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Hasselbeck keeps the faith -- in himself A former sixth-round draft pick grows into role of Seahawks' commander in chief

DETROIT -- Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was beginning his third season at Boston College when he was called into the head coach's office and informed he had lost the competition to be the team's starter.

The coach was Dan Henning, who now is the Carolina Panthers' offensive coordinator. Hasselbeck, Henning explained, was always trying to avoid confrontation and keep the peace. "You are the kind of guy I want to be president of the United States," Henning said. "This other kid is who I would want to be the general."

Hasselbeck's response? He shouted at his head coach, "You should wear big red shoes and a big red nose, because you are a clown!"

Fast forward seven years and Hasselbeck is standing at midfield for the coin toss to start overtime of the Seahawks' playoff game against the Green Bay Packers. Seattle wins the toss, and the referee's microphone picks up Hasselbeck declaring, "We want the ball and we're going to score!"

As it turned out, Henning was not a clown, and Seattle didn't score. Hasselbeck threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown to give Green Bay the win.

However, the two vignettes from Hasselbeck's career illustrate qualities that have helped him survive and grow into the player who will lead Seattle into Super Bowl XL today against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

A little brashness. A lot of confidence. An unshakeable belief in one's ability in the face of adversity. These are valuable traits for an NFL quarterback.

"One of the things that has always been attractive to me is his competitive spirit," Seattle coach Mike Holmgren said. "This is kind of what happens with thoroughbreds. You get high-strung and good players. But this is one of the reasons they are good. Then all of a sudden you go through those bumps and you get to a point where you trust one another. Then all sorts of good stuff happens."

The 30-year-old Hasselbeck has been making the good stuff happen for Seattle this postseason. It was his passing, not the running of league Most Valuable Player Shaun Alexander, that carried the Seahawks past Washington in the divisional playoff round. And it was Hasselbeck's passing, along with timely turnovers, that helped Seattle jump to a big lead in the NFC title-game win over Carolina.

Hasselbeck enters today's game on fire. In his last six games, including two in the playoffs, he is completing 75 percent of his passes with 12 touchdowns, one interception and a passer rating of 127.6. For the season, he ranked fourth in the league in passer rating, fifth in completion percentage and 10th in passing yards.

It took five full years of grooming to get Hasselbeck to a high level of efficiency in the NFL.

Hasselbeck, the son of former NFL tight end Don Hasselbeck, produced mediocre results with subpar talent around him as a two-year starter at Boston College. He was viewed as a skinny prospect with modest talent entering the 1998 draft, much the same way Tom Brady was viewed in 2000.

Only one NFL coach -- Andy Reid, who then was Green Bay quarterbacks coach -- showed up at his personal workout before the '98 draft, and the Packers took him in the sixth round that year.

The 6-foot-4 Hasselbeck spent one year on the practice squad and then barely got on the field the next two years as Green Bay's No. 3 QB.

"If Andy Reid had not lobbied for me in Green Bay I would not have been drafted," Hasselbeck said. "While I was in Green Bay, Andy spent a lot of time with me. He had three other guys in the room, including Brett Favre, and he spent a lot of time he didn't have to spend."

Holmgren, who coached Hasselbeck in Green Bay in '98, took one of the biggest gambles of his career in March 2001 by moving down seven spots in the first round (from 10th to 17th) and giving up a third-round pick to the Packers in exchange for Hasselbeck. Then, in a move almost identical to what the Buffalo Bills did with Rob Johnson, Holmgren gave Hasselbeck a five-year, $24 million contract before he ever stepped on the field for Seattle. Holmgren anointed Hasselbeck the starter, ahead of veteran Trent Dilfer, who had just led Baltimore to a Super Bowl title and joined Seattle as a free agent.

Hasselbeck had the one quality that Holmgren values most in a passer.

"He's very smart," Holmgren said.

Hasselbeck had a shaky first year in Seattle, completing just 54 percent of his passes with a rating of 70.8. But the Seahawks were good enough to go 9-7. The next season, Seattle made Dilfer the starter to open the year, but Dilfer suffered a season-ending injury seven games into the year, and Hasselbeck took over for good.

Hasselbeck blossomed in his third year as the starter, completing 61 percent of his throws and helping Seattle to a 10-6 record and a playoff spot.

"I think in this particular (West Coast) offense it will take three years before you know for sure on a quarterback," Holmgren said. "He played his first season admirably, but he played it hurt. In his second year Matt had to sit and watch Trent play until he got hurt. During the third year Matt had come in, and I said, 'I know he's good enough to do this. He's the guy.' "

Holmgren won two Super Bowl rings as an assistant in San Francisco and one as head coach in Green Bay. He has brought out the best in his passer.

While Hasselbeck has good height, he doesn't have a big physique, like Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger. But in addition to his intelligence, he has surprising nimbleness in the pocket and can throw accurately from many angles.

Holmgren, a master play-caller, does not like a lot of audibles called. Hasselbeck has become proficient at running the West Coast system as it is designed and for making the right changes at the line when necessary.

"If you watch Matt now he's very, very controlled, as I would say, in his movement, in his thinking," Holmgren said. "[Experience] really takes some of the pressure off making the perfect call in that tight situation. He's done a good job of it."

Experience has made Hasselbeck relaxed on the field and off. While he's confident enough to make a bold statement -- like in the playoff loss to the Packers -- he's comfortable enough to be self-effacing.

On the prospect of a pro-Steelers crowd at Ford Field, the bald Hasselbeck said, "Anybody losing your hair, you can root for us, too. We need to do anything we can to get the home-field advantage here in Detroit."

This is not a player with an ego problem. Hasselbeck isn't having any problems at all.

"It's been a long road," he said, "and to be here is very, very special. . . . I wasn't supposed to make it in the NFL. It just wasn't supposed to happen. I'm just trying to keep the dream going."

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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