By Nick Wagoner
Staff Writer

In this day of free agency and big money contracts, it is rare for a player to stay in one place his entire career.

Gone are the days of Dan Marino, Jim Kelly and John Elway, who played their entire careers in one place. Even Emmitt Smith, who was the defining player for the Dallas’ dynasty of the 1990s, is playing for Arizona. The sight of someone like Michael Jordan in a Washington Wizards’ uniform will forever haunt Bulls’ fans, who grew accustomed to Jordan winning championships in their black and red.

Grant Wistrom seemed to be the kind of player who could spend his whole career in one place. The defensive end played his college football at Nebraska, and was drafted by the Rams in 1998 as the sixth pick overall. After six productive and winning seasons, Wistrom signed with the Seahawks on March 4.

Wistrom said he always envisioned being the rare athlete to play from start to finish in the same city.

“I always envied the old (football) Cardinals that I’d see around town, the guys that got to play there their whole career and got to retire there,” Wistrom said. “I always wanted to be one of those guys. I don’t think there could’ve been anything better, but obviously, the opportunity didn’t present itself."

“I couldn’t imagine being in a better situation than I’m in right now. I’m playing for a great organization. I’m playing for a great football team, in a city that I’m really starting to like. It would have been nice to have stayed in St. Louis, but those things don’t always work out, so I couldn’t imagine being happier anywhere else.”

Some might ask why Wistrom would leave if he was so happy in St. Louis. If he was a free agent and had the right to choose, why wouldn’t he choose to stay in a place he was so happy?

The answer is free agency, money and a perfect opportunity. Wistrom was wanted in St. Louis as much as he wanted to stay. St. Louis wanted to keep him, but when push came to shove, Seattle made an offer that nobody else was even close to. Desperate for a leader on a young defensive line, the Seahawks were intent on making sure Wistrom didn’t leave the Emerald City without putting pen to paper.

The offer contained more numbers than Wistrom ever thought possible. He didn’t leave. He signed a six-year, $33 million contract, with a $14 million signing bonus. That might seem like a lot of money for a defensive end who has never had more than 11 sacks. That kind of cash is usually reserved for the high-end pass rushers, but as Rams’ coach Mike Martz is quick to point out, Wistrom is well worth the money.

“So many of these guys that get the money that Grant gets, they are pass rushers,” Martz said. “That’s how they see themselves, as a specialist. That’s not Grant. He’s the whole package, as we all know. He makes tackles, because he chases the ball down in the running game and, at the point of attack, he stacks them up. He knocks the pass-blocker back into the quarterback, he squeezes the pocket, or he gets a hand on the quarterback and disrupts the throw. He just doesn’t stop, he’s relentless and that’s something that is very evident when you watch him on defense.”

It is all of those attributes that make Wistrom one of the key cogs in Seattle’s revamped defense. The impact has been swift and immediate. Not just because Wistrom has 2.5 sacks and 12 tackles in three games, but also because he provides the Seahawks with the kind of leadership and experience they have lacked in recent years. The effects of Wistrom on the line have propelled Seattle to the No. 1 ranking in the NFL in total defense. The Seahawks shut out San Francisco in week three, the first time the ***** have been shut since 1977.

Seattle coach Mike Holmgren said Wistrom’s impact is felt on the field, but perhaps more importantly, in the locker room.

“Acquiring Grant was a big thing for us,” Holmgren said. “He’s a good football player. We knew that when we played against him all of those years. But more than that, he brought an attitude and a work ethic up above his actual ability that was good for us.

“We are very young on defense. So, to have guys that the young guys can look at, how they practice and how they play, that’s really important for us taking the next step defensively.”

For Wistrom to take the next step in his career, he will have to overcome a few obstacles. Standing in his way Sunday is one extremely big roadblock in the form of left tackle Orlando Pace. Pace and Wistrom matched up every day in practice since Wistrom entered the league. By most accounts, Pace got the better of the younger Wistrom, but the defensive end’s relentless push started to even things toward the end of his time in St. Louis.

Now, the two will square off in live action for the first time, with a lot on the line. Neither player allowed himself to be goaded into exchanging barbs, but they did express a mutual respect.

“It’s going to be an all day battle,” Wistrom said. “I’ve gone against Orlando for six years in practice, but Orlando’s practice speed and his game speed are two different things. I’ve been watching film on him the past couple of days and “O,” I think, has gotten better each year. He looks as good as he ever has out there. So it’s definitely going to be a 60-minute battle.”

Pace said he understands his challenge also.

“It’s going to be a nice battle,” Pace said. “Grant knows me well, and I know him well, just from going against him for the past six years or so. So it should be a good matchup on Sunday. Grant’s one of those high energy, high motor guys. I know that going in and I’ll try to stay with him all game. He’s hard-nosed. I understand that about him and I just have to be ready.”

Martz compares the upcoming battle to one that he saw when he came into the league with the Rams in Los Angeles. In those matchups, he watched linebacker Kevin Greene tangle with tackle Jackie Slater every day.
No matter who wins that game within the game, the only win that is important at the end of the day is the win-loss column in the NFC West Division standings.

With as much change as teams undergo in a normal offseason, one thing will probably never change and that is Wistrom’s approach to football.

“No matter what anyone writes about me, or how much money I’m playing for, it doesn’t matter,” Wistrom said. “I’m going to go out there and play the game the way that I play the game, and that’s hard. Nobody else can put more pressure on me than I put on myself.”