This much of the story of mark Schlereth, the only Alaskan-born player in NFL history, is undeniable: that Fritz Schlereth, his German-born grandfather, won fame in the fatherland as a cake decorator; that Herb Schlereth, Mark's Manhattan-born father, made chump change in the Big Apple by carting cadavers out of gutters and dropping them off at the morgue; and that his Washington Redskin teammates call him Stinky, after stinkheads, a dubious Eskimo delicacy made from rotting fish noggins.
This much of Schlereth's story is unbelievable (but true): that he chose to attend the University of Idaho over the University of Hawaii because of climate; that six knee operations into his college career he announced his retirement from football, only to unretire and play during his senior year; and that he was the 263rd overall selection of the 1989 draft and yet he played in the Pro Bowl after the '91 season.
The 26-year-old Schlereth, a guard, is the youngest and most unlikely member of the Hogs, that impervious Redskin offensive front that allowed a league-low nine sacks last year and cleared a path for nearly 2,000 yards rushing by Earnest Byner, Ricky Ervins and Gerald Riggs. With Schlereth and Joe Jacoby anchoring the right side of the line at the Super Bowl, the Hogs held the Buffalo Bills without a sack and powered Washington to a 37-24 victory.
"Mark's got all the attributes to be a Hog," says Jacoby, who has been one for the past 11 years. "He's got the potbelly, the ugly puss, and he's roly-poly." The 6'3", 285-pound Schlereth also has arms like legs, and legs like people.
August 23, 1992
The main difference between Schlereth and his pet pig, Wilbur, is that Schlereth won't eat dog food. Schlereth prefers cheeseburgers—he has been a regular at a joint in Anchorage called the Arctic Roadrunner for 25 of his 26 years. In fact, his picture is enshrined on the Roadrunner's Wall of Fame between Norma Jean, the first woman to solo Mount McKinley, and Bob Henderson, who once landed a 26-pound northern pike with a muskrat in its stomach. "Mark's the only athlete we've honored," says Dick Sanchez, the Roadrunner's owner.
Football is no big deal in Alaska; the high school season ends almost before it begins. "The state championship is played in mid-October," Schlereth says, "when the Gatorade freezes." Though Anchorage gets an average of 68 inches of snow a year, school was canceled only twice during Schlereth's childhood there. "Around D.C., they call off class for just the threat of a flurry," he scoffs. "My teammates have no idea what snow is."
Nor, apparently, do they have a clue about Alaska. "They're always asking me if the roads are paved," says Schlereth, "and what my igloo looks like." An accomplished fibber, he regales them with grisly bear tales and gruesome moose tales and tales of that most apocryphal of Alaskan beasties, the Blarina shrew. The vicious Blarina, Schlereth informs you, is "kind of the piranha of the shrew world. It eats three times its body weight every day. I've seen them attack packs of wolves and swallow them whole."
For all his shrewmanship, Nanook of the NFL isn't much of an outdoorsman. His old man took him camping in the wilds only once or twice. "I never caught a single fish," Mark moans. "Everyone else pulled them out of the water like they were stuck to the end of their hooks." All Herb remembers of their camping adventures is the loons. "They scared the hell out of me," he says. "I thought someone was being murdered."
The Eskimo have nearly 100 words for different kinds of snow. But they have no word for Herb Schlereth. Here he is yelling up at some mountain goats traversing a jagged cliff near his Anchorage home recently: "Jump! Jump! Jump!" A huge grin spreads across his face. "That must be the New Yorker in me," says Herb, who when he was 16 earned pocket money by helping a friend move deceased indigents from New York City streets to a hospital morgue.
A trim and well-muscled former bodybuilder of 53 years and 182 pounds, Herb still pumps iron with his son. "Pound for pound, I'm stronger than Mark," he says.
Herb met Janette Ramstad, the daughter of a gold and tin miner, at Central Lutheran Church in Fairbanks while he was stationed at nearby Elmendorf Air Force Base in 1959. They married, had a couple of kids and built a home hard by the Arctic Circle in the willowy foothills of the Chugach Mountains. "You get a different sense of time here than on the Upper West Side," says Herb. Winter has brief spells of daylight; summer, brief spells of night. Janette would tell Mark to come inside when it got dark. "I'd look at my watch and it would be midnight,"' Mark says, "and I'd think, I've got lots of time."
The Schlereths aren't the sort of closet highbrows you sec on Northern Exposure. Their bookshelves aren't jammed with the works of Kant and Kierkegaard. Herb couldn't read above the fourth-grade level until he was 19. "Janette taught me," he says. "I'm dyslexic, just like Mark."
As a child Mark could distinguish individual words, but sentences became a hopeless jumble. "Nothing was more frustrating than trying to read," he says. "And nothing was more frightening than having to read aloud." He still winces at the memory of a seventh-grade teacher who told him to read from a newspaper in front of the class.
"I'd rather not," said Mark.
Mark mumbled a few words.
"Sit down, Schlereth!" barked the teacher. "You're stupid!"
Young Mark lowered his head, sat down and told himself he was stupid. That assessment was shared by a few of his classmates, who teased him and called him names. Schlereth figures that's why he got so good at football. He would never punch out perpetrators on the playground. "I'd get even on the football field," he says. "If someone made fun of me, I'd run over him during recess."
Polite and well-behaved, he charmed his way through grade school and hid his reading problem for years—partly by cheating, he says. He prepped for spelling tests by writing words on a sheet of paper. "At test time," he says, "I'd trace over the words." He pulled this oil' until eighth grade, when a teacher finally realized Mark was reading at a first-grade level. Placed in a special class, he improved. And though he eventually got a football scholarship to Idaho, his reading was limited to defenses. "I'm ashamed to say I read only one textbook in college," he says. (It was for Business Management 301.) "Professors would usually say that 85 percent of a class is on the notes, 15 percent on the book. So I'd tell myself, I'm going to be in class every day and take good notes and listen. If I ace that part, I'll at least get a B."
The strategy worked. Mark graduated with a liberal arts degree and a 2.9 average. But injuries had forced his football career to skid into the snowbanks. The surgical scars on his knees look like an old prospecting map of the Northwest Territory. Mark says he had to give up football after his junior year because the Idaho coaches were fearful of a liability suit. But Keith Gilbertson, then the Vandals' coach, says now his only concern was for Mark's health, and he allowed Mark to return to the team the following fall. Mark spent the summer of '88 reconditioning his knees, then won back his starting job and helped Idaho to an 11-2 record.
In the spring of '89, NFL scouts invaded Moscow to look at a couple of pro prospects, neither of whom was Schlereth. But he talked his way into the tryouts. Though he could bench-press 500 pounds and run the 40 in 4.7 seconds, most scouts were skeptical because of his numerous position changes—he played nosetackle, defensive tackle, center and guard—and his even more numerous operations.
Washington's defensive line coach, Torgy Torgeson, spotted Schlereth while scouting Idaho defensive end Marvin Washington, who wound up with the New York Jets. Torgeson called Joe Bugel, then the Skins' assistant head coach and now coach of the Phoenix Cardinals. "Get up to Idaho," Torgeson said. "There's something you ought to see."
"Idaho!" said Bugel. "Where the heck is Idaho?"
Bugel eventually found Idaho and a 275-pounder with "powerful hands and a powerful grip." The Skins took Schlereth in the 10th round. "I had no doubt he'd make it," says Jim Hanifan, who is now his offensive line coach. "He's tough, hardnosed and extremely smart." Schlereth belies the idea that offensive linemen are unskilled players who just bang into other big guys. He treats the Redskin playbook like a sacred text. "Reading the game plan is no problem," he says. "X's and O's are pretty distinguishable."
Last season he put in an extra 45 minutes a day going over game film. It paid off. Before a game with the Houston Oilers, he noticed that whenever defensive end Ray Childress crouched at the line with his feet together, he would go inside; whenever his feet were apart, he would plow straight ahead. Which explains why Schlereth manhandled Childress. "I'm not going to lose my job because I don't work hard enough," Schlereth says.
He related that story in June during a Pig-Out With a Hog Luncheon at the Boys' and Girls' Club of Greater Anchorage. Then he took a question from the audience: "Is it true that your dad once beat you in the bench press?" The questioner is Herb. "Yeah, that's true," answers Mark. "I think I was eight.""
A question from a nonrelative: "What motivates you?"
"Setting goals," Mark says. He enumerates the goals he set down on paper for himself at 14:
1. To have lots of fun.
2. To get a wife.
3. To have kids.
4. To get a job in pro football.
5. To have an insurance job to fall back on.
6. To make enough money so that my family can have a good life.
7. To pass high school.
8. To go to college.
9. To get a scholarship.
10. To go to heaven.
Schlereth has taken care of numbers 1 through 4 and 6 through 9. Number 5 no longer interests him. "And number 10," he says, "is still down the road."
Atop his current list is the desire to read better. Even now Schlereth reads slowly and with great effort. He sometimes practices by reading aloud to his wife, Lisa, and two stepchildren, Alexandria, a second-grader, and Daniel, who's in first grade. A few years back he took a special interest in a remedial reading class at an elementary school near his home in Herndon, Va. He bought a book for each student. "And one for me, too," says Schlereth. A month later he returned. "The kids shared what they had read," he says, "and I shared what I had read."
It wasn't until this year that he attempted his first "really thick book"—a biography of serial killer Ted Bundy. "Someday," says Schlereth, "I'll get to the classics." Don't doubt him. "My whole life I've been told, 'You can't! You can't!" he says. "I tell them, 'I can,' because I know I can do whatever I want to do."