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Friday, March 26, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Les Carpenter / Times staff columnist

Long before Pro Bowl, Hasselbeck was Sue Bird

No linebacker, not even on his most vicious day, could be as ruthless as Becky Gottstein under the rim.

She was impossible to move, deadly with the elbows, and there wasn't a rebound she couldn't get. Even thinking about her four years later, Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's voice goes soft.

"She just wore me out," he said. "Basically, she was stronger than me. She was very normal looking — she looked like a woman and all — but on the court she was a beast."

Long before the NFL playoffs and the Pro Bowl, Matt Hasselbeck was Sue Bird. He was also Swin Cash and Rutgers' Tammy Sutton-Brown.

At first it seemed like fun, an easy way to stay in shape in the months after football. The women's basketball coaches at Boston College had seen their school's quarterback playing pickup basketball in the practice gyms. He was tall, quick and athletic. They needed practice players. Would he mind coming out?

What they gave him was three hours of hell.

"It was a huge learning experience for me," he said yesterday from Seahawks headquarters. "I really, really learned to respect the women's game. They're all so fundamentally sound. They box out, and they run, and they run some more."

This weekend, the women's West regional of the NCAA tournament is in Seattle, though Hasselbeck probably won't be in the stands. Instead, he will stay home and watch his former team — the one he once helped prepare for Connecticut, Rutgers and Notre Dame — as it plays Minnesota in the Sweet 16.

Hasselbeck was certainly not the first male to work out with a women's team. Most college programs bring in men to make practices tougher and faster. Within its labyrinth of rules, the NCAA does allow for this, though with limitations on how many times men can practice with the team.

Usually women's coaches scour the intramural courts for prospects. Rarely do they bring in NFL quarterbacks. But in the case of Boston College, the Eagles had two. In addition to Hasselbeck, B.C. coach Cathy Inglese also invited Doug Flutie — who works out at his alma mater — to join the team.

What a sight it must have been: Hasselbeck, the future Pro Bowl player, grabbing a rebound and firing an outlet pass to Flutie, the one-time Heisman Trophy winner, who would suddenly be surrounded by two pony-tailed women trying to wrestle the ball from his hands.

It was not easy work. Inglese had a list of demands each time Hasselbeck came to practice. Sometimes, the men were supposed to help with drills, staying on the court for half an hour at a time while the women worked on techniques like rebounding or slashing to the hoop. At other times, the men were assigned the role of an opposing player, like Bird or Sutton-Brown. They would have to learn the way she played and then try to emulate her in practices.

By the time the men were finished, they were exhausted.

"Sometimes we'd beat the women (in scrimmages)," Hasselbeck said. "More often than not, they beat us."

Inglese laughed as she remembered the time she saw Hasselbeck in the weight room a couple of days after one particularly grueling session.

"Hey, Matt, we could have really used you today," she said.

Hasselbeck groaned. "My body's really sore. I need a break," he said.

But there were rewards. Hasselbeck suddenly had a new passion. He would go to the games at B.C.'s Conte Forum to watch his alter egos, like Bird and Sutton-Brown, and see if he had captured them just right.

Inglese loved the way Hasselbeck threw himself into the practices. She wanted the men she brought in to be athletic, but she couldn't run the risk of the football players acting like thugs. The last thing a man can bring to a women's basketball practice is ego. He is there to fit in with the team, not dominate. In that regard, Hasselbeck fit perfectly.

Everything was about the women's team getting better. And there were times Inglese would blow her whistle, stop practice and glare at her players.

"Hasselbeck!" she would scream. "Did she box you out?"

"Um, no, she didn't."

"That's it, Nicole!" Inglese would yell. "Everybody on the line right now. You're going to run suicides."

This probably did not help Hasselbeck to make friends on his new team. Then again, he was there so Boston College could perhaps beat UConn, which it did one season he worked out with the team.

Plus he had his own career. The last year he worked out with the Eagles was after he had joined the Green Bay Packers.

The NFL was calling. It was time to take a break from Becky Gottstein.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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