FLOWERY BRANCH —
Upon talking to Alex Mack about anything football, one may walk away feeling like a witness to a metronome click, as the Falcons center approaches and speaks about his craft as a machine might if it were to play the game – methodically, without deviation.
But even he acknowledged that Sunday’s game against the Browns likely will trigger a different kind of vibe when he returns to Cleveland for the first time in the regular season after spending the first seven years of his NFL career there.
Yeah, Mack said, it’ll be a little different, even if he also thinks, “It shouldn’t be. You should be able to treat it just like another opponent and everything else. I know it’s going to be a familiar city that I’m used to and stuff, and it will be weird seeing the other opposing jerseys, but I’ve been on this team for a while now and I think I can handle it.”
Mack was like a truck in his seven seasons with the Browns, earning Pro Bowl honors three times after Cleveland drafted him in the first round out of California in 2009. He started all 16 games in six seasons, missing 11 with a broken leg in 2014.
This man even finished a game against the Titans in 2011 while battling appendicitis, and then had an appendectomy during the team’s bye week and started and played against the Raiders after the bye.
The Browns, though, hit an otherworldly number of potholes in his time aside Lake Erie, going 29-72. He had four head coaches and snapped to 13 starting quarterbacks.
After voiding his contract after the 2015 season to become a free agent, he was drawn to the Falcons in part because of first-year coach Dan Quinn and his hire of Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator, and Mack favored the Falcons’ coaching style and his zone-blocking scheme up front.
Since signing a five-year, $45 million contract with the Falcons in ’16, Mack’s played for one head coach, Quinn, and snapped to two quarterbacks, although you could probably count on two hands the number of times that he’s sent the ball in two-plus seasons to Matt Schaub rather than Matt Ryan.
The business of football was brutal during his time with the Browns, yet he maintains relationships with former teammates.
So, OK, he’s kind of looking forward to returning to Cleveland, although this won’t be the first time. The Falcons played an exhibition game at First Energy Stadium in ’16, when his new teammates teased him after the Browns played a video tribute for him that night.
“I have some friends who still live in town. There’s one guy on the team, Joel Bitonio, a (left) guard, so it will be cool to see them,” he allowed. “I know a lot of the equipment staff and trainers and stuff, so it will be cool to see the faces and some people I haven’t seen in a while, but beyond that it should be a business trip and I should be focused on football.”
A lifelong Californian, Mack’s move brought challenges that went beyond the football field. After growing up outside Los Angeles, and attending college in Berkeley, he found differences in menus and in winters.
He’s quite content to now be based in Atlanta, where he’s been a Pro Bowler in his first two seasons with just as many postseason trips and bonuses, but that doesn’t mean that he would trade his time in Cleveland.
“I remember going into the city and liking it a lot. Moved from the Bay Area to the Midwest and the people I met and just how passionate everyone was about football was a really cool experience,” Mack said. “It was a part of the country I probably never would have lived in otherwise. I think it was a very valuable life experience.”
Yeah, so going back will be different for Mack, who went to a wedding in Cleveland last summer. He stays in touch with several teammates from Cleveland, including future Hall of Fame left tackle Joe Thomas, who retired after last season.
“We were together for a while, we went through a lot of ups and downs,” he said. “Some of my best friends now are definitely former Browns teammates.”