The Foundation

Alex Mack Has Gone From Two-Star Recruit to One of the Nation's Elite-Level Centers

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An offensive lineman, residing on the smaller side of the size spectrum, walks up to an imaginary line of scrimmage.

He brushes his grip and lines up across from the Bears' top defensive line recruit in Phillip Mbakogu who, at the time, is a four-star prospect with offers from LSU, Notre Dame and Oregon.

It's day two of one of the Cal football team's many summer camps. A slew of idle 17-year-olds watch as a less-heralded recruit vying for an offer sets up to face one of the least desirable matchups of the afternoon.

One slip, and the kid might have to spend the next four years laboring in a mid-major program.

But Alex Mack, holding offers from just Utah and Utah State, doesn't mind the challenge. He gets down in his stance.

A day later, he gets his scholarship.

And five years after that, the former two-star prospect returned to Memorial Stadium for his senior year as a Preseason All-American, forgoing a sure selection in the 2008 NFL Draft.

A 2007 finalist for the Rimington Award, given to the nation's top center, and winner of the Morris Trophy for being the Pac-10's top offensive lineman as voted by the conference's defensive linemen, Mack is now arguably the best in the country at what he does-a denomination that few 22-year-olds enjoy.

Following a midweek practice prepping for today's tilt against UCLA, Mack reflects on the Mbakogu matchup-one of the defining moments of his career. He recalls that he had been nearly unknown as a recruit, buried by the obscurity of playing high school football in Santa Barbara, Calif., a city not exactly known for its gridiron exploits.

"Santa Barbara is not a big football area," he says. "They don't get a whole lot of recruits out there, so coaches have a hard time coming out there and watching us. My school didn't have a good relationship with any of the (college) teams So it was hard to get me noticed."

It also didn't help that Mack was injured as a high school sophomore at the one Nike Camp that he attended, where people his size, he says, were "a dime a dozen." The center was measured and weighed, but a 250-pound lineman prospect that partook in zero individual drills would hardly excite a recruiter.

Never the type to take "No" for an answer, Mack took matters into his own hands. He dished out the $300 fee from his own pocket and enrolled into one of the several summer camps that the Bears hold for their young recruits, who typically participate before returning to high school for their senior seasons.

"I had to come out to the Cal camp and show myself off," says Mack.

In retrospect, it's safe to say the senior made the right decision, as offensive line coach Jim Michalczik-though admittedly a slow decider when it comes to recruits-may have passed on the center altogether had Mack not presented his case in person.

"We watched film on him and looked and said, "Eh, he's got a chance,'" Michalczik says. "I watched film and didn't fall in love with him. In fact, I keep the film in my office to refer back to every once a while.

"But we had him in camp and really got a chance to work with him and see what he can do. Then we offered him a scholarship."

Mack says he still savors the moment when he received Cal's offer, or to be exact, the subsequent walk back home. For a small-town kid, the prospect of playing Pac-10 football in a place like Berkeley was a lot to take in.

So he paused.

"It was just after practice, so I was dehydrated and tired," Mack recalls. "I remember carrying all my pads and walking across Piedmont (Avenue), across the Greek Theater, where you can see all of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.

"It was a sunny day, and it gave me a good feeling about Cal. The coaches liked me, it was a really pretty place, really cool stadium It was a nice fit."

In fact, the center remembers a lot from his four years in Berkeley.

He remembers the day he went up against Brandon Mebane-now a defensive lineman for the Seattle Seahawks-for the first time as a freshman and was aptly humbled. And although he says it doesn't motivate him when facing UCLA, he also remembers how one Bruins recruiter "basically hung up the phone" when he revealed that he'd nearly committed to Cal.

Tedford, on the other hand, doesn't remember much from Mack's past.

Asked whether he remembers Mack's showdown against Mbakogu, whether he sees that as the one moment when it clicked that he wanted the young center in his program, Tedford says no.

"I'd be lying to you if I say I did," he says.

Asked whether he can name any other instance in which Mack had him floored as a recruit, Tedford, again, says no.

Asked whether he remembers the conversation they had in his office when Mack received his offer, Tedford says no for a third time before getting into the reason.

"That's kind of typical of Alex because he's a blue-collar, hardworking guy," Tedford explains. "You know, it wasn't a big hooplah. It was a thing that he was getting an opportunity to play, and we felt like he was a good player-didn't know he was going to be a great player.

"It was a long time ago," he laughs. "So I don't really remember."

Perhaps Tedford's inability to recall much about Mack's past is just a testament to the type of person that the All-American center really is.

Mack isn't the type to make an unexpected splash-except with his Mexican wrestling mask and "absurd" sci-fi fiction collections, according to teammate and former roommate Mike Tepper-but simply goes about his business.

Michalczik, who says he longs for the days when offensive linemen went completely unnoticed, takes a moment to joke before describing the center's ability to keep a low-key image despite his raging on-field performance.

"I'm just surprised that people know his name," Michalczik laughs.

For an undersized and unproven high school recruit, that might make sense. But five years later, he shouldn't be.


Contact Andrew Kim at [email protected]

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