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15 Years Strong

The laugh was an unadulterated bellow - laced with the kind of sincerity that comes from years of embracing the skeptics and proving everyone wrong.

The laugh was an unadulterated bellow - laced with the kind of sincerity that comes from years of embracing the skeptics and proving everyone wrong for a career that has spanned from clinging to the practice squad by his fingernails 14 years ago to being named to the Pro Bowl the past two.

Along the way, every year there has been somebody else ready to take his job as the fullback for the Seattle Seahawks.

So when Thursday rolled around and it was made clear this is the year the Seahawks plan to develop his heir apparent Leonard Weaver with playing time more and more throughout this season, Mack Strong, approaching his 36th birthday, couldn't help but tilt his head back and roar.

"It's that time of year, so that's what we do - hear different stories of me being put out to pasture," Strong said. "I don't know what I'm going to do when I'm done playing - I'll probably still be going out to a football field somewhere thinking there are two-a-days and people trying to beat me out. I'm just grateful being out here with the guys working hard trying to put a product out on the field that can go the distance this year."

And you'd better believe they are just as relieved to have him back as can be. You see the Seahawks were a limping, skimping team on the brink of disaster virtually the entire 2006 season due to an unfathomable amount of injuries on the offensive side of the football. Somehow they managed to win their third consecutive NFC West title through leadership from players like Strong for coach Mike Holmgren, who must have felt as if he were parachuted onto the middle of the autobahn with nowhere to turn.

Despite his own battered body, Strong recorded three of the longest nine runs of his career and tied his career-high with 29 receptions - all the while serving as the lead blocker for Shaun Alexander and Mo Morris, or protecting Matt Hasselbeck and Seneca Wallace. All of that while he was playing on ankles so badly sprained they looked like swollen bedposts.

It wasn't supposed to be that way. In 2005, Weaver, a small college All-American tight end, learned the position and in 2006 he was supposed to work his way into the lineup to relieve the load from Strong. Instead, he suffered bad high ankle sprain in the final preseason game and put on the injured list for the season. That left Strong in a tough spot as Holmgren's clutch crutch.

"He's the consummate professional," Holmgren said. "Guys like Mack ... they make coaching fun. He is everything you want in a football player. You don't have to worry about him as much as you worry about some other guys. You know he'll always be there and as a result, I must admit, you take him a little for granted and that's not fair. He played more snaps last year than anybody on our offense. He was tired at the end. He's played a lot of football. That's one of the reasons Leonard is going to play more."

The 196 games Strong has played is third all-time for the Seahawks behind Joe Nash (218) and Steve Largent (200). What people generally don't realize is his role as a battering ram with a built-in navigational element to carve openings for Alexander, who blew through the 2005 season winning the rushing title and setting an NFL record (since broken) for touchdowns in one season. Alexander never stopped singing the praises of his offensive line - but always saved the most glowing commentary for Strong.

"I'm never going to let him retire," Alexander said. "Why would anybody want a bodyguard like him to retire?"

Nonetheless, it is inevitable and he knows it. The fun part is Strong has been able to work with Weaver through the ups and downs for two seasons, and now ... it's time.

Strong had a rough spring and summer, as his wife Zoe lost a handful of family members in a tragic car accident in eastern Washington. It stung the family and the organization during minicamp. He carried on as only a guy named Strong will do - with shoulders to carry everyone and graciousness as the organization reponded to his needs.

"I'm always sort of sobered by how much guys here have to deal with life unfortunately," said Strong, the Columbus, Ga. native and Georgia alumnus. "People have to deal with stuff. There are tragedies and we have to learn how to cope with them. It happens to children and loved ones and that's part of the deal. It's not like professional athletes live in a vacuum and we're immune to those things. But it's really about how you handle those things and bounce back that really matters. I'm just trying to deal with it as much as I can to be there for my wife and my kids and her family. Life goes on. I'm trying to move forward in life.

"I'm absolutely excited for the next step here. It's a natural transition now that guys play for a while, or play for a long while and the torch is passed to somebody else - either by force or choice. It's a natural order of things and I welcome it. Was I in bad shape last year? Absolutely. There wasn't a day that went by that I wasn't just worn out and hurting. We have to keep Leonard healthy this year because I know he's going to do some great things for this organization."

Just the thought of replacing Strong brings Weaver nearly to tears. He's been through plenty of bumps and bruises in his lifetime and couldn't even fathom how the ankle sprain ended his 2006 season. And while he too is a product of the south and almost exactly the same size as Strong, he is much more athletic with continual big-play potential. Blocking has been the issue, plus everyone is waiting to see him perform in a regular season game other than exciting snippets.

"It's up to me now and I understand that," Weaver said. "From my heart, Mack Strong has been such a great mentor, a great friend and a father figure for advice on and off the field. He's meant so much to me. I love that he's back this year and he's a guy I would play behind another five years. That's the kind of respect I have for him. He means a lot to me with every aspect of the game. And one of the things I admire most about Mack is how consistent he is with everything he does in life. He's so committed that when he makes up his mind to do something he's going to do it. When he says something, he's a man of his word and I admire that. I'm trying to pick up on all those things he has going so I can get behind that same train to carry me through the rest of my career."

The Seahawks can only hope that's true. In the meantime, with all aches and pains he's suffered - and will suffer the rest of his life - from wearing a Seahawks uniform, Strong marches on with whatever he can do to help Weaver. He sees the talent and the improvement ... hoping stardom is awaiting.

"He's doing phenomonally in this camp - he's been the one player to watch all week," Strong said. "What Leonard needs to do is to meet the challenge of taking what he does on the practice field and take it to the field on Sundays. That's the biggest challenge of all. You can have the greatest practices in the world and not play well in games. Or, you can have the lousiest practices in the world and hopefully you'll get to the game - and some guys just play well that way.

"But most of us do want to practice well and take it to the games. And I really do believe that with Leonard, all of this stuff he's showing us will carry over to the games and everybody is going to see something special. In his own mind, like in my mind, I see him as incredible athlete who is going to be a force in this league and build a reputation very quickly that people will be afraid. He just has to gain the confidence to perform play after play, game after game and year after year."

Which is exactly what Strong has brought to the table for all these years and everyone in the organization loves him for it.

"When Mack fnishes playing football he will be very successful in whatever he chooses to do," Holmgren said. "He's just one of those guys. He is a good man. He's a great family guy. I love him to death. I am really glad he has decided to stay with me here near the end for a few more years."

Years of commitment from which successful lifetimes are built.

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