KIRKLAND — In the months that led up to his inclusion in that exclusive club known as the National Football League, Owen Schmitt had it easy.
Pro scouts spent hundreds of hours poring over his game tapes. The league flew him to Indianapolis for the annual scouting combine, at which Schmitt got to show his stuff against some of the nation’s best college football players. And shortly after the Seattle Seahawks made him a fifth-round pick in last weekend’s NFL draft, he was whisked to the Pacific Northwest and put up in a hotel.
If only his college recruitment had been so glamorous.
Schmitt, a fullback who started his career at Division III Wisconsin-River Falls and finished it as one of the most recognizable players on a nationally-ranked West Virginia team, had to take an interstate marketing tour with his mother just to give himself a shot at playing D-I football.
The excitable boy with the big dreams certainly took the road less traveled.
If Owen Schmitt shares anything with longtime Seahawks fullback Mack Strong, it’s that both players had unique paths to Seattle. That might be the only comparison that is appropriate for these two personalities.
While Strong always exuded class and a quiet confidence, Schmitt’s resume includes one record for broken facemasks and another for eating beer coasters.
While Strong rarely got much face time during game telecasts, Schmitt’s mug received plenty of attention when he was caught slamming his own helmet against his forehead during a November game against Louisville.
The unassuming Strong prefers gospel music to relax between games. Schmitt likes to play AC/DC and Metallica on his electric guitar. Strong never had a nickname that stuck. Schmitt has been called The Runaway Beer Truck.
Schmitt’s potential has Seahawks coaches excited about the future, but it’s his personality that has everyone taking notice these days.
“He’s a character,” Seahawks team president Tim Ruskell said last weekend, after the Seahawks selected Schmitt in the draft. “What you see is what you get. He wears his emotions on his sleeve.”
Schmitt’s journey from tiny Gilman, Wisc., to an NFL roster may well have made its most important stop in January 2003, when he took a road trip with his mother to Morgantown, W.Va. Carrying only a game tape from his days at Wisconsin-River Falls and the belief that he could play for a big-time program, Schmitt walked into the West Virginia football office and announced his desire to play.
“I showed up uninvited, dropped off the tape and toured the campus myself,” he said two days ago from his first Seahawks minicamp.
Schmitt had also dropped off tapes at Maryland and James Madison University, but West Virginia was the only one to take him up on his offer.
So what made the small-town kid from the D-III program think he could play for a Big East powerhouse?
“I don’t really know,” Schmitt said two days ago. “Knocked in the head too many times, I guess.
“I had buddies who played (Division I), and I felt like I could play with them. I didn’t want to sit back 30 years from now and say, ‘Why didn’t I try?’ I wanted to try for sure.”
He joined the West Virginia football team in the fall of 2004 and played some special teams before taking over as the starting fullback the following year. Three years later, Schmitt finished his career as one of the biggest fan favorites Morgantown has seen in years.
Fans held up “Schmitt Happens” banners during home games. His shaggy Mohawk became one of the most recognizable haircuts on campus. His legend grew and grew and grew.
In Schmitt’s final game, he broke off a 57-yard touchdown run as the Mountaineers blew out Oklahoma 48-28 in the Fiesta Bowl. Afterward, his lip bleeding and his face covered in sweat, Schmitt broke down in tears during a live television interview.
A couple weeks later, while preparing to play in the Senior Bowl, Schmitt made quite an impression on some fellow draft prospects.
“You don’t have to look around when he hits somebody,” Penn State linebacker Dan Connor told an ESPN reporter after a January practice. “You know who it is by the way it sounds.”
The Seahawks were impressed enough with Schmitt that they used a fifth-round pick on him at last weekend’s draft. His shaggy Mohawk has been cut down to what he calls a “business cut,” and Schmitt is slowly starting to win over a new fan base.
“Hard-working guy, I guess,” Schmitt said when asked why he’s become such a fan favorite. “Blue-collar boy. I think a lot of people can connect with that, not just in West Virginia.”
There’s also the other thing.
“Everyone thinks I’m crazy,” Schmitt said. “It’s fun. I play with it.”
The examples are countless. Perhaps the most well-known was when Schmitt ate a beer coaster in 10 seconds to earn a spot on the Hall of Fame wall at Mario’s Fishbowl in Morgantown. There were also the 11 facemasks he broke during his college playing days.
Hearing some of the stories, and watching the relentless way Schmitt plays the game, an obvious question comes to mind. Rarely does someone ask.
So is he crazy?
“Out there, yeah,” Schmitt said, nodding toward the practice field after being asked that question Friday. “But (away from the field), I’m just a regular guy.”
Off the field, Schmitt is relatively soft-spoken and unassuming. No one would confuse him for Mack Strong, but he’s also a far cry from the hellion he can be while wearing a football helmet — or, as the case may be, when slamming one against his forehead.
“On the field, it’s a totally different thing. You can be an animal out there,” he said. “You can do things out there that you can’t really do in life. You’re two different people when you step out on the field.”
People in Seattle may one day fall for the person who plays on Sundays, but for now Owen Schmitt has already won over a few with his personality.
“He’s a different breed,” offensive coordinator Gil Haskell said during the first day of the Seahawks’ weekend minicamp. “He’s a breath of fresh air, and that’s good for us.”
Notes: Former Seahawks kicker Josh Brown is scheduled to throw out the first pitch at today’s St. Louis Cardinals-Chicago Cubs game. Brown signed a five-year, $14.5 million deal with the St. Louis Rams in March. … The Seahawks’ rookies will take part in a practice this morning before heading back to their respective colleges. A voluntary camp for veterans will run Monday through Thursday.