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Football in his blood

Matt Hasselbeck seems born to play quarterback

If you want to trace it back to the beginning, then you need to start with Raymond Berry. He was the receivers coach for the New England Patriots in the late 1970s and suggested that his young tight end, Don Hasselbeck, invest in a Jugs machine.

''Every day in the offseason, I'd have [my wife] Betsy fire that thing up," Hasselbeck recalled. ''She'd shoot 500 balls a day at me."

''My mom was the only one allowed to operate the Jugs," explained Tim Hasselbeck. ''My Dad would catch it, then he'd flip it to Matthew, who'd catch it, then flip it to me. I'd catch it, then flip it to my brother Nathaniel, and he'd put it back in the basket. We did that every day.

''I guess it's no surprise that Matthew and I ended up as quarterbacks and Nathaniel ended up as a receiver.

''Looking back, to grow up saying, 'I hope my brother and I become NFL quarterbacks,' is crazy. But what we did say was, 'I want to grow up and be like my Dad.' Well, what did our Dad do? He played professional football. If he was a cop, we probably would have wanted to be a cop.

''You've got to remember too, that we were friends with Steve Nelson's kids. So what did their dad do? He played football. It just wasn't such a far-out notion to us. It's not like we wanted to be an astronaut or something."

No, Matthew Hasselbeck never wanted to be an astronaut. He was a quarterback, and he was going to play in the Super Bowl. He walked like a quarterback, talked like a quarterback, and exuded an air that is absolutely required of a quarterback.

His confidence was his biggest strength, and his biggest weakness. It helped him survive a career that has been littered with as many disappointments as successes, but also caused him angst that could have been avoided had he shown just a little restraint.

He might be a 30-year-old Pro Bowl quarterback and a Super Bowl starter for the Seattle Seahawks, but there were days when such things seemed impossible. He couldn't even start for his own college team; he languished on Green Bay's practice squad; he sat and watched Trent Dilfer run the Seattle team he desperately wanted to call his own.

''If there's something Matthew wants, he usually ends up getting it," said his father. ''But some things take more time than others."

A father's footsteps
There was very little middle ground in the life of young Matthew Hasselbeck. He was an all-or-nothing kid. And there was nothing -- nothing -- that he felt was out of his reach.

''I was his Pop Warner coach," his father said. ''We were losing at the end of the game. I designed a pass play in the huddle for him. I turned to him and said, 'Now, you're going to catch this, right?' He looked at me like I was crazy. Then he said, 'Of course I'm going to catch it.'

''He went out and caught the pass. We won the game."

The rules were simple in the Hasselbeck home. No milling around like a bunch of sheep, as Don liked to say. Either try to do something special, or don't bother.

The boys bothered. They competed zealously against others -- and each other. Matt regularly reduced Tim to tears. He dealt from strength, ignoring or minimizing his weaknesses. He was in charge.

And he was always right.

''He had to be that way," said Tim Hasselbeck. ''My Dad played for a number of different NFL teams, so we bounced around from school to school. It could have been difficult when you are in fourth, fifth, and sixth grade, like Matthew was, but when someone says, 'Who's the new kid?' and another guy says, 'His father plays for the Minnesota Vikings,' it's not a bad way to make yourself captain of the football team at recess.

''Plus, Matthew always knew how to play the angles. He'd show up and say, 'Hey, you guys think you are good, but my Dad plays for the New York Giants, so I think I'll be the quarterback today."

When Don retired, the family moved back to Norfolk, Mass. Don played pickup basketball at Xavieran Brothers High School in Westwood and thought it might be a good fit for his oldest son.

Matt Hasselbeck showed up with the idea of playing quarterback. He wasn't the only one. Greg Comella, an exceptional athlete, also wanted the position. Comella watched as the lanky kid from Norfolk grabbed a football, made sure everyone was watching, then threw it about 60 yards downfield.

''I'd say it took half a practice before our coach realized, 'We've got our quarterback,' " Comella said. ''And it wasn't me. So I figured, 'OK, I'll run the ball then.' "

George McCabe, the Xaverian coach, ran varsity practice the same time as the freshman practiced. If he turned, he was able to glance at his future prospects.

''With Matthew and Greg over there, I found myself glancing over an awful lot to see how things were going," he said.

Hasselbeck joined the varsity in his sophomore season. He and Comella were a formidable tandem, and occasionally they daydreamed about playing at the next level.

''But the Super Bowl?" said Comella. ''The only Super Bowl we were talking about back then was the MIAA Super Bowl."

Grounded Eagle
Comella committed to Stanford. Hasselbeck, after flirting with UCLA, committed to Tom Coughlin at Boston College. Hasselbeck prepared himself to bring Flutie-like success back to The Heights. Instead, he was shocked to discover he would be redshirted his freshman season.

Coughlin left after Hasselbeck's first year, and Dan Henning, known for his work with quarterbacks, succeeded him. Hasselbeck assumed he'd get the starting job in 1994, but Henning wanted him to make some technical adjustments. The quarterback balked. He knew what worked for him. Why should he change? He found himself on the bench, passed over for the season opener with Scott Mutryn at the helm.

Hasselbeck lashed out publicly at Henning, spitting out the damning words, ''He should wear big red clown shoes and a big red clown nose, because he's a clown."

They were words he would take back if he could. Once he stopped stewing and started listening, he realized that Henning's directives had merit. Henning also had a change of heart. With his team trailing Hawaii in the season opener two seasons later, he turned to Hasselbeck in the final quarter and told him to back up his bravado.

Hasselbeck engineered a touchdown and a field goal in the final minutes, and BC won, 24-21.

''Dan Henning took Matt to the next level in terms of mechanics of the position," Don Hasselbeck said. ''Things like the way you should grip the ball, and the balance of your stance, and the proper footwork, all the little things that matter. He talked to Matthew. He challenged him. It was good for him."

Henning, too, would leave the school before Hasselbeck's tenure was up, the casualty of a gambling scandal that cast a pall over the BC program. Tom O'Brien became Hasselbeck's third coach in four years, and was quickly impressed with his quarterback's leadership.

''That's because Matt was always in the film room, and always working out," said former BC tight end Adam Newman. ''And he knew everything about the offense. The young guys who didn't know what was going on went to Matt."

In his final season, Hasselbeck took such a beating that his teammates nicknamed him ''Buddy Lee," after the doll on the Lee jeans commercial that was always absorbing some kind of abuse.

''Bad shoulder, hip flexor, sore back, he played through it all," Newman said.

Hasselbeck's senior year was a disappointment. In what would be a 4-7 season, BC lost to lowly Temple in its season opener.

''But then Matt came back and beat West Virginia," O'Brien said. ''He always had confidence, the kind that can will teams to win football games."

Hasselbeck finished his career at BC as a two-year starter with 4,548 yards and a 55.6 percent completion rate. He threw 22 touchdowns and 26 interceptions and left with a record of 20-26-1. That mixed bag dropped him to the sixth round of the 1998 draft.

''I bet if you erased the names at the top of the scouting reports after college, Tom Brady's and Matthew's would be almost identical," Don Hasselbeck said. ''It probably said something like, 'Stands 6-4, skinny, a nice polite kid, very intelligent, don't know if he is tough enough to play in the NFL.'

''You've got to remember, Rohan Davey was drafted higher than Tom Brady. The NFL is not an exact science. You just hope you get the opportunity."

Hasselbeck spent a year on the practice squad with Green Bay, then became the backup to Brett Favre. Even though he wasn't playing, his friends noticed a difference in his game.

''He always had a gun, but now all of a sudden the Packers were walking back from their routes shaking their hands, because they were all red from how hard Matt was throwing it to them," said Newman, who signed with Green Bay as a rookie free agent in 2000 but never made the active roster.

Attitude, aptitude
In 2001, the Packers traded Hasselbeck to Seattle. The quarterback was so excited that the first time he walked into quarterback coach Jim Zorn's meeting, he grabbed a piece of chalk and diagrammed the West Coast offense on the blackboard. Up to that point, he had thrown just 29 passes in the NFL.

Coach Mike Holmgren wanted certain things from his quarterback. Hasselbeck wanted certain things from his coach. It was a struggle for both of them. Dilfer became the starter, and Hasselbeck steamed. Then he watched and learned -- again.

Two seasons later, he had thrown for 3,841 yards and led Seattle into a wild-card game against his former team, the Packers. The game went into overtime, and Hasselbeck, who was miked, went to midfield for the coin toss. His team won it, and he announced to all of America, ''We'll receive, and we're gonna score."

''That's Matt," said O'Brien, as he watched from home.

''That's Matt," said Comella, as he watched from home.

''That's Matt," said Newman, as he watched from home.

The ending was not as Hasselbeck scripted. Al Harris picked off one of his passes and ran it back for a touchdown. Packers win. The fallout from Hasselbeck's comments was predictably negative.

''Matt was just messing around," Newman said. ''He knew those Green Bay guys. He was just joking with old friends. Of course, it would have helped if he didn't throw that pick."

It was a lesson learned. Matt Hasselbeck has long since moved on. He doesn't have time to dwell on negatives, not when he's constructing so many positives.

''We used to nickname him 'Molasses' because he was so slow," Comella said. ''And now he's a guy who is turning the corner on [Panthers defensive end] Julius Peppers.

''He is living the dream of every kid who ever picked up a football," Newman said. ''It hit me last week, when he was standing up there on the podium with Terry Bradshaw and hoisting the NFC championship trophy. I looked at my wife and I said, 'I know that guy.' "

He has become the quarterback he and his family always knew he could be. That is not arrogance, just the Hasselbeck way.

''It's weird, but because we're both in the NFC, I end up watching film of him," said Tim Hasselbeck, himself a former BC quarterback and now backup to Eli Manning with the Giants. ''The way the coaches break down the tape, there's no hiding. When I sit and watch him, I end up saying, 'He's playing as well as anybody.' "

His family is not surprised. Matthew Hasselbeck is a survivor; always has been, always will be.

''I've been cut a bunch of times," said Tim Hasselbeck. ''I've played with six teams. I wasn't drafted. But here I am, five years later, still in the league.

''Now here's this guy, my brother, who I played against my whole life, and he's a Pro Bowl quarterback. Are you kidding? I love it. I will still argue that when we were kids, it was, 'I won some, you won some,' But his story gives me hope. It should give everyone hope."

Matthew Hasselbeck, the NFC's top quarterback, will meet with the media this week in Detroit. There's always the chance he will guarantee a win.

Forgive him. He can't help but think that's exactly what will happen.

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