Matt Hasselbeck: Some say the Seahawks' new quarterback is a born leader, others say he's a rare athlete - flying high with both feet on the ground
July 29, 2001
Mike Sando; The News Tribune
Matt Hasselbeck brought back more than hepatitis A from his improbable sojourn to the harshest slums of the Caribbean.
Five years have passed since Hasselbeck awoke in a hospital bed in Massachusetts, unsure exactly how he got there.
And while the Seattle Seahawks' new quarterback has recovered from the illness that robbed his angular frame of 27 precious pounds, he remains deeply affected by what he encountered in Jamaica as a missionary from Boston College.
"It was a life-changing experience," Hasselbeck said.
Riverton City is a wretched place by any measure, having arisen atop a landfill that absorbs more than half of Jamaica's garbage - some 1,300 tons daily. Shanties with tin roofs provide little refuge from the stench. Violence is part of daily life, and daily death.
For Hasselbeck, the most powerful memories of his time there remain disturbing enough to preclude casual discussion.
"It is a totally shocking experience, even for people who are used to such things," said Ted Dziak, the former Boston College chaplain who organized the mission. "It's a situation where people are living in dire, extreme poverty."
Hasselbeck applied to join Dziak's team, the Ignacio Volunteers, only after his athletic career began to founder.
But just as the BC football team doesn't let just anyone play quarterback, the Ignacio Volunteers don't take along just any Sally Struthers-wannabe on their annual missions to various impoverished nations.
For each of the 16 applicants accepted for the trip to Jamaica, six were rejected. Hasselbeck was the first football player to apply - against the wishes of some assistant coaches. Under those circumstances, he was thrilled to make the cut.
But the months spent researching their journey could not have prepared the missionaries for what they would encounter one morning while working in a schoolyard in Riverton City. Neither, certainly, could Hasselbeck's All-American upbringing in suburban Norfolk, Mass.
"A small child had fallen into what was basically a hole used as a toilet, and the child had literally drowned in excrement," Dziak recalled from Kingston, where he now serves as chief administrator of a high school. "The mother picked up the child and was screaming. Our volunteers tried to help, but the child was dead."
The ordeal was enough to make Hasselbeck vomit, witnesses recalled.
Richard Mackey, a professor in the BC department of social work, was with Hasselbeck at the time. He recalled a chaotic scene fraught with danger.
As the Ignacio Volunteers would later learn, a similar tragedy had touched off rioting several months earlier. This time, the government summoned troops to maintain order.
"We were looking down the muzzles of heavy machine guns," Mackey said. "The military vehicles came through the shanties going about 3 miles per hour. It was a scary and frightening scene.
"The community was just in an uproar. I think back on it now and I think, 'My God, we could have all been dead.'"
The incident represents but one memory from one morning in a week that changed the way Hasselbeck thought about the world and his place in it. He lived with an impoverished Jamaican family and worked in two additional dwellings not far from Riverton City.
At a home for elderly lepers, Hasselbeck was initially dumbfounded when a severely disfigured man was found thanking God for blessing his life. The man, George McVee, had lost his eyes, ears, nose and fingers to the disease.
"It hit me over the head with a hammer to wake up - you don't have it that bad," Hasselbeck said. "It just really changed me."
Those who accompanied Hasselbeck on the trip admit to having been somewhat skeptical upon learning that a football player would be joining their idealistic ranks. But Hasselbeck did not fit their frat-boy stereotypes.
"Matt proved he was a very warm person, very approachable and very easy to hang around," said Amy Schoeffield Telep, who also served in Jamaica and now works for Building With Books, an organization that builds schoolhouses in developing nations. "We needed that because we were preparing to depend on each other."
Their experiences in Jamaica were so profound that many of the missionaries have remained in contact.
"The reality was that maybe in eight or nine days' time there isn't a whole lot of changing the world you can do," Schoeffield Telep said, "but we were put in great immersion situations and learning situations that heightened our awareness of the human condition."
* * *
Who is Matt Hasselbeck, anyway, and why would the Seahawks - or any NFL team, for that matter - entrust their immediate future in a former sixth-round draft choice with so few apparent credentials?
The only answers of consequence will be provided on the football field, of course. In the meantime, the sporting public is entitled to a background check at the very least.
A careful review of the evidence suggests the Pacific Northwest is getting a man of substantial depth and admirable character, a product of Christian parents who shielded their three boys from much of what they viewed as a cultural wasteland.
Friends, relatives, coaches and acquaintances universally describe Hasselbeck as a natural leader, something the Seahawks' rudderless offense could undoubtedly use.
"He commands a presence," said former Ignacio Volunteer Derek Smith, who teaches at the American International School in Cairo, Egypt. "Without him trying, he's got a way with people. The kids in Riverton City were drawn to Matt right away."
Whether Hasselbeck can play football at the highest level remains the million dollar question, although numerous successful coaches insist he can.
Seahawks boss Mike Holmgren, who knows a franchise quarterback when he sees one, was apparently a believer in Hasselbeck from the beginning; Holmgren's Green Bay Packers drafted Hasselbeck in 1998, although they waited until the 187th choice to do so.
Two years into his current job with the Seahawks, Holmgren needed a quarterback to build around and he wasn't about to wait any longer. The trade with the Packers went down on the very first day of the NFL's trading period.
The move had been considered destined by some.
Hasselbeck's father, Don, recalls a revealing encounter with the Packers' former defensive coordinator, Fritz Shurmur, before an exhibition game in 1998. Shurmur had been perhaps Holmgren's closest professional confidant before his death the following year. Shurmur had also served on the New England
Patriots' staff when Hasselbeck's father was a tight end there.
"Fritz came up to me and said, 'Hey, I just want you to know, the man - and he was referring to Mike Holmgren - the man really likes Matthew,'" Don Hasselbeck recalled. "And I said, 'Well, that's good.' And he said, 'No, he really likes him.'"
Even so, the potentially unsettling reality for Seattle fans is that Hasselbeck has yet to play when it matters.
Granted, he stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 233 pounds - ideal size by NFL standards - but his physical skills have never been considered exceptional.
"He has a great feel for the game," countered Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid, who coached the Packers' quarterbacks in 1998. "He has tremendous vision and he knows where everyone is at on the field and in that offense.
"I just think he's a good leader. He has some of the intangibles, plus some of the skill."
The Packers liked Hasselbeck, sure, but they also placed him on the practice squad for the purposes of signing Rick Mirer. That wouldn't look good on anyone's resume, although Hasselbeck made an immediate impression in practice and Mirer was released at the end of the year.
"When Matt came in as a sixth-round pick for us, he took over the scout team and players immediately responded to him," Packers coach Mike Sherman said. "It was really something. You don't see a young player come in and take over like he took over.
"He wasn't Brett Favre leading our team, necessarily, but he led the part of the team he needed to lead. It was very obvious."
Hasselbeck has yet to start a regular-season game in the NFL, having spent his entire career behind Favre, the NFL's three-time league Most Valuable Player, in Green Bay.
At first glance, his career at BC offers scant supporting evidence.
In fact, Hasselbeck failed to land the starting job heading into three of his five years at BC. His career spanned three coaches and a gambling scandal that crippled the program. At one point, the coaching staff even considered moving him to tight end.
And while Hasselbeck generally played well after landing the job by default - he's ranked fifth on the school's career passing list with 4,548 yards - the Eagles were nonetheless 7-14 in games he started.
It was hardly shocking, then, when six quarterbacks were selected ahead of Hasselbeck in the 1998 draft: Peyton Manning, Ryan Leaf, Charlie Batch, Jonathan Quinn, Brian Griese and John Dutton.
And yet, there is something about Matt Hasselbeck that inspires confidence in those who have come to know him.
* * *
Matthew Michael Hasselbeck, the eldest of three sons, was born to Don and Mary Beth ("Betsy") Hasselbeck on Sept. 25, 1975, in Boulder, Colo., where Don was an All-America tight end at the University of
Drafted by the Patriots in 1977, Don Hasselbeck moved his family to Norfolk, not far from Foxboro. And that is where the Hasselbecks remain, having become fixtures in a community that numbered 6,363 in 1980 and 10,460 at last count.
The family attended church religiously and the boys would be sent to Xaverian Brothers High School, an all-boys Catholic school that takes very seriously its pledge to be "a community of faith and learning that is committed to developing the integration of spiritual, moral, intellectual, physical, emotional, cultural and social dimensions within each young man."
The Hasselbecks have been described as strict
parents, but also mild-mannered and rarely harsh.
Their boys were to be respectful and polite at all times. To the consternation of more than a few unsuspecting peers, the phrase "shut up" was banned from the Hasselbeck home, to cite just one example.
The boys could play video games on their Nintendo, but only sparingly.
When Don Hasselbeck discovered his sons
engrossed in video games for an extended period one day, he pulled the power cord from the wall and
ordered them to play outdoors. "Are you guys crazy?" he bellowed. It was not his style to be so abrupt, but Don and Betsy were passionate about some things.
"We were encouraged not to waste our youth," was how Matt put it.
In the case of movies, those rated G or PG were acceptable. But the boys could forget about seeing anything rated PG-13 or worse.
"Our feeling as parents is that kids are exposed to enough trash and they're going to find it anyway," Don Hasselbeck said, "but we don't need to encourage it."
Their philosophy was rewarded.
When other kids were sucking on beer bongs at high school parties, Matt said he was more apt to be searching for a basketball rim that wasn't quite regulation height - the better for Matt and his friends to polish their favorite dunks.
It probably helped, too, that Matt wasn't the type to rebel.
"There was nothing to rebel from, really," he said. "My parents were so non-pushy."
Years later, when Matt was a rookie with the Packers, he was nearly denied access to an R-rated movie because the cashier suspected he was not yet 17 years old. Ever resourceful, Hasselbeck removed his cap, revealing a hairline that has been in steady retreat since college.
Admission was granted, no questions asked.
* * *
Steve Nelson, the Patriots' All-Pro linebacker, lived in the neighborhood. So did John Smith, the placekicker. Quarterback Steve Grogan, who would become one of the boys' many well-qualified tutors, was within a few post patterns.
But that was about it. With its unpaved roads and rural flavor, Norfolk was hardly a magnet for Patriots players when the Hasselbecks moved there in 1977.
It would not be long, however, before the white house on High Noon Drive became the venue of choice for neighborhood football games and other athletic endeavors.
When the window above the garage was broken for the third time and the garage door had come to
resemble a Dalmatian after absorbing repeated strikes from soggy tennis balls, Don Hasselbeck constructed a large green wall patterned after Fenway Park's famous Green Monster.
"It saved the house," he said.
The Olivastro brothers, Rich and Andy, lived two doors away and were willing conspirators.
Like Matt and his younger brother, Tim, who succeeded Matt at BC and was recently released by the Buffalo Bills, the Olivastros parlayed their neighborhood exploits into careers as college quarterbacks - Rich at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., and Andy at Central Florida in Orlando.
The youngest Hasselbeck brother, Nathaniel, was too young to participate in those early games. He apparently paid attention, however, and he'll suit up for BC as a tight end this fall.
"We developed friendships with the Hasselbecks as young kids before you would know who their dad was," Andy Olivastro said from Capitol Hill, where he's a senior Web writer for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "And then as you grow up, you realize little things - like, the guy is 6-9 (actually 6-7) and pretty darn big.
"And then when you see Mark Bavaro pull up in the driveway when you're playing basketball, you kind of notice things like that."
The Olivastro brothers can remember waiting in the Hasselbecks' driveway when they arrived home from church, eager to get their games under way.
Betsy Hasselbeck served peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches during "halftime" and if the kids were lucky, Don rolled out the JUGS passing machine that other kids could only dream of owning.
"We'd throw Mr. Hasselbeck 1,000 balls and he'd take us out to ice cream afterward," said Rich Olivastro, who lives with his brother and works for the American Association of Health Plans. "Things like that made our childhood that much more special. Matt and Tim and Nathaniel are lucky and deserving to have such a family."
While everyone assumed Don was responsible for the boys' athletic inclinations, insiders credit their mother. Betsy was one of 12 kids, and six of her seven brothers were high school quarterbacks.
"In fact, when we would date girls, we would always compare them to my mom, and the major way was to see what kind of arm they had," Matt said. "If they could throw like my mom then, yeah, they were OK."
The competition on the Hasselbeck's well-worn front lawn was predictably intense. Matt insisted upon making and enforcing the rules, usually to his own benefit. If there was a dispute, Matt could always run inside to consult with his father, whose rulings didn't always return to the field without first undergoing revision.
"This is when we knew early on that whether Matt wanted to be a leader or not, he was the leader," Don Hasselbeck said. "He made all the rules and he changed the rules as the game went on. If that big rock was out of bounds while he had the ball, well, it changed."
* * *
It didn't matter much that Matt and Tim were not allowed to play organized football until their father retired in 1985. The idea had been to shield the boys from poor coaching until Don had the time to coach them himself. In the meantime, the boys were receiving more insight into the game than any of their friends.
Mr. Grogan, as the boys knew the Patriots' veteran quarterback, imparted a few drills to help Matt with his throwing mechanics. Later, when Don left the Patriots, the boys played with Archie Manning's boys in Minnesota and Phil Simms' son in New York, among many others.
By the time Matt reached high school, he had already dissected the defensive coverages that would await him in college and beyond.
"My dad might say, 'OK, this is cover-two, this is cover-zero, cover-one, cover-three,'" Hasselbeck said. "We did it one night during commercials watching prime-time television.
"I knew it before anybody else. I mean, it was not fair."
As a ballboy for the Patriots in 1992, Matt's junior year at Xaverian, he was extended the privilege of throwing with the quarterbacks. The Patriots were awful that year, but the advice Hasselbeck gleaned from Hugh Millen, Scott Zolak, Tommy Hodson and various coaches provided another advantage.
"I'm throwing tight end drills, receiver drills, you name it," Hasselbeck said. "It was just an incredible experience."
When college coaches came to observe the Patriots' practices, they couldn't help but notice the 6-4, 185-pound prodigy winging the football about the field. Before long, Hasselbeck was receiving recruiting letters from dozens of schools, although fullback Greg Comella, now of the New York Giants, was the undisputed leader at Xaverian.
Hasselbeck completed 90 of 120 passes during his senior year as Xaverian advanced to the state title game against rival Brockton. Xaverian blew a 17-0 halftime lead to lose, 18-17, and it was later learned that Hasselbeck had suffered a concussion late in the second quarter.
Hasselbeck cleared his mind in time to commit to UCLA, having been smitten by a coaching staff that included Rick Neuheisel and a procession of quarterbacks that had recently included Troy Aikman, Tommy Maddox and Steve Bono.
"Tommy Maddox was the guy that I really, really liked," Hasselbeck said. "He was the guy they would always compare me to. And then Aikman was in the Super Bowl at the Rose Bowl that year.
"If you were a quarterback at UCLA, it was like the coolest thing ever."
Hasselbeck was envisioning suntans and Ray-Bans when Tom Coughlin, BC's tough-talking coach at the time, talked him into staying closer to home.
"I still don't know how he did it," Hasselbeck said.
* * *
Through no real fault of his own, Hasselbeck has endured five coaching changes in the past 10 years: from George McCabe to Charlie Stevenson at Xaverian; from Tom Coughlin to Dan Henning to Tom O'Brien at BC; and from Holmgren to Ray Rhodes to Mike Sherman in Green Bay. And now, back to Holmgren again, this time in Seattle.
That much Hasselbeck knows. But ask him to name his position coaches and offensive coordinators? Not without consulting his notes.
"There isn't a game that we play that I can look at the other roster and say, 'I wasn't coached by one of those guys or one of those guys hasn't coached my dad or played with my dad or I wasn't a ballboy when they were a coach,'" Hasselbeck said. "It was tough on my college career, but in some ways it's been a very good thing, like a blessing in disguise."
Learning various offensive systems has made Hasselbeck more adaptable, former BC quarterbacks coach Steve Kragthorpe said. Kragthorpe, who happens to be Tim Hasselbeck's current position coach in Buffalo, described Matt as a dedicated note-taker who is never caught unprepared.
"Matt had to adjust every year and I think that's one of the things that will really help him in his transition to Seattle," Kragthorpe said.
Of all his coaches, Hasselbeck credits Henning with having the most to do with his ascendancy to the NFL. Their relationship was rocky at times, but Kragthorpe and others helped convince Hasselbeck to do things Henning's way.
"I finally bought into what he was coaching and it's helped me so much," Hasselbeck said. "He was able to get out of me what needed to come out."
And yet it was Henning who nearly derailed Hasselbeck's career - once and possibly for all - when he named Scott Mutryn the Eagles' starter to open the 1996 season.
Hasselbeck was devastated by the decision because he'd overcome so much to even challenge for the job. Contracting hepatitis in Jamaica was bad enough, but 1996 was also the year Hasselbeck and everyone seated at his table was struck by lightning during a wedding reception.
"One guy was out cold," Hasselbeck recalled with incredulity. "The caterer starts screaming, 'Get the food, get the food!' The bartender has a Coors Light can in his hand and it went flying because he got struck. But I was fine."
To top off the week, Hasselbeck received his first speeding ticket a few days later. Then came Henning's decision to go with Mutryn.
It was nothing compared to what he'd seen in Jamaica, Hasselbeck kept reminding himself. Still, losing his bid for the starting job was a travesty in Hasselbeck's view - he went so far as to inquire about transferring - and he vented to the media.
"It was probably the first time I really saw Matthew lose his cool," Don Hasselbeck said. "We were a little bit surprised, but because that was out of character for him, if he was doing that, he truly believed that he got the shaft and he was going to let it be known.
"Not that I approved of it, but you want them to stand up for what's right, too."
Mutryn bombed in the season-opener against Hawaii and Hasselbeck rallied the team to victory in the fourth quarter. Hasselbeck would not lose the job again.
But had Mutryn kept the job, Hasselbeck is convinced he would have been forced out of the program the following year as Henning left amid the gambling scandal, and O'Brien sought to rebuild.
"In that case, I'm not playing football ever again," Hasselbeck said.
* * *
No story about Matt Hasselbeck would be complete without a full account of how he met his wife, Sarah, a former field hockey player at BC. To be completely forthright, Hasselbeck didn't meet Sarah so much as he scheduled his way into her life.
In a moment of admirable candor, Hasselbeck revealed that he entered freshman orientation at BC with only one immediate goal: To sit near the most attractive female in the room.
Of course, merely sitting next to the prettiest girl in the room wasn't enough, not after four years at an all-boys school.
So when the time came to register for classes, Hasselbeck peered over Sarah's shoulder and copied her schedule verbatim. He would later take full credit when a BC adviser lauded his seemingly enterprising selection of calculus, philosophy, geology, history and accounting.
"It was just a wild move," Hasselbeck said. "The odds were good."
Sarah wound up graduating summa cum laude as an accounting major. Matt graduated with a degree in marketing and finance.
The couple was married in June 2000 - proving, perhaps, that Hasselbeck's instincts are sound.
"He is a wonderful young man with a very strong sense of values," Dziak said. "I haven't seen a lot of people that could be both very strong athletes and leading athletes while keeping their feet on the ground and really having a sense of who they are.
"Matt has done that."
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* Reach staff writer Mike Sando at 425-822-9504, or email@example.com.
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SIDEBAR: Matt Hasselbeck
College: Boston College
NFL experience: 3 seasons
Career games/starts: 32/0
Birthdate: Sept. 25, 1975
Birthplace: Boulder, Colo.
Hasselbeck facts: Joined the Seahawks March 2, 2001, via trade with Green Bay. Seattle received Hasselbeck and the Packers' 2001 first-round draft choice (17th overall) in exchange for Seattle's 10th selection in the first round and a third-round choice. Originally a 1998 sixth-round draft choice of the Packers during Mike Holmgren's reign in Green Bay. Spent the 1998 season on the practice squad before re-signing with the Packers as a free agent in February 1999. Has played in 32 career games, eight at quarterback, but mostly as the holder for the extra point and field goal units. Has 29 career attempts and 13 completions for 145 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions for an 83.3 passer rating.
Preseason: He has 79 completions in 127 attempts (62.2 percent) for 1,124 yards and 14 touchdowns to four interceptions for a 114.4 rating. His 127.7 exhibition rating led the NFL in 1999, and his 114.9 was second in 2000.
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Seahawks training camp: Today through Aug. 16, Cheney
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