Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Wahle Looking to Provide an Immediate Impact

By Mike Kahn

May 19, 2008

With the rain trickling down on the chilly May afternoon, there was nothing unusual about the first minicamp, as the staff and surrounding media began assessing the 2008 version of the Seahawks.

There was an immediate attention-grabber.

Former NFL and University of Washington quarterback Hugh Millen, now an NFL analyst, was immediately taken by the newest member of the offensive line and began a mini-rant reminiscent of a scout perusing talent at the annual Combine.

“Look at his calves and how he turns and runs when he gets up from his stance,” Millen said. “You just don’t see guards that big who are that agile and fast. You can see why he was in the Pro Bowl.”

He was talking about Mike Wahle, of course, the Seahawks offseason free agent signing to play left guard. A product of the Naval Academy and a second round supplemental draft choice of the Green Bay Packers in 1998, Wahle is far more than just your every day 6-6, 305-pound acquisition. He is unmistakably a skilled athlete who went to the Pro Bowl in both 2005 and 2006 for the Carolina Panthers, and is the raw, athletic character of a personality that raises everybody else’s game.

Wahle was drafted by the Packers in Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren’s last season there, which also coincided with the drafting of quarterback Matt Hasselbeck in the sixth round. So both men are familiar with him, although Hasselbeck far more than Holmgren. Holmgren does, however, compare him to the skills and personalities of former Seahawks linemen Steve Hutchinson and Robbie Tobeck.

“We needed a player like Mike in my opinion,” Holmgren said. “He is a veteran. He has been successful. We know that he is a good football player. He brings an attitude. He is smart. He gets along well with the guys. He brings a certain toughness to that group and he is vocal. You lose Tobeck who would never shut up and then you lose some of the other guys who were a little more vocal, you need somebody to come and kind of be like that.”

Oh, he brings the mouth all right. Ask him about Hasselbeck, and he’ll cock his head, get a wry little smile, and say, “Oh, I don’t know if we’ve got enough time for that. But I will tell you what it was like when he showed up for training camp in his first car. It was a red Volkswagen with a flower on it. Here were are at an NFL camp with a parking lot filled with black SUVs that had big rims, and up drives the rookie quarterback in his red Beetle. Everybody really got a laugh out of that and to this day he still claims he rented the car out to other guys.

“But seriously, Matt’s a great guy and we became really good friends and had a great rookie year together.”

Hasselbeck jokingly bristled at the notion it was a rose on his car, but obviously has lucid and great memories of his three seasons with Wahle and the Packers until being traded to the Seahawks in 2001. He also remembers how athletic Wahle was while learning the trade of an NFL offensive lineman.

“First of all, it wasn’t a rose,” Hasselbeck chuckled. “It was like a ‘Peace dude,’ kind of flower, with psychedelic purple lights and everybody was giving me a hard time, including Wahle. But we drove around in that car every day. There were four of us – Mike, (Penn State linebacker) Jim Nelson and (New Mexico safety) Scott McGarrahan – and we did everything together. McGarrahan was actually the only one who played. We drove to practice every day dressed out in our football gear in my Beetle and they even did a newspaper article on us. It cost like $7.50 to fill it up with gas. The O-linemen would joke about us, even picked up my car and hid it one day.

“Wahle had to go up against Reggie White in practice every day, so he learned the hard way. He was a great run blocker, but really had no experience as a pass blocker. He worked hard to get bigger and he just kept getting better. We’re really lucky to get him. He’s exactly what we needed … really, I can’t believe Carolina just let him go. That’s craziness. What were they thinking? He’s just a great fit. A really smart guy, exactly the kind of guy we needed on our offensive line.”

Wahle left the Packers as a free agent after the 2004 season and spent three years with the Panthers, and it was really a no-brainer coming to the Pacific Northwest. He was born in Portland, and his father went to Bellevue High School, so the connection is strong with family just a punt away from the Seahawks headquarters in Kirkland. He grew up in the San Diego area as a three-sport athlete.

He laughed when a skeptical look greeted his contention that he was an All-Southern California point guard in basketball, to go along with his scary 92 mile-an-hour fastball as a pitcher in baseball. He played quarterback for three years, then was moved to tight end his senior year and was having a great year … for awhile.

“Hey, no doubt I was that guy,” Wahle said. “I was just half-an-assist away from averaging a triple-double in basketball. Football wasn’t great though. I was on my way to being all-county at tight end when our quarterback got hurt. The coaching staff thought because I was big, could run and was a pitcher that I was the guy that should be the quarterback. But I couldn’t throw a football and was terrible quarterback.”

He still knew football was his sport and considered himself fortunate to get recruited by the Naval Academy so he went there to play basketball and football. His basketball was about to end, though, and neither did he last at tight end.

It was time for a reality check on his future in sports.

“I was playing point guard, but I wasn’t that athletic for the position, and didn’t have that good of a jump shot,” Wahle said. “I could make some things happen but not enough, so the basketball coach told me I had to choose. I chose football. They recruited me as a tight end, but when I went to boot camp, I was eating like one peanut butter and jelly sandwich a meal. So when I got to football training camp, my weight had dropped from 235 to 205. They had made moved into this double-wing offense where there’s no tight end. So they looked at me at 205 said, ‘What the hell can we do with this kid at that size? He can’t really do anything.’ They tried me as a wide receiver my first year. I was really the scout team tight end, but my official title was wide receiver.

“By the end of the season, I got my weight back up to about 245 – eating pizzas and hoagies every night, and lifting like crazy during the day. I walked into the locker room for spring ball, knee braces were in my locker and that was it. I was an offensive lineman for good. It’s been all downhill from there.”

He loved playing at Green Bay, but he also wanted to experience the NFL landscape when he made the decision to sign with Carolina in 2005, made the Pro Bowl as an alternate that first year and was voted in the next season – as well as being named All-Pro. Now 31, the Panthers were in cost-cutting mode, so they let him go and he wanted to find a spot to finish his career with a chance to win it all.

That opened the door for the Seahawks in search of a veteran for the offensive line. Seahawks pro personnel director Will Lewis was in Green Bay when was Wahle was drafted, so he jumped right on a guy he’s watched develop for 10 years.

“When you talk about him athletically, there are all these things he can do as far as pulling, trapping – running screens and draws,” Lewis said. “He’s very intense, a communicator and team leader. He’s a real positive in the locker room. He’s been physical and pretty durable … all those things played into why we wanted. Even in college, you would have said, ‘Wow, this guy is a great athlete.’ His body control, movement and overall athleticism have always been exceptional.”

The package is exactly the infusion the line needed after a tough 2007 season. They hired highly-regarded Mike Solari to take over the line, and he immediately became part of the process to woo Wahle on board.

“It’s his work ethic and his toughness that stand out,” Solari said. “He’s a professional, comes to work every day with the same attitude. His athleticism is important, obviously, but with the way he prepares in the weight room and that leadership he brings with it that you have to love. The profile of the Seattle Seahawks offensive line is strong, big and physical offensive linemen – and yet they can move in space. That’s how Mike fits it. We needed to add that quality in a veteran. That’s so important for young guys to see how he goes about his business.”

So now his business is with the Seahawks. With family in the area and his old buddy Hasselbeck calling signals, he’s hoping this is the place where he can finish a grand career with a Super Bowl ring. It was no accident that he targeted the Seahawks in the same manner they went after him, not only for the love of the Pacific Northwest, but playing for Solari and winning.

Now it’s just a matter of making it all work.

“The expectations here are high and that’s the way I want it,” Wahle said. “The tempo is extremely fast with Coach Holmgren, and Coach Solari got a lot of things done in a very short period of time. Absolutely my job is to come in here and help the running game. They go out and bring in a guy like me and Coach Solari in and the expectations are going to be higher. That has a lot to do with why I wanted to come here.

“I look at this team as one that has a chance to do some great things in January and maybe February. The running game does need to improve a little bit, but when you watch film from last year, it’s a little thing here or there. It’s not necessarily the guys. With a little more experience under their belt and coach Solari here, I think we can do some great things.”

And maybe even jump into a red Beetle and lead the championship parade.

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