Seahawks general manager John Schneider prides himself in leaving no stone unturned when it comes to acquiring talent. Sometimes that means evaluating players from small colleges most people couldn't find on a map, and other times it has meant signing players from the Canadian football League or the Arena Football League.
But finding a potential starting center an awards banquet in De Pere, Wisconsin? That's really something.
OK, so that's not exactly how the Seahawks came to sign Drew Nowak, who is currently competing with Lemuel Jeanpierre for the starting job at center. The two De Pere natives did sit at the same table last year as honorees at the Lee Remmel Sports Awards Banquet, but the way Nowak tells it, he wasn't being recruited, nor was he making a sales pitch.
"We sat next to each other at the Lee Remmel banquet in De Pere and we talked for like two or three hours, got to know each other a little bit, then opportunity arose and he was nice enough to sign me," Nowak said. "So I've been really fortunate with that relationship."
Whether or not that dinner had anything to do with it, the Seahawks did decide to sign Nowak to their practice squad a few months later after he was released by the Jacksonville Jaguars. After spending most of last season working at guard, Nowak moved to center this offseason, and now finds himself in the middle of a competition to replace Max Unger at center.
"It's still very competitive," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "Drew is a little bit ahead right now. Lem is ahead in all of the assignments and all that stuff, Drew looks really good physically. We're just going to keep working it and see what happens."
That Jeanpierre is ahead when it comes to the mental side of playing center should come as no surprise, nor is it a knock on Nowak. Jeanpierre has been playing center for years, while Nowak is playing it for the first time since he was a senior in high school. Then there's that other not-so-little detail that Nowak played defensive tackle in college, earning MAC defense player of the year honors at Western Michigan.
Unlike other defense-to-offense converts on Seattle's line, however, Nowak's move wasn't the brainchild of offensive line coach Tom Cable. After signing Nowak as a defensive lineman, the Jaguars brought up the idea mostly out of necessity, but the position change stuck.
"It was after our first scrimmage, and two offensive linemen blew their knees out," Nowak said. "… I basically told them, whatever's going to keep me here, I'll do it. That's how the process started."
Nowak ended up missing his rookie season with an injury of his own, then spent time in 2013 on the Jaguars practice squad and active roster. The Jaguars released him prior to the 2014 season, and when the Seahawks called, Nowak was excited not just for another shot with an NFL team, but a chance to work with Cable, who had previously turned J.R. Sweezy from a college defensive tackle into a starting NFL guard.
"I saw the success he had with J.R." Nowak said. "He's just so willing to teach and he's so smart in the classroom, it's hard not to learn. Everything he has done for me has helped so much so far, but I know there's such a higher level I can be at, so it's going to be a process.
"I'm very fortunate for the opportunity. I've been working very hard and they're giving me a legit shot."
Even if Cable, whose list of defense-to-offense converts includes rookies Kristjan Sokoli, Kona Schwenke and Jesse Davis, didn't move Nowak to offense himself, he was still very eager to work with him once he came to Seattle.
"You're always looking for the guy who has those kind of characteristics we look for, and he had 'em," Cable said. "When we got him last year, it was like, OK, he's a long way off. You could see why it didn't work for him there, but now let's start the training in our system and see what we can do with him."
Switching from defense to offense was the more dramatic move, but Nowak notes that his switch to center is a challenging one as well.
"It's huge, because you're talking to all five guys instead of just one guy on your left and one guy on you're right," Nowak said. "You're talking to the whole line, you have to make sure everyone is doing the right thing as a group because you are the quarterback of the offensive line. It's a lot more thinking mentally."
The competition is still on at center, and likely won't be settled until both Nowak and Jeanpierre show what they can do in preseason games, but the fact that Nowak is even in the running shows how far he has progressed, and just how much in his career has changed, since he was having dinner with his future GM in De Perre, Wisconsin.
"I think I've progressed a lot," Nowak said. "There's so much farther I can go. There's no ceiling, I know that, but I really think I have improved."