Seahawks rookie linebacker Coyle gave up ski racing for football

RENTON — One day, more than a decade ago on a chairlift at Big Sky Resort, one of the best young ski racers in Montana told his coach that his future wasn’t on the slopes.

On Saturday, Brock Coyle, that one-time promising ski racer from Bozeman, was playing middle linebacker with the Seattle Seahawks’ No. 1 defense as the team played a mock game, making the 10-year-old version of himself look pretty prophetic.

“He was a real talented skier, one of the top kids in Montana, but Brock has always had that passion for football,” said Jeremy Henrichon, who coached Hoyle for several years at Big Sky, and also trained the University of Montana grad at his Bozeman gym this offseason.

“Even from the time he was 10 years old when I first met him, we were sitting there talking on the chairlift and he looked up and said, ‘I know I’m going to quit ski racing and be a football player, and I’m going to play in the NFL.’ He always had that mentality, he always had the drive and knew that he was going to do something special.”

NFL players are some of the top athletes in the world, so it’s hardly unusually to hear stories about them excelling in other sports before settling on one, but rare in the NFL is a linebacker with a background in ski racing. Yet that was Coyle’s other sport until he decided to focus solely on football at 16, and the former Junior Olympics participant had serious potential in both sports.

“Who knows?” Henrichon said when asked how good Coyle could have been had he stuck to skiing. “He’s one of the hardest-working kids I’ve ever met, so if he had put football aside and put the same drive and passion into skiing, he would have skied in college and who knows where he would have taken it.”

Coyle has no regrets about his decision, nor should he after going from team captain at the University of Montana to undrafted rookie free agent to a player with a real shot of making Seattle’s 53-man roster. But he does occasionally wonder how things might have turned out had he made a different decision.

“Yeah, I mean you never know,” he said. “Everything I do I want to give it 100 percent of everything I got, so I knew when I had to make that choice, I wanted it to be football, but if it would have been ski racing, who knows? I would have done my best to try to excel in that.”

So what does all this ski-racing stuff have to do with football anyway? Well aside from the fact that Coyle’s background is an unusual one, he says his time on the slopes helped prepare him for football, and in particular for a situation like this where, because of a hamstring injury to starting middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, he is getting — and taking full advantage of — the opportunity of a lifetime. In ski racing, your entire day is decided in one or two runs, depending on the event, that might take a total of two minutes.

“It helped me in the game of football because it’s such a high-pressure sport where you only have one chance to put everything together one time,” Coyle said. “From a mental standpoint, that really helps me in the game of football for sure. … I think it built my mental strength up for sure.”

And hey, a willingness to hurl yourself down mountain at 70 miles per hour has to translate to the football field, right?

“Hopefully there’s some carry-over to what we do now,” linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. joked.

Well, however much his ski racing background is helping Coyle these days, he’s doing something right.

The Seahawks figure to keep a backup middle linebacker, and while Heath Farwell has done that job in the past, and has been one of Seattle’s best special teams players, Coyle, for the moment anyway, is ahead of Farwell on the depth chart. To beat Farwell for a roster spot, Coyle will have to show his ability in preseason games when the hitting intensifies, and more importantly he’ll need to show he can make plays on special teams. Still, it’s been nothing but positives for him thus far.

“He’s done a fantastic job,” Carroll said. “Here he is, first camp as a rookie and he’s running the first defense out here. Everybody really likes him. He’s doing a good job on special teams, he’s very bright, it’s not too big for him to handle the calls and all of that. We won’t really know until we get to playing and see how he’s running and hitting and making his plays and all, but he’s done a great job. Really to command this defense like he has, he’s done a very, very good job.”

Despite going undrafted, Coyle was on the Seahawks’ radar for a while. They brought the Montana standout in for a pre-draft visit, then they beat out nearly half the league to sign him after the draft — Coyle said he heard from at least 15 teams immediately after the draft. And while picking Seattle meant choosing to compete for a spot on one of the deepest rosters in the NFL, so far Coyle and the Seahawks have been good fits for each other.

“He’s looking fantastic,” Norton said. “He’s really smart, he runs fast, he’s physical. He has great instincts behind the ball, he studies a lot, and he understands how to put that all together to make plays. That’s a pretty good combination.”

We’ll never know how far Coyle could have gone in ski racing, but based on his early success with the Seahawks, it’s impossible to argue with his decision. Besides, the Coyle family still has 15-year old Alexa, who is one of the top three ski racers in the U.S. for her age group, according to Henrichon. So maybe somewhere down the road there can be one Coyle in the NFL and another in the Winter Olympics.

Then again, Alexa is also a pretty talented soccer player. Two-sport success, and the tough choices that come with it, apparently runs in the family.

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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