THE RED ESCALADErolled 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 theNFC Championship Game on Jan. 22. Inside the vehicle, Seahawks fullback MackStrong and his wife, Zoe, discussed the plan they had made in the event of awin: They would blare the horn as they drove down their street, rousing theneighbors into a celebration of Seattle's first trip to the Super Bowl. After asurprisingly tame postgame reception at Qwest Stadium, the Strongs were eagerto 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 ontheir front lawn, cheering and waving their arms wildly as Mack and Zoe droveup. The neighbors had decorated the Strongs' three-story house with balloonsand 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 lovefor Strong, who has spent all 13 of his NFL seasons in Seattle and is thelongest-tenured player on the roster, didn't end that night. Over the next fewdays the Strongs had to find room for bouquets, more balloons and platters ofhomemade cookies. The telephone rang continuously, and the e-mails piledup.
Like JeromeBettis in Pittsburgh, the 34-year-old Strong is the soul of his team. Hedoesn't have Bettis's Hall of Fame numbers--in fact, Strong has rushed for only741 yards in his career--but he does the dirty work. This season he openedholes that helped Shaun Alexander become the league's leading rusher, score anNFL-record 28 touchdowns and win the MVP award. He also caught 22 passes for166 yards and, when the rare rushing opportunity arose, was an effectiveshort-yardage option. (Seven of his 17 carries in the regular season went forfirst downs.) "I don't have amazing athletic ability or great size, but Ican 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'veknown I'm somebody they could always count on."
And the Seahawksno doubt will need Strong to come through again in the Super Bowl. For Seattlequarterback Matt Hasselbeck to be successful against Pittsburgh's blitzingdefense, 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 eyeswide open in this game."
The Steelersrespect Strong--"Anytime your running back gains 1,800 yards in a two-backset, the fullback is doing some damage," says Pittsburgh inside linebackerLarry Foote--but his value to the Seahawks extends beyond his on-fieldperformance. Humble, hardworking and selfless, Strong embodies the qualitiesthat Seattle coaches and players point to when they talk about the improvedchemistry 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]," saysHolmgren. "It's just that we didn't have enough guys like him untilnow."
WHEN HE arrivedin 1993 as an undrafted free agent out of Georgia, Strong knew he faced longodds. At the opening of training camp he was one of nine running backs crammedinto a small room for the first position meeting. Clarence Shelmon, then theSeahawks' running backs coach, announced that only five, maybe six, of themwould make the final roster. Strong glanced around the room and saw that he wasthe only rookie. He decided right there and then that, though plenty of backscould outrun him, no one would outwork him.
To this dayStrong approaches his job as if he's an underdog. And each year that he dug inand kept his spot when the Seahawks brought in potential replacements endearedhim more to teammates and fans. "I've always been about doing the rightthing and giving it my best," says Strong, who with Zoe has established atutoring program at the Seattle Indian Center and a counseling program foryoung parents, among several causes they support. "That's been the key tomy longevity. The young guys always ask me how I've stuck around so long, and Ialways tell them the same thing: You have to be blessed, but you also have towork hard."
This seasonStrong finally received the ultimate reward for his contributions when he wasvoted by players, coaches and fans to his first Pro Bowl. The Seahawks werestretching during a practice in late December when Holmgren informed the teamthat Alexander, Hasselbeck, left tackle Walter Jones and left guard SteveHutchinson were going to Hawaii. After a pause the coach revealed that a fifthSeattle player would be making the trip. When Strong's name was announced, theentire team erupted in cheers.
A few weekslater, in the fourth quarter of the Seahawks' divisional playoff against theWashington Redskins, Strong experienced another career highlight: a 32-yarddash that helped seal Seattle's 20-10 victory. It was Strong's longest run as apro, and Holmgren was so excited he called for his fullback to get the ballagain on the next play. But Hasselbeck looked to Holmgren and shook his headfirmly, because Strong was wheezing so hard that he needed a breather. Suchmoments make Strong an easy target for friendly barbs from teammates about hisage. He doesn't mind them--in fact, he chuckles himself as he recounts the manyconversations he's had with Zoe about retirement.
There will beless of that talk around the Strong household after this fine run. "Thisyear has really inspired me to play as long as I can," Strong says."I've waited a long time to get to this point, and I feel we can get backhere again. I've had enough disappointments around here. I'm ready toexperience all the success I can."
Photograph by Harley Soltes
An undrafted rookie free agent in '93, Strong has won over fans with hishumility and hustle.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
Strong, a first-time Pro Bowl pick, sealed the playoff win against theSkins.