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From a ball-boy zero to West Coast hero

Published January 29, 2006

Two weeks ago, he had not yet been promoted to genius. At the time, Tim Ruskell was a mere mastermind. Perhaps that explains why Ruskell had no idea where he had left his keys.

Ruskell stood in his expansive office at the Seattle Seahawks training facility, deep thoughts surging through him as he glanced out a picture window to the practice field. Around him were the souvenirs of success, game balls and photo collages, rally towels and climbing pins.

What there was not, sadly, was a way to start the engine of his SUV.

"Kim!" Ruskell finally said. "Kim, where did I leave my car keys?"

Kim Lindbeck, Ruskell's assistant, walked into the office. She did not break stride, walking to Ruskell's desk, opening the drawer and fishing out the keys. She smiled, as if the scene was not entirely unfamiliar, and handed them to the absent-minded professor in charge.

"Thanks," Ruskell said. "Now, where am I going to lunch again?"

* * *

These days he is St. Timothy, savior of the Great Northwest. This is his team, his town, his time. Ruskell goes out in public, and everyone wants to shake his hand and pat his back. They are saying wonderful things about him on the radio and in the headlines. Soon, you expect he will be allowed to officiate weddings and christen ships. Perhaps they will put his face on money.

And the thing is: Ruskell has no earthly idea how he got here.

Not long ago he was a grunt, and Ruskell had to work diligently for years to get that far. He was a record clerk, a part-time disc jockey and a ball boy for the Bucs who was fired 20 minutes into the history of the franchise. He survived the CFL and the USFL and the clown-shoe days of the Bucs. He worked impossible hours for insignificant pay and invisible results.

These days, Ruskell is on the verge of being taught in Seattle schools. He is president of the Super Bowl-bound Seahawks, where he has served as part orchestrator and part peacemaker in the reinvention of a franchise. Remember how Lewis and Clark showed everyone the way to Seattle? Ruskell showed a football team how to get from there to a Super Bowl.

"I'm enjoying this," Ruskell said. "There couldn't be a better way to start my career up here. It's not because of me. It's because of the people who are around here. I have been fortunate."

Oh, his popularity does not fool him. Ruskell watched as his buddy, Jerry Angelo, the general manager of the Bears, had a magical first season and then was transformed into a public dart board. Warm and fuzzy tends to wear off quickly.

For now, however, Ruskell is having a blast. His team is playing well. His relationship with his coach, Mike Holmgren, is excellent. Turns out Ruskell brought the right guys into his locker room. Turns out, he threw the right guys out.

When you get right down to job descriptions, that pretty much is that of a team president.

He believes in cliches, all right. Know that first about Ruskell. He believes in chemistry and teamwork and the sum being greater than the parts.

Oh, every executive in the NFL, and every coach, will tell you how much he believes in chemistry. Faced with a troublesome fast guy or a dependable slow one, however, the choices become blurred. There are some who are convinced chemistry is nothing but the byproduct of victory.

To Ruskell, it is more than that. In a league of parity, Ruskell says he thinks intangibles can be a difference. If you don't believe him, then go back to last offseason, when Ruskell came to Seattle and saw a locker room that needed hosing down.

"You can see on film when a team is playing together," Ruskell said. "This one wasn't. From talking to coaches and players, there was a rift here. Getting better and winning games wasn't the focus.

"In this league, it isn't always about size and speed. Sometimes, it's about heart and passion. I learned that the hard way."

The Seahawks of a year ago were a talented bunch of strangers, a bunch of unpleasant underachievers. Ruskell vowed to change that. He shipped out receiver Koren Robinson, tackle Chris Terry, linebacker Anthony Simmons and others. He imported receiver Joe Jurevicius and defensive tackle Chartric Darby and drafted linebacker Lofa Tatupu. In all, he brought in 23 players.

As important, Ruskell worked well with Holmgren, whose battles with former boss Bob Whitsett had Holmgren on the verge of walking away. Whitsett was a heavy-handed boss with an NBA background. Ruskell is a consensus-builder who has spent 20 years in football. The fit is better.

The result is better, too. These Seahawks seem to enjoy each other. And for the first time the franchise is going to the Super Bowl.

For the record, Ruskell also believes in boola-boola. Scattered around the complex are small tributes to success, the kind you might find in a lot of high school weight rooms. There are photo collages of each victory. There is a picture of Mount Rainier with scores leading toward the peak.

"Yeah, it's high school stuff," Ruskell said. "But it works. The players love this stuff."

Draped across a chair in Ruskell's office is a small towel with "GM" printed on it, courtesy of Darby. When Darby was in high school, he played running back, and he attached small towels to each of his hips so they would fly backward as he ran. "Go rags," Darby called them.

This season, the defense had go rags made for every player and for Holmgren and Ruskell. It seemed like a small thing until they were being packed for the Super Bowl.

On the other side of the room, there is a chain of carabiners, or climbing pins. Those came after Ruskell invited mountain climber Ed Viesturs to speak to the team. Viesturs compared a team to a mountain-climbing expedition, in which every member has to trust the person next to him. Since then, each victory results in a new carabiner for the Seahawks.

In other words, some teams pound the rock, and some teams climb it.

Ruskell buys into all of it. The Seahawks, too.

"I'm proud of what we have done," Ruskell said, "and I'm proud of the way we have done it."

His is a long, strange journey. How many ball boys are running teams? How many disc jockeys are going to the Super Bowl?

But if you happen to find yourself riding with him through the hills of Kirkland, Wash., in the rain, it is safe enough to come to this conclusion:

Keys or not, it seems Ruskell always knew where he was going.

[Last modified January 29, 2006, 01:28:20]

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