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Neck injury will end the career of Seahawks fullback Strong

KIRKLAND, Wash. -- Seattle Seahawks fullback Mack Strong has a spinal cord condition that is ending his career immediately -- but not affecting his quality of life.

And for that, the 36-year-old Pro Bowler, husband and father of two is grateful.

"I've played a long time, 15 years. I felt like I was pretty lucky, pretty blessed," a teary-eyed Strong said Monday after learning that a herniated disk in his neck is pinching his spinal cord -- and ending an unheralded, improbable career that began as an undrafted free agent out of Georgia in 1993.

"I'm a fullback. That kind of goes with the territory, you are always going to have some kind of pain or injury that you have to push through," Strong said. "(But) at the same time, I want to be smart. I don't want to do anything that would jeopardize my long-term quality of health.

"You know, there's a lot more to life than football. I've got my wife and two kids," he said with a cracking voice, before pausing 10 seconds with his head bowed to control his emotions, "and there's nothing more important then being able to spend time with them."

That's why he called the decision to retire immediately after 201 career games "a no-brainer." Doctors, including team physiatrist Dr. Stan Herring, a spine specialist, are telling him that his neck will heal without surgery -- if he stops playing now.

Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren called Strong "one of the great men I've ever been around. ... He's much more than just a football player.

"And I think I kind of coaxed him into playing the last couple years," Holmgren said. "He'll be missed, that's for sure."

Leonard Weaver, another undrafted free agent and former tight end at Carson-Newman, will step in as the new lead blocker for struggling running back Shaun Alexander.

Holmgren also said wide receiver Deion Branch will miss two games because of a foot sprain. He hopes to have the former Super Bowl MVP back for the Nov. 4 game at Cleveland, after the off week for the Seahawks (3-2).

Strong woke up Sunday in Pittsburgh feeling tingling in his left arm. He thought it was from a crick in his neck.

"But I'd felt that before. So I just went out and played," Strong said.

He then left the loss to the Steelers in the first quarter after feeling burning sensations down his arms and legs to his feet following a routine block. Strong knew it was far more serious than what the Seahawks announced: a stinger, a nerve sensation from the neck that he's had more times than he cares to count in 15 years as a battering ram for Seattle's running backs and quarterbacks.

He was scared as he walked slowly off the field. He said he first thought of Buffalo tight end Kevin Everett, who sustained a life-threatening spinal cord injury in the Bills' opener Sept. 9.

He also thought of his wife, Zoe, and sons Isaiah and Evan. He told himself, "I hope this stops. I hope this tingling stops."

"I just felt very fortunate to get off the field," Strong said. "I'm just grateful that I got the opportunity to make that choice."

He's already thinking of beginning a career a broadcasting, in which he's dabbled the last few offseasons.

"I've given every ounce inside of me to football," he said, pausing again, this time for almost 30 seconds with his head down, sniffling and then clearing his throat, "I felt like I gave every ounce I had. So I have no regrets."

When asked if he had shared with his wife Sunday night upon his return home any thought that this injury would end his career, Strong chuckled.

"Actually, when I got home last night, my wife had a bad headache. I had to take her to the emergency room," Strong said, laughing loudly. "I got hit so hard, my wife had a headache."

Strong's most enduring memory of his career goes beyond finally making it to the Super Bowl at the end of the 2005 season, when his blocking sent Alexander to the league MVP Award and Strong to the Pro Bowl for the first time.

It goes back to his first flight to Seattle, out of Georgia in the spring of '93 as that undrafted, no-chance free agent. Strong didn't have enough money to buy luggage. So he borrowed his mother's suitcases. He put all his shoes in a garbage bag.

"I remember going down to the carousel down at baggage claim to get my garbage bag full of tennis shoes. And I remember someone saying, 'Somebody put a garbage bag on there,"' Strong said. "Just as I was about to reach for it, I took my hand back. I walked away for a little while and came back when everyone kind of left.

"Boy, you talk about humble beginnings. I feel like I've been given a lot over the last 15 years."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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