It was a few years ago that Nan Pate, the social studies chair at the Brookstone School, was in California as a guest of the National Football League.
Pate had been nominated by Brookstone alumnus Mack Strong, then an All-Pro fullback for the Seattle Seahawks, for NFL Teacher of the Year and was flown cross country to appear in an NFL promo with the 49ers’ Steve Young.
One night during the trip, Pate had the occasion to sit with then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue at his table during a dinner for the Teacher of the Year nominees.
“He asked me if I knew how long Mack has played and I told him I did,” Pate said. “He said ‘but do you realize how unusual that is’ and I said ‘no’ and he was giving the statistics on how few people made it beyond that fraction of a year and Mack had seven or eight more years before he did retire.
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“I told him ‘We’ve just always believed in Mack’s ability to do anything he set his mind to.’ ” Those who know Mack Strong echo that opinion.
He spent 15 years in the National Football League, enjoying longevity while playing fullback with uncommon ability, paving the way for 1,000-yard running backs like Shaun Alexander, Ricky Watters and Chris Warren after a brilliant career as a running back at Brookstone and Georgia.
His work as a blocking back in the NFL earned him Pro Bowl berths in 2005 and 2006. Strong made his mark in the National Football League, but others will tell you that he’s an All-Pro in life also.
Strong will be inducted into the Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday night. Strong will not be able to attend the program due to responsibilities in the Seattle area.
His absence, however, does not reflect his regard for the hall or the honor of his selection.
“It’s a real huge honor,” Strong said last Friday during a telephone interview. “When I think of all the great football players from the Chattahoochee Valley who have gone on to have great careers and excel. I feel humbled that the honor has been bestowed on me.”
Still big in Seattle
Since his retirement in 2007, Strong has continued to be a significant figure in Seattle. He hosts a weekly sports radio show on KJR and a weekly television show on Fox Sports Northwest during the football season.
But even before the end of his football career, Strong had made an impact in the community with his work with charitable causes in the area. He was one of the Seahawks players used as part of an ad campaign to secure public funding to build Qwest Stadium in the early 2000s.
Earlier this year, the former Cougar made a stop at Brookstone on a quick promotion tour for the book “Unsung Heroes: The Mack Strong Story” by Curt Simmons, a book that combined Strong’s autobiography with the message that headlines and honors are not the measure of the relevance of a person’s life. Strong was the central focus of a story that looks at unsung heroes in other facets of daily life, including first-responders.
Strong and his wife, Zoe Higheagle-Strong, are involved in TEAM-WORKS Academy, an after-school tutoring program for Native American youth who are students at the Seattle Indian Center. Higheagle-Strong is a Nez Perce tribal member.
The program addresses the low graduation rates for Native American youth in the state of Washington.
“We try to help the youth through a three-part curriculum,” Strong said. “Strong Mind, Strong Body, Strong Character. Mold those parts and you help them become successful in their lives.”
It’s ironic that Strong has enjoyed much in life through football, a sport that he needed encouragement to try.
Pate first remembers him as a freshman soccer player who reluctantly made the switch to football at the urging of then-Brookstone football coach William “Chico” Lynch.
That story is a well-known part of Brookstone athletic lore. What is not commonly known is that after one year of football, the future All-Pro was still not a convert.
“I almost quit after my freshman year,” Strong said with a little laugh. “I was a little afraid of getting hurt. In soccer you didn’t have all that equipment and I was used to soccer where I could use my speed to outrun other players.
Lynch, who with Pate is described as “valuable friends” by Strong, will give the acceptance speech for his former player during the Hall of Fame ceremony Saturday. In an effort to turn Strong to football, Lynch sat the young athlete down and described the sport’s value in the future if successful, as opposed to soccer.
“He helped me to see the possibilities for the future in football,” Strong said. “Where, if I worked hard to excel, I could earn a scholarship that would pay for my college education and open up the future.”
Lynch said it took a bit of convincing to get Strong to hang around. “He didn’t know if he liked it or not,” the former coach said. “We as a coaching staff approached him from numerous directions and talked him into hanging around a while. And I guess, as they say, the rest is history.”
He rushed for 4,414 yards, 83 touchdowns during his Brookstone years and earned a football scholarship to the University of Georgia.
But Pate adds that Strong was much more to Brookstone than just an athlete.
“He was an excellent government student,” Pate said. “His mom (Rose) was on the city council and he has been involved in those campaigns and I think he’s just a natural.”
When Strong returned for the book signing last fall, Pate brought up the possibility of a political career.
“I asked him when he was going to run for office,” she said. “He said ‘I’m still thinking about it.’ He’s pretty diplomatic.”
Pate said his work ethic was perhaps his best attribute, something, she believes, has served him well to this day.
“I always admired he fact he and Toby Norwood, two close friends, had probably the strongest work ethic of any people I’d ever seen,” she said. “I used to kid them and say if the gym was open they would be there. I don’t think anyone made them do that — it was just in them to be the best they could possibly be.”
Strong was the Brookstone student government vice-president his senior year, which made him the presiding officer over the enforcement of the Brookstone honor code.
“That’s a big responsibility, which showed how dedicated and hard-working he was,” Pate said.
The Georgia years were not the best for Strong, who described it as a “valley time” if life is described as a series of peaks and valleys.
“There were the challenges of being a student-athlete away from home for the first time,” he said. “The challenges, the expectations, the pressure to do well.” Strong said he learned a lot about himself.
“Things came so easily in high school and I had a lot of success. I’d been sheltered to a degree and there were so many challenges in college,” he said.
After his college career was over, Strong found himself undrafted yet unready to call his football career over.
He chose to sign a free-agent contract with Seattle.
“Atlanta called several times after the fourth round and said they were going to pick me, but they never did,” Strong said. “I really didn’t know where Seattle was, but I wanted to get as far away as I could.
“I wanted a fresh start. I knew nothing about Seattle. I looked at the players they were bringing in and I recognized about three of them. I felt it was the perfect opportunity at that time for me and my life to see what I could make out of it.”
He beat the odds.
Rarely do undrafted fullbacks enjoy 15-year professional careers, two Pro Bowl appearances, a Super Bowl appearance and a legacy as admired as Strong.
“As an athlete, No. 1, he’s not selfish nor does he have an ego. He puts team before self,” Lynch said.
“He’s concerned about winning, he wants to lead the team in the proper way and the proper direction to accomplish that.”
His former coach said those attributes were not restricted to the playing field.
“That’s just Mack and I think that’s always going to be part of him,” Lynch said.