One throw changed everything. Sort of.
As part of the tight ends group during freshman football tryouts at Xaverian Brothers High School in Westwood, Mass., Matt Hasselbeck was both eager to distinguish himself from the others and to align himself with his father, an NFL player at the position who had retired a short time earlier. When a quarterback missed him on a pass route, he tracked down the loose ball and threw it back.
“The coach came over to me and said, ‘Hey, I want you to try out for quarterback,’” Hasselbeck said. “He put me in the quarterback line, and I thought he must have really liked how I threw the ball.
“Then he said something like, ‘You’re never going to be strong enough to block anybody.’ ”
The move paid almost immediate dividends. A trophy, which honors the achievements of that year’s freshman team quarterbacked by Hasselbeck, remains on display to this day in the school. It reads: ‘8-0, The team that never punted’ and contains the initials of all the players.
“We were a very good team,” Hasselbeck noted.
In the long term, the impact of that change has stretched from one coast to the other and — with his decision to sign as a free agent with the Tennessee Titans in July — recently added a Southern dimension.
By the time he finished at the Massachusetts prep school, he was a high school All-American who received scholarship offers from numerous major college programs. He stayed close to home and attended Boston College, starting for two seasons before being drafted into the NFL by Green Bay. He ultimately rose to professional prominence and flourished during 10 seasons with the Seattle Seahawks.
In fewer than three months with the Titans, Hasselbeck’s ability, personality and natural leadership skills have eased the transition to a new coaching staff. He also quickly dispelled the uncertainty and ignominy that existed for much of the previous five years as Vince Young and Kerry Collins took turns at the position. His presence quieted any debate about whether rookie Jake Locker ought to play immediately or take time to learn the position.
Yet the fact that Hasselbeck did not necessarily set out to be a quarterback remains central to his approach. He did not seek the starring role and all the pressure and perks that accompany it, and in many ways he still does not think — or act — like so many of the other egomaniacs who relish such things.
“At the end of the day, I think for me, I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help the guys on the offense — specifically on the offense as a quarterback — to help those guys be successful — whatever that means,” he said. “If you’re working out in the summer and you’re the guy that brings the water for everybody … it’s almost like you’re serving them.
“OK, what can I do to help you? What can I do to make your job easier?”
As far as his family is concerned, there is no Matt Hasselbeck. There is only “Matthew.”
While Matt Hasselbeck has competed against the likes of Peyton Manning and Eli Manning on Sundays over the past decade, it was Matthew who ran around the Minnesota Vikings locker room with those two when their fathers played together on that team. Similarly, it was 7-year-old Matthew, the oldest of three boys, who sat in the stands in Tampa and reveled in the moment his father, then a Raider, blocked an extra point in a Super Bowl victory over the Redskins.
“If I were to call home I’d say, ‘Hey Mom, it’s Matthew,’ ” he said. “I would never say, ‘Hey, it’s Matt.’ That just doesn’t sound right. … No one in my family’s ever called me Matt. My wife’s never called me Matt.”
Lest anyone think “Matt Hasselbeck” is some contrived alter ego created to help deal with the demands of playing the most high-profile position in all of professional sports, think again. Not nearly that much thought went into the issue of what people call him.
“What happened is that when I went to BC and filled out a thing, they just put me in the media guide as Matt,” he said. “It feels weird on TV now when [ESPN’s] Trey Wingo or whoever will call me by ‘Matthew Hasselbeck.’ I think I probably know why they do it, because they’ve probably been in a social setting with my mom, and my mom doesn’t like when people call me ‘Matt,’ … but I always introduce myself as Matt.”
It was Matthew, therefore, who attended a wedding with Sarah — his girlfriend at the time and now his wife — in 1996. The two were seated during the reception, which was outside under a tent, when lightning struck a few feet away and stung everyone at their table.
“It came up through my toes to my knees,” he said. “It’s just like getting electrocuted. It hurts bad. … It happens so fast. It hurts but there’s no lingering hurt.”
Sarah, a field hockey All-American in college, spent one night in the hospital. Matthew did not. (He dismissed reports that he has been struck twice in his life.)
Matthew did spend a significant amount of time hospitalized with a case of hepatitis, though, following a junior season when Matt became the starter at BC. He contracted the illness during a mission trip to Jamaica, something he called “a life-changing experience.”
So the Matt Hasselbeck, who made three Pro Bowls and led his team to the Super Bowl once during 10 years as a starter in Seattle, is the same guy as Matthew, who along with Sarah, was deeply involved in the Seattle community, specifically with an international disaster response group called Medical Teams International.
That same guy was selected as captain by his current teammates who had known him only a few weeks.
“He’s a good guy,” said Tim Hasselbeck, his younger brother, a former NFL quarterback in his own right and a current ESPN analyst. “The reality with Matthew is he’s a pro, and I think that he did a lot in the community in Seattle, and I’m sure he’ll embrace the community in Tennessee. He’s a good teammate.”
He also has been a pretty good player thus far.
As the Titans entered their bye week, Hasselbeck was among the league’s top 10 in passer rating, had thrown at least one touchdown pass in all five games and was on pace to join Warren Moon as the only quarterbacks in franchise history to pass for more than 4,000 yards in a season.
Hasselbeck turned 36 years old on Sept. 25, the day the Titans defeated the Denver Broncos. He completed 27 of 36 passes for 311 yards and two touchdowns that day for a passer rating of 119.1 — his highest in nearly two years.
The aforementioned Locker was selected with the eighth overall pick in the 2011 draft with the idea that he was the team’s quarterback of the future, but Hasselbeck’s performance quickly made the future seem well off in the distance.
“We didn’t bring him here just to retire,” coach Mike Munchak said. “Our plan was to bring him here and do exactly what he is doing. We feel great about him, not only him on the field, but with a young team, and he has done a great job since he has come in here. He has set the tempo in how we practice, expectations, how he leads, how he teaches, and that crossed over to the whole team.”
Less than a year removed from Young’s postgame tantrum in which he cursed former coach Jeff Fisher and stormed out of the locker room, the idea of leadership has been central to Hasselbeck’s place on the team.
From the first moment he stepped on the practice field, players snapped into action at the sound of his voice. When given even the slightest opportunity, he immediately and unfailingly directed credit and praise elsewhere, whether, for example, to the offensive line blocking for him or the receivers catching the balls he threw.
Most of that is learned behavior from years playing the position, not necessarily the result of extensive studies on the intricacies of leadership, although he is receptive to input.
Hasselbeck still recalls as “really powerful” his first quarterbacks meeting in Seattle, when then-position coach Jim Zorn spent the first 10 minutes discussing leadership. He has equally vivid memories of his three seasons in Green Bay and how Brett Favre galvanized a locker room simply with his toughness and an “emotional intelligence that was through the roof.”
“I’ve definitely read [leadership] books, [but] I’m not a big fan of them, though,” he said. “My dad is a big fan of leadership books. He’ll highlight something and send it to me. I don’t know. … I’m just kind of like, ‘Yeah. No kidding. Obviously.’
“At the end of the day, no matter what, you need to play well — that’s what people respect and what people want. It really starts there.”
As for where it ends, that remains to be determined.
Hasselbeck admits he has given little thought to how long he’d like to remain a player. His career already has exceeded his father’s, and he has outlasted his brother in the league. Yet his current performance level suggests little deterioration in his skills or concessions to the time that has passed.
“I’m not going to be somebody who tries to play as long as I can possibly play,” he said. “That’s not my goal at all. I really just want to win. If I’m able to be part of something special and to do that, then I’ll keep rolling.”
Chances are, he will know when the time comes. Things just seem to work that way for him
Just as the idea to play quarterback was not initially his, the same was true of playing football as a profession.
First off, all of the Hasselbeck boys came to the game late by virtue of parental decree.
“We weren’t allowed to play organized football,” he said. “My dad was like, his body was beat-up. He was like ‘Play golf, play tennis, play basketball, do something else.’ ”
Don Hasselbeck finally relented to his sons’ pleading (“We begged him,” Matt said) once his own playing career ended early in the 1986 season.
Even when Matthew, at 12 years old, took up the game the following year, he did not abandon other athletic endeavors. He also was a star basketball and baseball player and had a real affinity for the latter.
Once again, others saw in him things he did not.
“Baseball was probably the sport I would have liked to be good enough at, but I wasn’t good enough,” he said. “Basketball I was really good too, but again I wasn’t good enough. Late in my junior year, I started getting scholarship offers from all these big-time football schools. I wanted to be a baseball player, but when all these big-time Division I schools are recruiting you, and then in baseball you’re getting like Ivy League schools saying, ‘Hey, maybe’… I guessed the decision was being made for me.”
So it is that, to this day, Hasselbeck operates out of gratitude, mindful of others’ needs above his own. It is no different whether he is in a poverty-stricken area of Jamaica or in a huddle surrounded by NFL players with multimillion-dollar contracts.
“There are things in the running game that no one will ever notice, like how deep you hand the ball to the running back,” he said. “That’s something that will make his job easier. How you use your cadence and mix it up will help the offensive line do their job and do it better. Just things like that that a lot of guys think … ‘Whatever.’ It’s how you carry out your fake, how much time you study so that you can help the guys do their assignment and not just your assignment. Stuff like that.
“You don’t necessarily want to do it or even need to do it, but if you do it, you’ll help those guys around you.”