He is the old man in the Seattle Seahawks' locker room, and his teammates rarely let him forget it. When the team won its first playoff game since 1984 by beating the Washington Redskins in an NFC semifinal a couple weeks ago, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck joked that fullback Mack Strong probably was having a hard time remembering all the way back to his rookie season.
They tease because they love. The Seahawks were the NFL's highest-scoring club during the regular season because they had the league's most valuable player in record-setting tailback Shaun Alexander, because Hasselbeck has become a steady quarterback, because an offensive line anchored by left tackle Walter Jones and left guard Steve Hutchinson is rock-solid and because Coach Mike Holmgren is an offensive mastermind. Those are the reasons that everyone in the sport knows. The one that sometimes gets overlooked is that the team also has a top-notch lead blocker for Alexander and protector for Hasselbeck in Strong, a 13-year Seahawks veteran who reached his first Pro Bowl this season.
"Mack Strong," Holmgren said, "is about my favorite player of all time."
Strong is the longest-tenured Seahawks player, leaving him able to appreciate better than any of his teammates what it means for the club to be here this week to make the first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. He has seen it all in Seattle, playing on some teams that were truly dreadful and others that were merely disappointing before hanging around long enough to be on this club that finally has gotten to football's promised land. He said he tells rookies, like Pro Bowl-bound middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu, that they don't know how lucky they are.
"There have been a lot of tough years," Strong said. "There have been a lot of challenging times, a lot of things to overcome, a lot of obstacles. But we're here."
Strong, who is listed at 6 feet and 245 pounds, won't even be the most heralded chunky running back on the field Sunday. That distinction belongs to Pittsburgh's beefy tailback Jerome Bettis, the fifth-leading rusher in league history who is in the spotlight this week as the hometown hero playing in perhaps his final NFL game. Strong will, as usual, labor in the background, trying to find ways to create running room for Alexander and keep Hasselbeck from being leveled by Steelers blitzers.
But his teammates appreciate him. Asked to list the reasons for his success this season, when he set an NFL record with 28 touchdowns, Alexander said, "I have a great offensive line, a great fullback, a smart quarterback and great coaches."
Said Holmgren: "The Mack Strongs of the world make it worth my while to coach and teach. He is unselfish. He has played 13 years, longer than anybody we have. He does all the dirty work. He is the lead blocker most every play for our halfback. He is a great man in the community. He is a great father and a wonderful family guy. He is not a real talkative man, but when I have asked him to talk to the team, he has been willing. I can't say enough about him."
Strong had a key 32-yard run late in the playoff win over the Redskins after Alexander had been knocked from the game by a concussion. It was the longest run of his NFL career, one that has been built on what he does without the ball in his hands. He said he has learned to take satisfaction from every touchdown that Alexander scores because of what he does to contribute to making it happen.
"Obviously I don't get the opportunity to run the ball or catch the ball that often," Strong said. "But when I'm able to make a block and I see Shaun get in the end zone, especially as many times as he's done it over his career, I take a lot of pride in that. I feel like I have a hand in it and I'm a part of it, so I get a lot of satisfaction out of it."
Strong said he realized in his second or third pro season that his livelihood wouldn't be based on running with the ball. "Everybody on this team has a role to play," he said. "I learned very quickly that you can fight that, or you can embrace it and have a successful career."
He has been around long enough to remember the time 10 years ago that former Seahawks owner Ken Behring moved the team to Anaheim, Calif., without NFL approval, before Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen emerged to purchase the club and keep it in Seattle. Strong calls that period "two weeks of weirdness."
The Seahawks have tried to replace him in recent years, drafting fullbacks Heath Evans and Chris Davis. But Strong has kept his job.
"We drafted, in the last few years, a couple guys to kind of replace Mack because at some point everyone's career ends," Holmgren said. "But, I'll be darned, we can't do it. This year, I think he was about as good as you can be at that position, and he was rewarded with the Pro Bowl. Other than Mack, I think I was the happiest man on earth when he got that news."