I did."
Then, in April 2003, came the devastating news that the Dilfers' five-year-old son, Trevin, had died from heart disease. Hasselbeck ached for Trent, but he was unsure of what to do for him. With training camp approaching, Hasselbeck was stunned again when Dilfer told him he was retiring. Hasselbeck would have none of it. "He convinced me that I was missed and needed by my teammates," Dilfer recalls. "He let me know his Number 1 goal in camp was to support me. He gave up countless hours of sleep helping me deal with the loss. Despite all the pressure he was under, he sacrificed to be there for me." Dilfer spent the season as Hasselbeck's backup, a job he is expected to fill again this year.
Meanwhile, Hasselbeck's role will be to help the Seahawks get back to the playoffs. Those who recognize him around town salute him for his proclamation. In fact Hasselbeck has been criticized by only one person for his infamous statement; in a meeting two weeks after the loss, the coach told his quarterback he was not happy about the stunt and never to say something like that again. Whereas in the past he might have pleaded his case, Hasselbeck instead nodded his head and quietly took his leave.
After recounting the events on that wintery day in Green Bay, Hasselbeck turns in the swivel chair and stares out a window. Then he swings back to make one last point. "Deep down," he says, dropping his voice to a whisper so that no one else can hear, "I think Mike liked that I said it."
"We've come too far as a team to let one loss ruin us. I've worked too hard, done too much to LET THAT DAY DEFINE ME."
"Trent was EVERYTHING TO ME. To call him a crutch or a
buffer doesn't do him justice. He's why I was able to keep going."
Photograph by Joey Terrill
JERSEY COLOR ALTERED BY SI IMAGING
OVER AND OUT
Holmgren (headset) had to watch Harris return Hasselbeck's ill-timed pass for a score in sudden death.
OTTO GREULE JR./GETTY IMAGES
Dilfer and Hasselbeck reached out to one another while facing difficult situations on and off the field.