INDIANAPOLIS – Last week, the old Super Bowl quarterback challenged the anointed young star he mentors to a race. But it wasn't enough for Matt Hasselbeck to demand that Andrew Luck meet him for a sprint across the Indianapolis Colts' practice fields. He insisted they run 50-yard shuttles, figuring it was his best chance to win.
And then when Hasselbeck won the last two races after Luck beat him in the first two, he allowed himself a moment to gloat – if just to prove he can still compete.
How do you go from being a franchise quarterback to a backup? How do you win playoff games and play in the biggest game then suddenly find yourself wearing a baseball cap and carrying a clipboard on Sunday afternoons?
For Hasselbeck, it means challenging a man 14 years younger to a race and rigging it for a chance to win.
"I can tell it rubs people the wrong way, just a little," Hasselbeck says of his competitiveness as he sat in a room at the Colts' practice facility. "But it's a good thing."
Last year, Hasselbeck was not this way. The Tennessee Titans took his starting job and gave it to Jake Locker. Hasselbeck accepted the demotion too easily. He understood the move since the Titans had taken Locker in the first round of the 2011 draft and wanted him to be the face of the team for the next decade. Locker was someone Hasselbeck knew from his last days as the Seattle Seahawks quarterback, back when Locker was a star at the University of Washington. And maybe to support Locker, Hasselbeck lost his desire. He didn't compete. He didn't challenge Locker to races.
Instead Hasselbeck stood in the background. "You've got to let him spread his wings," he told himself. And he came to regret that stance. Football locker rooms are all about fights. They aren't about making friends with men whose job you want to take. By failing to fight, Hasselbeck figures he hurt the Titans and he is sure he hurt Locker.
He wasn't going to make that mistake with Luck, which is hard because he instantly liked Luck when they talked in March. The relationship took off so quickly the transition was simple. Both are smart men with interests far broader than football.
One day during offseason workouts, Luck asked Hasselbeck if he wanted to go to a soccer game that weekend. Hasselbeck declined, saying he had to return home to his family. A few days later when they were back at the Colts' facility, Hasselbeck asked Luck how he enjoyed the game.
"It was great," Luck said.
"So where was it?" Hasselbeck asked.
"London," Luck replied.
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Hasselbeck laughs as he recalls the conversation. He has worked hard to maintain the difficult balance of friend, mentor and competitor. Part of the reason he thinks he didn't handle Locker the right way last year is because the transition came so soon. He had been Tennessee's starting quarterback in 2011, throwing for 3,571 yards and he was having a solid start to 2012 when coach Mike Munchack told him the Titans were going to Locker.
"And it was kind of like a, 'Whoa, really?'" Hasselbeck recalls. But then he thought about things. He knew the Titans had to make the move. They had no choice, really. As a first-round pick Locker had to play, no matter how great Hasselbeck looked.
Hasselbeck says he had other possibilities when the Titans told him they were going to release him. Some were starting jobs with teams that weren't going anywhere. He thought about them, but he also burned for another chance at the Super Bowl. He still hasn't accepted the fact his Seahawks lost to Pittsburgh in a Super Bowl XL filled with questionable calls that went against Seattle. He wants another chance at the ring, even if it means barely stepping onto the field.
To prepare properly for working with Luck, he called the two men he thought could best explain what to do: his brother Tim and Trent Dilfer. Tim had backed up Eli Manning during his first couple of years in New York while Dilfer took Hasselbeck's job in Seattle in 2001 before tearing his Achilles' the following season and settling into life as a backup.
"When you're backing up a guy, it's so much nicer if you really like the guy and respect the guy and enjoy watching him play," Tim told his brother. "Give as much as you can to this kid," Dilfer said. "That will be the reward for you. You will feel so good about helping him succeed or seeing his improvement and that will help you because it will be hard."
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Their words made sense. Working with Luck has been a joy, even if Hasselbeck's thrown only three passes this season and likely won't throw many more. The reward has indeed been giving everything he has to a player who has the job he would love to have again.
At 38 he knows a starting job on a good team will not be his. He doesn't want to give up football although he's thinking about the future, even joking that he might want to buy a soccer team with Luck someday. For now he has a role. Maybe the hardest one he's had to play:
The invisible supporter of a younger man's rising star.