It was in 1993, when the Seattle Seahawks still called a corner of Northwest College home and Strong was a rookie free agent fullback from Georgia.
“I was scared to death, really,” Strong recalled Tuesday. “I remember walking into the running back room and Clarence Shelmon, the running back coach at the time, saying, ‘We’re only going to keep five, maybe six, running backs.’ ”
It only took a quick scan of the room for Strong to realize that there already were four incumbents sitting there: leading rusher Chris Warren, who was coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons; fullback John L. Williams, who was entering what would be the final season of his Pro Bowl career; backup tailback Rueben Mayes, a former 1,000-yard rusher who had been acquired the year before in a trade with the New Orleans Saints; and backup fullback Tracy Johnson. Also there was recently signed running back Jon Vaughn, who also returned kickoffs.
“I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, it doesn’t look good for me,’ ” Strong said.
Strong also remembers Shelmon saying, “To the rest of you guys, good luck, I hope you catch on with another team.”
“Clarence was very matter of fact and unemotional about it,” Strong said. “I just made up my mind then that it was out of my hands. That was my first experience with ‘out of my hands’ situations. So I decided to give it my best and see what happens.”
What happened was, Strong stuck around on the practice squad that first season and then played in 201 games over the next 14 seasons – before a neck injury in 2007 forced him to finally call it a career. And an obviously improbable one at that.
The results of the just-completed exercise to determine the best undrafted free agent in club history were just as surprising. In the finals, against quarterback Dave Krieg, Strong never trailed in racking up 517 votes – or 58.1 percent of the 890 that were cast. That left Krieg with 41.9 percent, or 373 votes.
Strong won this competition just like he played the game: The old-fashioned way. Which is to say, he earned it.
In his opening-round match, Strong got 76 percent of the votes to dispatch defensive tackle Joe Nash, the only player in club history to play more games (218) than Strong. In the second round, Strong racked up 79 percent of the votes to oust free safety Eugene Robinson, the franchise’s all-time leading tackler.
That put Strong into the finals against the top-seeded Krieg, who left after the 1991 season as the team’s all-time leader in pass completions, yards, touchdown passes and victories.
Told of the outcome, the beyond-baritone Strong couldn’t contain one of those rumbling laughs that used to fill the hallways and locker room at the old Kirkland facility.
“That’s funny,” he said.
When it was pointed out that he obviously could not be denied, he offered, “All right. Cool.”
Informed that his path to the title had gone through Nash, Robinson and Krieg, Strong said, “Wow, that’s pretty impressive.”
Indeed, just like his story – which began with Strong spending that first season on the practice squad but wasn’t over until he had won the starting job not once, but twice.
It’s called perseverance, and it’s what Strong was all about during his 15-year career and those 201 games.
“That’s kind of the story of my life – perseverance and overcoming some of those odds that not a whole lot of people overcome,” Strong said.
Strong made the roster in 1994, but was inactive for the first eight games. When he finally got on the field, he contributed 11 tackles on special teams and averaged 4.2 yards on 27 carries – in addition to throwing lead blocks for Warren, who led the AFC in rushing with 1,545 yards.
He was then off and blocking, starting eight games in 1996, 11 in 1997 and seven in 1998. Then came a couple of surgeries and a coaching change in 1999 – from Dennis Erickson to Mike Holmgren. Strong started only one game that season, but in 2000 he was back in the lineup fulltime – and for good.
Before injuring his neck in Week 5 of the 2007 season, Strong had blocked for two more 1,000-yard rushers – Ricky Watters and Shaun Alexander – and made the most of the limited opportunities he got to touch the ball. He caught 29 passes in 2003 and 2006. He averaged 4.7 yards on 37 carries in 2004 and 4.5 yards on 33 carries in 2006. He was voted to the Pro Bowl in 2005 and 2006, and named All-Pro in ’05.
But his best memories stem from other accomplishments – those bestowed upon him by his teammates. He was voted the Ed Block Courage Award in 2001 and won the Steve Largent Award five times – which is four times more than anyone else has, or likely will. The Largent Award is the annual honor that goes to the players who “best exemplifies the spirit, dedication and integrity of the Seahawks.”
That’s Strong, times five.
“Those things probably mean the most to me, just because they’re validation from my teammates that they really appreciated me and saw the hard work that I was putting in,” Strong said. “Even though fullback is not a real glorified position and doesn’t get a lot of attention, I felt my teammates were giving me credit.
“To me, that’s the highest honor.”
Strong looks back at the relative anonymity of his contributions as only one who made them can.
“That’s kind of a blessing and curse, right?” he said. “I kind of appreciated being behind the scenes a little bit and just doing my job. But at the same time, just knowing that Shaun and all those running backs that were running behind would have success, I got success from that, too. Really, honestly.
“But the drawback to that is that you don’t get a whole lot of credit in the media, and you don’t get a whole lot of credit on payday. But it really taught me a lot about of life and how sometimes you’ve got to be grateful for what you have rather than what you think you deserve.”
Now, Strong also knows the fans definitely have not forgotten him.
“Which is a surprise, actually,” he said with another of those laughs.
Becoming more serious, he added, “I’m grateful for the career that I had. I feel like, boy, not many people can say they accomplished what I did coming from where I came from. So I’m very proud of that.”
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