SEATTLE – Mike Holmgren is happily leaving the job he’s loved and mastered for the last 17 years in the NFL. The reason is on the second floor of the Pike Market Medical Clinic.
His wife, Kathy, a registered nurse who specializes is treating diabetes, is ending a checkup with a patient, a small, older man with bright eyes for whom English is a second language. For the last two years Kathy has volunteered at the clinic, which welcomes poor people off the streets of downtown Seattle.
She’s done foot care, made home visits and seen whoever comes through the door. She’s also traveled to Africa and Romania and Mexico while volunteering for a medical outreach team.
“I know who the real star of the family is,” said her husband, the exiting coach of the Seattle Seahawks who earns about $7.5 million per year, has led teams to three Super Bowls, and is the league’s winningest active coach. “And it’s not me.”
Holmgren’s move away from football is for Kathy. He married her in 1970, the year he graduated from Southern California and went to the training camps of the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Jets as a quarterback. She’s been waiting and coping while Holmgren has coached football every year since 1971, when he was a history teacher running the freshman team at Lincoln High School in his native San Francisco.
“There couldn’t be a better person to give to,” he said.
Before Holmgren’s final game on Sunday, Kathy had reluctantly raised the “12th Man” flag, Seattle’s in-stadium salute to its fans, immediately before kickoff. It was the first time in 15 years she’s watched one of his games in its entirety in person.
“She can’t stay at the game because she cares too much,” the coach said. “She said she had to be there for this last one. It was all very, very special.”
As special as the charitable work the Holmgrens have done for decades.
Among the checks the coach writes to Africa is one for $20,000 each year to provide food for children attending a primary school in Rwanda. More than 500,000 people were killed in 100 days during a mass genocide in the country in 1994. He’s been told his money feeds the entire school for a year.
He is also putting the leader of the school through medical school there.
A few days before Christmas, Holmgren has just finished a lunchtime appearance ringing bells in the Seattle rain outside a department store for the Salvation Army’s annual holiday campaign. The man with 173 career wins, 10th on the all-time list entering his final game with Seattle on Sunday at Arizona, walks unnoticed through the alley entrance of the clinic moments before a frail, elderly man huddles there to roll a marijuana joint.
Kathy is gently talking with her patient as her towering husband walks slowly up wooden stairs to the second floor.
“Trying to surprise her – for the first time, after 38 years of marriage,” Holmgren said.
He stands about 15 feet from his wife, then moves closer. Unaware, Kathy talks and listens intently to her patient for a minute. Finally she sees her husband, just as he leans to kiss her on the cheek.
“I thought you’d be ringing the bells,” Kathy said, sounding puzzled.
The coach is there to see the clinic honor Kathy for her two years as a volunteer.
Holmgren, a glib communicator who excels in public speaking, prods her to give a speech to about a dozen staffers, plus Seahawks CEO Tod Leiweke and others.
“It will make me too sad,” Kathy said, before adding, as her husband’s eyes moisten: “I love my patients. I love the whole meaning of this clinic: to serve the underserved.”
Holmgren has a simple answer for why he’s leaving: He promised Kathy.
“We haven’t been able to do this. We’ve been married for 38 years and I’ve been coaching for that long, at least,” Holmgren said. “And now, as Bill Walsh once said to us at a training camp: ‘Guys, I hear that August is a wonderful month.’ ”
Kathy and Calla, one of their twin daughters and a gynecologist, have a spring trip planned to Uganda with Medical Teams International. Kathy wants Mike to go, too, and he might – he’s never been to Africa.
But he knows details of the vicious insurgency inside Uganda that has gone on for two decades. Plus, he wonders how much he could help.
“I could tape an ankle, that’s about all I could do,” he said.
Kathy and Calla got international attention during the Seahawks’ Super Bowl appearance for being in the middle of a jungle in Congo instead of in Detroit.
Calla was already going to Africa when Holmgren suggested Kathy join her – without considering he might be in the Super Bowl months later.
Kathy and the Seahawks led a collection of donations at Qwest Field during her husband’s final home game to benefit the people of war-shattered Congo, where Kathy began her nursing career almost 40 years earlier as a missionary.
Humanitarian groups estimate the ongoing war between government and rebel forces there is killing nearly 45,000 people every month, half of those children.
Medical Teams International estimates Seahawks fans raised almost $60,000.
A chunk came from a family that was eating near the Holmgrens at a downtown restaurant hours after the Seahawks upset the New York Jets. The family recognized the Holmgrens and wrote a hefty check on the spot, delivered to Holmgren by the headwaiter.
Leaving football will also better serve their four grown daughters, the Holmgrens’ six grandchildren, Mike’s motorcycle and the homes he has on a ritzy golf course in Phoenix and in the coastal mountains above Santa Cruz, Calif.
Conspiracy theorists in Seattle suggest team president and general manager Tim Ruskell pushed Holmgren out the door so Ruskell could install his own guy, former Atlanta coach Jim Mora.
The 60-year-old disciple of Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh became a Super Bowl winner in Green Bay and then a hero in Seattle for transforming the Seahawks and leading them to their only Super Bowl appearance in 2006.
Holmgren will go down as one of the top three coaches in Seattle, with University of Washington icon Don James and NBA Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens, who coached the now-gone SuperSonics to their only league title.
The Seahawks won one division title in their 22 years before Holmgren arrived in 1999 as a Super Bowl winner from Green Bay. They won four division championships and were in the playoffs five consecutive times in Holmgren’s 10 years in Seattle.
This last, lost season with the Seahawks (4-11) is the worst of Holmgren’s 17 as a head coach. That’s partly why these final days don’t feel like the end of his career.
He said he’d like an executive’s job, like his pal Bill Parcells has in Miami.
“It’s like a movie actor that all of a sudden gets too old to act in movies and then all of a sudden he wants to direct,” he said.
But because of his promise to Kathy, he said someday won’t be any sooner than 2010, if at all.
“I’m just going to kind of be open and try and enjoy the time, enjoy some of the months I’ve never really enjoyed before, at least in another way and then after that, see what happens,” he said. “Never say never is going to be my motto here.”
Subscribe to The Spokesman-Review's sports newsletter
Get the day's top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.