Matt Hasselbeck: A second chance
Matt Hasselbeck plays against the Colts in 2005. Jennifer Buchanan
He grew up in a privileged household, the oldest son of a former NFL player, and yet by the time Matt Hasselbeck arrived in Seattle in 2001 he was not used to having things handed to him on a silver platter. So it took a little getting used to when Seahawks head coach Mike Holmgren traded two draft picks for Hasselbeck and immediately anointed him as the starting quarterback. Hasselbeck had never started a game at the NFL level. He was not invited to the scouting combine after his senior year at Boston College, and he didn't hear his name called until the sixth round of the 1998 NFL draft. Even while at BC, he had butted heads with head coach Dan Henning before eventually earning the starting job. So when one of the most respected quarterback gurus in NFL history handpicked him to be the starter of the future, Hasselbeck knew it was easier said than done. He did start that first regular-season game as a Seahawk, and he did continue to get votes of confidence from Holmgren throughout his first season with the team. But when Hasselbeck fell, he fell hard. Things got so bad that play-by-play commentators were using phrases like, "Hasselbeck sucks," that he was getting booed by Seattle fans, that he walked into the locker room before one 2002 game and confided to a teammate that he didn't even want to play. And eventually, it got so bad that Matt Hasselbeck lost the starting job that he had been given so easily. It took some remarkable twists of fate, and a career-saving performance that Hasselbeck will never forget, for him to get his starting job back and return to living the life of the privileged few.
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AAs the oldest of three brothers, and the son of former NFL tight end Don Hasselbeck, Matthew Hasselbeck spent a good part of his youth in the spotlight. But during his senior season at Xaverian Brothers High School, he stopped being Don Hasselbeck's son and one of the Hasselbeck brothers and finally made a name for himself. Matthew Hasselbeck, as he was known back then, was receiving interest from colleges all over the nation while leading his Xaverian Brothers team to the state championship game. Xaverian Brothers earned a date with rival Brockton in the 1993 state finals, and Hasselbeck took such a hard hit in the first half that he was later diagnosed with a concussion. But he wouldn't come out of the game. Woozy and out of sorts, he kept playing because he didn't want the game to go on without him. Showing the same determination that made future Green Bay teammate Brett Favre a legend, Hasselbeck gutted it out despite the injury. "I guess I called an audible at one point, 'Blue 66,'" Hasselbeck recalled early in his NFL career. "Well, our audibles ended at 50. So the running backs both stand up and look at each other, and the linemen didn't know what to do. So nobody blocks anyone and I get hit again. "I'm not a real good person to comment about that game. I honestly don't remember it at all." What Hasselbeck didn't remember was that Xaverian Brothers squandered a 17-0 lead and lost 18-17 in the final game of his high school career. Hasselbeck eventually decided to accept a scholarship to UCLA but later changed his mind and attended Boston College near his hometown of Norfolk, Mass. He would later joke that he chose the school because he was too intimidated by no-nonsense BC football coach Tom Coughlin to tell him no. Dan Henning eventually replaced Coughlin as head coach, and the new BC coach didn't initially see eye-to-eye with his sophomore quarterback. Hasselbeck had one infamous meeting in which he told off the new head coach for announcing he was going to bench him. "You should wear big, red shoes and a big, red nose because you're a clown," Hasselbeck recalled telling Henning during a 1996 meeting. Eventually, Henning would forgive Hasselbeck's outburst and let him finish his junior year as the starter. Hasselbeck's time at Boston College would mark the most heavily-scrutinized era in the football program's history, but not for the right reasons. A gambling scandal led to 13 suspensions and two coaching changes. With several missing players, and a new head coach in Tom O'Brien, Hasselbeck tried to make the most out of what was left during his senior season. But he broke his thumb during a disappointing 4-7 campaign and quietly finished his college career with little fanfare. After initially being told he would be invited to the NFL scouting combine, Hasselbeck was informed that his name had been scratched off the final list in favor of Washington State University junior Ryan Leaf, who had announced he was coming out of school early. A risk-taking general manager named Ron Wolf, and a confident head coach named Mike Holmgren, thought enough of Hasselbeck to make him a sixth-round pick of the Green Bay Packers in the 1998 NFL draft. While Hasselbeck was ecstatic to get an opportunity to go to training camp, he knew his chances of earning a starting job would always be limited. Green Bay's Brett Favre was not only coming off back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, but he'd also never missed a game since becoming a starter five years earlier. And Favre wasn't the only Packers quarterback standing in the way of Hasselbeck earning a roster spot. The Packers also had veterans Doug Pederson and David Klingler, a former first-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals. Hasselbeck stuck around on the team's practice squad as a rookie, buried in so much obscurity that he wasn't even allowed to join in for the team photo. He didn't think Holmgren, whose name had become legendary in Green Bay, even knew who he was. When the burly coach headed off for Seattle in 1999, Hasselbeck thought he might never see the man again.
Coach Mike Holmgren introduces Matt Hasselbeck at the Seattle Seahawks' new starting quarterback on March 5, 2001, at the team's headquarters in Kirkland. Associated Press
Matt Hasselbeck and Trent Dilfer laugh together at the Seahawks minicamp in Kirkland on June 2, 2003. Associated Press
Unable to find an open man, Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck runs the ball himself in a game against the Chiefs in November, 2002. Herald file photo
I remember it feeling kind of like a must-win game, especially for me personally. We did not have the year we were expecting to have. We opened it up on offense at the end of the year. If the Chargers win, they're in the playoffs. I had played down there in a preseason game down there and played awful. Terrible. I think there was a radio announcer who had to apologize to me for something he said. I don't even remember what it was. It was that terrible. I had something at stake, contractually. It was one of those wait-and-see type of contracts. At the end of that year, they could have decided whether to do nothing -- just let me go -- or sign me for three years, sign me for two years or sign me for one year. The two-year contract was like the, 'Well, yeah, maybe, probably.' And they ended up going for two years, which was fine. It worked out in the end. But at the time, people weren't too excited about me. It was Trent's team. When he tore his Achilles tendon in a game against Dallas, and so I was back in there. And I hadn't played well. I didn't have any swagger, I wasn't as healthy as I needed to be. Leading up to the San Diego game, I had started to play pretty well. We were playing well, but there was a lot of speculation leading up to it about the quarterback situation, and the future of a lot of guys. Also, Jeff George was with the Seahawks. The year before, Marty Schottenheimer had cut him from the Washington Redskins. Schottenheimer was coaching the Chargers, so Jeff George really wanted us to beat him. Jeff George refers to himself as The Sheriff, and he was saying: 'Hey, win this one for The Sheriff.' So we're in pregame, and he gets a Sharpie pen and autographs one of the balls for me: 'The Sheriff.' We're throwing it around, and it was a good ball, so we played the game with that ball. I threw a touchdown to Koren Robinson with the ball that day, and now I have that ball at home. It still says 'The Sheriff' on it. It was funny. He was like, 'Win this game for The Sheriff. Win it for me. I do not want this guy (Schottenheimer) to go to the playoffs.' Things started off well. I completed my first eight passes, including a 14-yard touchdown to Darrell Jackson, who was my go-to guy for a long time in Seattle. But then, six plays into the second drive, I threw a pick. I hit Itula Mili in the chest, the ball flew up in the air, and it got intercepted. I thought, Oh, this is not going well. But I kept throwing the ball well. By halftime, I had completed 15 of 23 passes for 222 yards. Yet we were trailing 10-7. My interception and a Darrell Jackson fumble killed two drives in San Diego territory, or we might have been up 21-10. Then the Chargers added 10 more points in the third quarter, and we were down 20-7 heading into the fourth. It didn't look good for the Seahawks. On the first play of the fourth quarter, I hit Mili on a 49-yard pass to the San Diego 2-yard line. Two plays later, Shaun Alexander scored to cut the deficit to six points. After that, it was back and forth. Drew Brees threw a touchdown pass, then I threw a touchdown pass on the next drive. Because of a San Diego two-point conversion, we were down 28-21 when we got the ball back again at our own 12-yard line with 3½ minutes to go. That drive was a microcosm of my career in that I went to Darrell Jackson one play, and Bobby Engram the next. I think I threw more passes to those two guys than anyone else that season. We marched all the way to the San Diego 1-yard line, but after an incomplete pass into the end zone we were looking at one final play with just five seconds left on the clock. We had used two of our timeouts, while San Diego had used all three. Instead of throwing another pass, Mike Holmgren called a quarterback dive, and I went up the middle for a touchdown. Rian Lindell's extra point tied the game, and we were going to overtime. We won the coin toss, and got all the way to the San Diego 7-yard line, but I threw another interception. Fortunately, I got another chance. Our second overtime drive started near midfield, and I had to convert a third-and-12 by scrambling for 21 yards. After that, it was all Mack Strong. Shaun Alexander had gotten hurt earlier in the game, and our backup halfback was also out, so Mack and backup fullback Heath Evans were the only running backs we had left. Mack was one of the most well-known Seahawks in franchise history, but he was never much of a running threat. Going into that overtime, he had 18 carries on the entire season. But we gave it to him five consecutive times, and he picked up 32 yards to set up the game-winning field goal. When we got back to Seattle, there were like 30 people waiting outside the team bus to congratulate him. I usually don't remember stats, but I do from that game. I threw for a franchise-record 449 yards and a couple of touchdowns. It was a huge win, our third in a row. We just had a party in the locker room. It was fun. Our offense really came together that game. Jeff Feagles, our punter, always knows how we do on third down, and he kept telling us that we were 8 for 16 that game. In the second half and overtime, we were 6 of 8 on third downs. We were lights-out. We were just fired up. Especially Jeff George. The Sheriff got his revenge. The following April, Mike Holmgren came up to me and said: 'Because of that game, you earned a chance to be the starter.' So they gave me a two-year contract, and it worked out. To this day, I still get fans coming up to me wanting to talk about that game. Since it was the season finale, it was the championship game for a lot of fantasy football owners. Just about every week, I have someone come up to me and say, 'Remember that San Diego game? You won my fantasy league for me.'
Matt Hasselbeck runs during Super Bowl XL on Feb. 5, 2006, in Detroit. Jennifer Buchanan / The Herald
Hasselbeck not only won some fantasy bowls, but he also quieted a San Diego radio broadcaster and helped cement his own future. Zorn, who served as quarterbacks coach throughout Hasselbeck's progression, said that the San Diego game was one of several turning points in the quarterback's career. "That was one of those defining games where, with nothing at stake, Mike (Holmgren) created a reason why everything was at stake," Zorn said. Hasselbeck eventually got his long-term contract -- $49.4 million over six years in 2004 -- and his starting job. He went on to become one of the most productive quarterbacks in franchise history. He passed for a franchise-record 3,841 yards in 2003, leading the Seahawks to a 10-6 record and their first postseason appearance in four years. Hasselbeck almost led Seattle to an upset over his former team, the Packers, in the playoffs that year, but fell short in overtime. During the OT coin flip, Hasselbeck famously said, "We want the ball, and we're going to score!" He didn't realize the referee's microphone was on, so his comment was broadcast throughout the stadium and on national television. Hasselbeck was unable to live up to the promise. On Seattle's second possession of overtime, Hasselbeck threw an interception that Packers cornerback Al Harris returned 52 yards for the game-winning touchdown. Soon after that game, Hasselbeck was added to the Pro Bowl because his old buddy, Green Bay's Favre, declined the invitation. In 2004, Hasselbeck led the Seahawks to their first NFC West title. And the year after that, he helped lead the way to the first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. He got there before Carson Palmer, before Michael Vick, even before Peyton Manning. While those guys were all No. 1 overall draft picks who found NFL success rather quickly, Hasselbeck had to pay his dues to become one of the privileged few. Even in his greatest moment, while standing before hundreds of reporters and television cameras at Super Bowl XL, Hasselbeck appreciated every moment of it. "I feel like I'm better for having gone through some of that stuff," he said in the week leading up to Super Bowl XL, "but it feels really far away right now." Friday in Chapter 4 of "The Game of My Life," Paul Skansi talks about his greatest catch.
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