Take It To The Limit -- Dubbed The `Golden Boy' In College, Rick Mirer Has Indeed Led A Charmed Life. But The Nickname Doesn't Mesh With Mirer's Paradoxical Thrill-Seeking Side.
The site was an open road on the outskirts of Goshen, Ind., the kind of remote factory town John Mellencamp sings about where they turn theaters into churches. The time was summer in the late 1980s, midway through high school for Rick Mirer. The motorcycle was his older brother's, a menacing black-on-black Kawasaki with too many horses for a novice like him.
Breaking away from his buddies playing basketball, Mirer hopped on the bike and fired it up. Feeling the worn leather beneath him and the magnificent anger of the engine, he drove a half-mile down the cornfield-lined road and turned around.
He began to pick up speed. Throttle open, the wind pressing clothes to body tighter and tighter, he got the bike going 30 . . . 50 . . . 70 . . . 90 miles per hour. At 110 he approached the stretch in front of the basketball court. Gonna wake these guys up.
Then a basketball appeared. Helpless, otherwise harmless, the bounding ball that had skipped off the court was now headed into the road and, like a bad geometry problem, was about to intersect with the oversized bullet Mirer was hugging.
He swerved, avoiding the ball and somehow keeping himself upright. It is a story his friends still talk about, the scary moment when famous Rick almost lost it all, like so many others. His brother can think of at least 10 of Rick's classmates who died during high school, usually from just getting crazy. One of them crashed on a motorcycle during lunch hour and died; another friend fell into a coma as a result of such an accident and still hasn't fully recovered.
But, in trying to understand the mind of the quarterback put in charge of the Seattle Seahawks' fortunes, this is all the team and its followers need to know about Rick Mirer: The man wants his own motorcycle now, despite everything.
And not just any bike, but a stuff-kickin', Hell's Angels-endorsed Harley Davidson.
"I'm an outgoing person and I like to gamble," Mirer said. "I'd love to jump out of a plane and go up in a hot-air balloon. I don't want to risk my life, but the Harley, if I don't get carried away with it, I'll be OK."
Key word: If.
Said Jeff Mirer, who has nearly had to scrape his brother off the pavement several times, "Rick's always been the kind of guy who has to go a little bit faster than everyone else."
Seahawk Coach Tom Flores can probably think of better ways to take the franchise for a ride, but the part of Mirer's personality that yearns to ride again is not all bad for the NFL team to which he has been given the keys. After all, given his position, Mirer's personality may become the team's.
For instance, he is undaunted by danger, as amply evidenced in his rookie season when he was sacked a league-worst 47 times and still improved the team's record by four games. He played with thumb, ankle, back, eye and numerous finger injuries last year and yet missed only 28 of 1,019 plays, even taking an injection for back spasms to get through one December game.
He lives for the thrill of it, a desperately needed quality on a team that bored fans so resolutely that season tickets are down to 53,000, from 58,000 last year and the maximum 61,500 two years ago, when the club also had a waiting list. Any kid younger than high-school age would have a tough time remembering the last time the Seahawks won a playoff game (Answer: 1984). Reaching the middle of the pack in the NFL is one thing, with mechanisms to foster parity such as fifth-place schedules, but clawing to the Super Bowl is another.
Also, when Mirer commits to a goal, he doesn't usually waver. In an era when more quarterbacks are leaving college early - Todd Marinovich, Tommy Maddox, Drew Bledsoe and in the most recent draft, Heath Shuler and Trent Dilfer - Mirer stuck around for his senior season at Notre Dame when the pressure was "80-20 against him coming back," said his father, Ken Mirer.
"He's made decisions that are not popular," Ken said.
Just as Ken Griffey Jr. has wondered what it would be like to play in a larger market, Mirer also can probably think of more prestigious teams to play for than the Seahawks. In fact, he already has played for one; Notre Dame was on national television every week. But Mirer has a history of making the most of his situation, going back to high school when he led Goshen to the state title without one other teammate who went on to play major-college football.
The challenge as always with Mirer is keeping healthy enough to stick around. As dangerous as some of his off-the-field activities may be, Mirer cannot afford to take the beating he endured last season and operate at peak efficiency. Even Mirer, with his history of tempting fate, needs help.
With that in mind, the Seahawks signed free-agent tackle Howard Ballard during the offseason, to beef up the offensive line and help young players like left tackle Ray Roberts, who is in charge of protecting Mirer's backside.
"At some point someone's going to beat you," Roberts said, "but you hope it's not so bad that Rick gets hurt."
Another Rick Mirer story from Goshen, courtesy of his brother:
When the boys were in elementary school, the Mirer family had two young apple trees in their backyard. The first apple to grow on the tree was not to be picked, came the instructions from their father. One day while playing hide-and-seek with his brother, Rick hid in the tree and eyed the lone apple.
"Well, he didn't pick the apple," Jeff said, "but he took a bite out of it and left it hanging in the tree."
With ingenuity like that, the Seahawks' future would seem bright.
However, winning within the rules is more complicated these days. Mirer must know and operate an offense that each week includes about 40 plays, against defenses that present a variety of zones, blitzes, bump-and-run schemes and seven-back secondaries. And make those decisions while listening to his coach talk in his ear via radio waves and, later, while some defensive end with 4.7 speed is lunging at his knees.
During the offseason, Mirer studied the Seahawk offense, upgrading his comprehension of it from fair to very good, said Larry Kennan, Seahawk offensive coordinator. Kennan said Mirer hasn't yet mastered it, but the improvement will be noticeable in that Mirer now recognizes blitzes and can find his third or fourth receivers more quickly.
"He will look a lot more professional this year," Kennan said.
Scrambling as much as he did last season, Mirer reminded some NFL observers of a right-handed Steve Young. The comparison seemed even more apt when Mirer started throwing tight 20-yard spirals with his left hand in training camp this summer, for use when he's under pressure.
The longer he is around, the less he will need to run, which could set him more in the mold of Young's former teammate, Joe Montana. Already he is looking more resolute in the pocket, which in turn has made his passes seem to have more zip than last season. But what kind of quarterback Mirer will evolve into, not even he knows.
"In high school, I did well throwing a lot of passes and we won a championship," he said. "At Notre Dame, the style was different but effective. Now, it's sort of back to where we throw the ball downfield more. That's what I want to do and that's what I'm gonna do. But it's still taking shape."
He is as curious as anyone. He just knows he wants to be in Montana's class.
"Football is not his life but it's a big part of his life and it's something he feels passionate about right now," said Roberts, also a friend of Mirer's. "A lot of players have the drive to get it done but Rick's in four-wheel drive."
On a two-wheel vehicle.
For inspiration, Mirer looks to other football players - John Elway, Jim McMahon and Montana, the usual suspects - but he also holds a fascination with those outside the game whose ride to immortality was so fast that they lost control.
Only Mirer knows what he saw when he peered down at Jim Morrison's grave on a visit to Paris several years ago, and he isn't very forthcoming. "All I can say is, I liked his music and I like that he did it the way he wanted to do it. Nothing more, nothing less," he said.
But friends and family wonder anyway, trying to reconcile the seemingly conflicting images of the Notre Dame athlete and the drug-induced rock star, as supported by Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain. It's not every heartland quarterback who made Morrison's "No One Gets Out of Here Alive" his high-school reading.
"I ask him about it and he just kind of blows it off," Ken Mirer said. "But obviously something's there or he wouldn't do it."
His friend and former high-school teammate Rich Perrin believes Mirer sees a little of Morrison in himself.
"Morrison didn't want all that fame," Perrin said. "I don't know about Jimi Hendrix but he was great and was thrust into the spotlight and perhaps wanted to hide. Maybe he can relate to that."
Certainly, Mirer carries an ambivalence about his rising star.
Like most professional athletes, he wants the financial and social benefits of celebrity yet the privacy of ordinary life. By nature, one comes at the cost of the other, but it still frustrates Mirer, despite ample media training at Notre Dame, that he can't do a potato-chip commercial then sit down at a restaurant without someone asking about why he likes Pearl Jam.
"At times, it feels like you have zero privacy," he said. "It's like you're not allowed just to think something and not tell somebody what you're thinking."
Mirer is reluctant to discuss his life outside football, leaving him with a public persona based on what little is obvious - the "Golden Boy," the tag Sports Illustrated put on him as a Notre Dame sophomore after surveying his clean-cut looks, polite manner, good grades and prodigal leadership abilities. The fact that he goes out of his way to answer his fan mail and has done ample community work with such organizations as Big Brothers has only fortified the image.
But even Mirer disparages that "Golden Boy" image as incomplete.
Beneath the spit-shined exterior is an engine that loves to run, that needs to explore the roads beyond the immediate neighborhood. It's a side that comes out in the anonymity of a grunge-rock concert crowd, but even then he checks his behavior for fear of being noticed.
"There's a rebellious side to Rick that if he weren't in the spotlight, he'd really let show," Perrin said. "I think he holds back, being a role model for kids."
Jeff Mirer recalls one time after Rick's senior year in college, in the months before the NFL draft, when Rick hung off the railing of a hotel balcony on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, with one hand. Preferring not to see his brother fall to the ground 100 feet below, Jeff suggested that Rick be careful.
He remembers Rick's response: "Ah, relax, I'm here to have fun."
Mirer was arrested once on suspicion of public intoxication and disorderly conduct, but that incident had less to do with rebellion than with sticking up for a friend.
In the summer before his junior season at Notre Dame, Mirer and fellow co-captain Demetrius DuBose were at a large party at a South Bend apartment complex when police tried to break up the affair. When DuBose, who is from Seattle, got into an argument with police who were arresting him, Mirer tried to "talk rationally," he said, to the officers, who promptly threw handcuffs on him, too, and hauled the pair to the police station.
"I was as sober then as I am right now," Mirer said recently, at the Seahawks' training facility. "But I've got four cops throwing me up against a wall because they want to be tough."
No charges were ever filed, but the resulting publicity from the arrest left a deep scar on his psyche. For a couple of years after the incident, he considered suing the police and newspaper that reported the arrest, so incensed was he about the rare blip on the Golden Boy radar screen.
From the moment Mirer left the womb he has been touched with angelic good fortune. No one in his family is taller than 5 feet 10, but somehow Mirer grew to 6-2. His father was a coach, so he never learned bad habits that slowed his development as a quarterback. Goshen isn't exactly a vacation destination for famous athletes and coaches, but mostly through his father's doing he was able to meet sports figures such as Dave Duerson, Jim Harbaugh and Bo Schembechler, who along the way offered encouraging words about playing on their level someday. Rick believed them.
He even got used to performing before large crowds early. At age 8, he won the regional Punt, Pass & Kick competition before 60,000 spectators at Soldier Field.
"When did you really think that this would happen, that you'd make it big in the pros?" Ken Mirer asked his son once.
"I guess I always did," Rick replied. "I never thought it wouldn't happen."
He considers himself a born optimist, the kind of person who looks for the good in even the worst movies and thus always comes away entertained. Still, sometimes he finds his personal story line almost too good to be true.
What if . . .? For the vast majority of Americans, that question nags at them in private moments when they want more from their life. What if I would have gone to college as my parents wanted? What if I would have married my high-school sweetheart? What if I would have bought Microsoft stock when it was first offered to the public?
For Mirer, it is the other way around: What if something - anything - went wrong on the way to Camelot? What if I never saw the ball that jumped in front of the motorcycle in high school? What if the bike couldn't handle that dramatic a swerve? What separates me from the friends who now rest in Goshen's Violet Cemetery, except dumb luck and maybe better reflexes?
He finds himself thinking about the fragility, the capriciousness, of life, "all the time," he said.
But not enough to keep him from testing his limits.
Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.