Eric Gilmore's inside look at sports in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
Mack's return spells relief for Cal
After Cal capped its 2007 season with a New Year’s Eve victory over Air Force in the Armed Services Bowl, quarterback Kevin Riley’s daily routine included a call to center Alex Mack.
These were no social calls. Riley wanted an answer – actually the right answer – to an important question: was Mack coming back to Cal for his senior year or jumping to the NFL?
“And finally he told me he was going to stay,” Riley said Tuesday during Cal’s weekly football luncheon. “It’s a relief. I mean, when you’ve got a player like that coming back to lead your ‘O’ line, what can you say?
“He’s a tremendous athlete. He’s just so sound. He doesn’t mess up. He leads that front five. He puts them all in a position to make blocks.”
Mack’s decision to return was cause for celebration at Cal. He was a unanimous first-team All-Pac-10 Conference selection last year and winner of the Morris Trophy, which goes to the conference’s top offensive lineman. The Sporting News named Mack a first-team All-American.
This year he’s on watch lists for the Rimington Award, Lombardi Award and Outland Trophy. He was selected to the “Playboy” preseason All-American Team.
Mack took just eight days after Cal’s finale to make what he said initially seemed like a “tough” decision.
“And then I realized how much I could benefit by coming back,” Mack said before last week’s season-opening 38-31 victory over Michigan State. “I know I’m a good player, but how good can I be? So I have a whole ’nother year now to focus on becoming the best player I can.
“I’m not done. I’m not finished. All this season I’m going to work on all the things I do wrong and become a good player. By the end of the season I hope to be really good.”
By the end of the season? Mack already looked scary good in his 2008 debut. He played well enough against Michigan State to earn a game ball. He anchored a line that allowed just one sack and opened enough holes for Cal to rush for 203 yards.
How good was Mack? Here’s a take from Joe Rexrode of the Lansing (Michigan) State Journal: “Cal All-American center Alex Mack appeared to be projecting a force field in the middle of the line, helping the Bears rumble for 203 yards.”
When a center draws a Star Trek reference from an out-of-town writer, he must be special. But Mack said he’s trying hard to “ignore” all the praise, accolades and expectations.
“I can’t just be comfortable with what people say I am,” Mack said. “I have to actually prove it. So it would be a real big disappointment to me if people say all these things and I don’t perform well. To me it’s added motivation to prove that I’m actually what they say I am.”
Mack’s physical attributes are well chronicled. He’s a rock-solid 6-foot-5, 316-pound man who can do the splits like a giant gymnast. Let’s just say flexibility is not a concern. Neither is strength. Or quickness.
But Mack is more than just a great athlete. He relies as much on his brains as his brawn. He has already graduated from Cal with a degree in legal studies – he has his diploma on his wall to prove it -- after logging a 3.6 GPA. Now he’s a graduate student, pursuing a Masters in education.
“When you see Mack, you see him walking around with a book all the time,” Cal nose tackle Derrick Hill said.
That would be a playbook or a schoolbook.
“He’s bright,” Riley said. “You go in the training room and he’s getting treatment, he’s reading a book, not just messing around talking to everybody. He’s intelligent. He’s a hard worker.
“I think that’s a lot of it. He just sets his time, what he’s going to do and when he does it and he studies. School and football, he puts in the time to succeed.”
This season Mack has added leadership to his football course work. He said he’s more of a “quiet guy” and that the role of an outspoken leader does not come naturally to him. But his coaches have encouraged him to speak up, and Mack said he realizes that as a senior on a young line with three new starters he has a responsibility to lead.
“I’m growing into it,” Mack said of his new role.
When Mack arrived at Cal in 2004, he wasn’t highly recruited or a can’t-miss prospect. But he went to work and honed his skills by practicing against defensive tackle Brandon Mebane, who is now a Seattle Seahawk. By this time next year, Mack should be part of the NFL, too. He’s projected to be a high draft pick, going as early as the first round.
“He’ll play (in the NFL) as long as his body holds out,” former Cal quarterback Mike Pawlawski said. “He’s just a very, very good football player, very solid, very athletic. He’s everything you’re looking for, and he can play center. If you can play center, you can play center or guard, and he’s a guy who’s athletic enough to play … tackle if you need him to fill in.”
Fortunately for Cal, Mack put his NFL dreams on hold for a year and decided to come back.
After nearly 30 years as a sports writer and columnist for the Contra Costa Times, Eric is now a freelance writer, editor and blogger. He was a 49ers beat writer for 10 years, including three Super Bowl seasons, and spent time on the Cal football and basketball beats. He has covered multiple Super Bowls, U.S. Opens and Masters, as well as the NBA, NHL and major-league playoffs.