Sept. 24, 2008
This story originally appeared in the Fall sisue of Cal SPorts Quarterly.
by John Sudsbury, California Media Relations
One of the catchphrases for the California football program is "Snap to Whistle," a slogan that emphasizes giving full effort from the moment the ball is snapped until the referee blows his whistle.
And while the saying applies to all of the Golden Bears, it seems to have special meaning for senior center Alex Mack, who has built a reputation for his unceasing effort - snap-to-whistle. While playing a position that does not often get noticed, Mack draws attention due to his non-stop energy and the trail of players with which he litters the field.
"Players around the conference have learned to keep their eyes on Alex," Cal offensive line coach Jim Michalczik said. "They know they can't relax or slack off before that whistle, or he'll put them on their butts. And then he'll keep going downfield looking for someone else to hit."
That relentless effort and drive on the field has lifted Mack into the upper echelon of players in college football. A top candidate for the Rimington Trophy as the best center in the nation and a likely first-round selection in next spring's NFL Draft, Mack is a two-time first-team All-Pac-10 selection who also earned the 2007 Morris Trophy as the top offensive lineman in the Pac-10. The Morris Trophy is a true honor as it is voted on by the league's defensive linemen - the very players Mack battles each Saturday on the gridiron and the guys who end up on their rear ends if they relax too early.
However, at 6-4, 316 pounds, Mack epitomizes the term gentle giant, and he shatters the "dumb jock" stereotype more thoroughly than opposing defenders.
An all-star football player and wrestler at Santa Barbara High School, Mack was not sold on his own football skills, and a football future was not guaranteed. He focused on his schoolbooks as much as his playbooks, and when college coaches came calling, he knew what he wanted.
"High school was a lot of fun," Mack said. "I was bigger than everyone else and I could just throw guys around. I knew I was good at football, but we weren't playing the toughest competition. I was never sure how far football would take me. I wasn't that highly rated of a recruit and I wasn't highly recruited, but I always enjoyed school, so I figured I would go to the best academic school I could."
In a system where five stars mark the elite recruits, Mack had a designation of one star from some recruiting services. Cal, though, invited him to its summer camp in 2003 prior to his senior season, and Michalczik couldn't take his eyes of the hard-working youngster.
"We had looked at him on film," Michalczik said. "But the type of player he is doesn't always come through on film. Once we had him camp, we saw his athletic ability, his work ethic and his toughness and really thought he'd be a good player for us."
After Mack's convincing performance in camp, head coach Jeff Tedford offered him a full scholarship to play for the Golden Bears. The academic reputation of Cal, coupled with the fact that he only had offers from a pair of small schools, made it a simple decision for Mack.
"After we offered him, I went to see one of his high school games," said Michalczik. "It was pouring rain, just miserable, and Alex played so hard and never stopped on both sides of the ball. That's when I knew he'd be great."
After arriving in Berkeley, Mack went straight to work, building his snap-to-whistle reputation while playing behind All-American center Marvin Phillip. But he also focused significant attention on his schoolwork. While trying to prove to everyone, including himself, that he is a NFL-caliber football player, Mack has also been a two-time ESPN The Magazine Academic All-Region choice and a three-time Pac-10 All-Academic honoree. In May, he earned his bachelor's degree in legal studies and is currently taking classes toward a master's degree in education. While the athletic accolades rolled in, he never let go of his drive in the classroom.
"When I started to realize that I had an NFL future, I kept thinking that I should be slacking off," Mack said. "Why am I still trying in class? Why'd I enter a master's program? Shouldn't I just focus on football? But it's just who I am.
"I was taking a class pass/not pass, and I found myself writing a paper and working on it as hard as I could, and I just needed a C- to pass! I wonder sometimes why I'm like that, but I feel like it's a challenge and I have to step up to the challenge. I'm here to learn and get something out of my education. I don't think I should slack off and leave here with nothing. So I try hard all the time and I enjoy my classes."
Mack also realizes that while a professional future now seems likely, the average career of an NFL player is just three-and-a-half seasons. While some pros find themselves without options at the end of that short span, Mack's continued efforts in the classroom will likely pay off down the road.
"I know I won't be able to play football for the rest of my life," Mack said. "I want to do something after football, as well. I love the sport, but I want to move on and be successful."
The value Mack places on academics has proven to be a huge asset to the Bears. After last season, he was projected as a first- or second-round pick in the NFL Draft if he left school early.
"I had a pretty hard time with the decision," he said. "But there was uncertainty as to where I would go in the draft and there were things I knew I wanted to come back for. I wanted to finish my degree. I wanted another year with my teammates. And I wanted to have a better season. I didn't feel like I would be satisfied and happy coming off last season when I could have another shot."
The decision to return brought a sigh of relief from Cal fans, as well as the coaching staff.
"We're really happy and excited to have Alex coming back," Tedford said. "There is no question that he makes us a better football team in a lot of ways, not just with his football ability, but from a leadership and work-ethic standpoint. He is a great example for every member of the team, on and off the field."
Mack is a perfect example of how far hard work can lift a person. By playing snap-to-whistle on the football field and by using that same effort off the field, he is maximizing his potential as a player and student.
"It's been fun to experience all of this," Mack said. "I would never have guessed coming out of high school that this would be the position I'd be in. Never in my dreams did I think I'd get this far."