How huge is the loss of Brandon Mebane to the Seattle Seahawks’ defensive line?
“Big shoes to fill,” says Kevin Williams, the man about to fill them at defensive tackle starting Sunday at run-heavy Kansas City.
And Williams is a five-time All-Pro, a six-time Pro Bowl selection.
The inherently overlooked Mebane does more for Seattle than devour two blockers while simultaneously smacking into a center on every play each Sunday.
He does more than free his linebackers to make tackles. He does more than sing self-deprecating songs in the locker room, like this one he bellowed Oct. 8 before practice:
“ I’m just a no-body/Tryna’ tell every-body/About some-body.”
Mebane is a somebody. A huge, 311-pound somebody who was having the best season of his career until he tore his hamstring “drastically,” in coach Pete Carroll’s word, last weekend during the win over the New York Giants.
To Mebane, he became that somebody — who won a scholarship to his state’s flagship University of California at Berkeley and has since earned more than $21 million as a Seahawk — by taking the initiative to learn how to read better in seventh grade.
Mebane struggled behind his peers in below-grade-level reading for years as a child growing up in south Los Angeles, and in his first year at Audubon Middle School just west of L.A’s Memorial Coliseum. Then he discovered the Sylvan reading program, a standardized system his school had acquired when he was in seventh grade. He continued it over that summer and into eighth grade.
The program typically costs north of $200 per assessment, and can run upwards of $50 per hour for tutoring about six hours a week. Costs approaching $10,000 a year aren’t rare in Sylvan.
Leaders at Audubon Middle School in the late 1990s picked Mebane and other classmates they felt could benefit from the reading program to enter it.
“At first I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ But it was fun,” he said of the reading program.
Turns out, it appealed to the athlete in him.
“It was kind of like a competition with yourself, and the other kids in there, because you were trying to catch up to them to a certain level and they were already at a certain level,” he said. “You do a certain amount of work, you take a test. And if you pass a test you go to another level. It was really fun. I did it my first semester and summer. I enjoyed it, man.
“I really enjoyed it. Oh, man, it made a big difference.”
Not just in reading. In life, as a person.
“My confidence went from zero to 100 (percent), man,” Mebane said. “It was amazing!”
Now that he is no longer able to tackle Seahawks’ opponents because of his torn hamstring, Mebane is turning his attention to tackling literacy issues in his home neighborhood.
“What I really want to do, I want to help kids with Sylvan where I grew up, and in junior high,” Mebane said last month inside the Seahawks’ locker room at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center. “I want to sponsor kids. I’m going to try to start up in November, to try to get it going.”
He already has laid the ground work. Last month Mebane talked to the assistant principal at Audubon, who like Mebane graduated from nearby Crenshaw High School. The assistant principal’s father was Mebane’s coach at Crenshaw. There Mebane, empowered and confident with his new reading skills, became a Prep Star high school All-American and got that full ride to Cal.
In his mind, he owes Audubon Middle School for more than just empowerment through reading. After all, his wife went to the school.
King County deputy prosecuting attorney Amena Jefferson Mebane was a classmate of Brandon at Audubon before she became a member of the Cal Dance Team, while Mebane was playing for the Golden Bears. They reconnected years later when Mebane saw her out with friends at a restaurant in Seattle, when Jefferson was in her second year of law school at the University of Washington.
The understated Mebane doesn’t broadcast it here in Washington, but since becoming a Seahawk in the third round of the 2007 NFL draft he has put on football camps at Audubon Middle School. Those summer camps have included SAT preparation programs for South L.A. kids of all ages through high school.
“That’s what I really want to do, to help kids with reading because what I found out growing up was the key in reading was repetition,” he said. “The more and more repetitions I got with it, the more comfortable I got with it.
“If you are able to read, you can do anything. You have options.”
Mebane said Sylvan at the time was too expensive for his parents Walter (now retired from the U.S. Postal Service) and Joyce (who worked at the global security company Northrup Grumman in Los Angeles).
Now that he’s in the next-to-last year of a $25 million, five-year contract, money is not an issue for him to provide the same reading support to Audubon that it gave him.
“So whoever brought that to my middle school,” Mebane said, “I really appreciate it.”
As for the Seahawks now without Mebane, his nose tackle role falls largely to Williams. Second-year man Jordan Hill will also gain playing time, though Williams is likely to be in Mebane’s role over the center more often.
Mebane thinks his job is in good hands.
“I’ve been learning from Kevin since I came into the league,” he said.
As accomplished as he is, Williams sighs at that.
“You’ve seen Mebane play the last eight years and you know the things he does up front,” he said Wednesday. “I mean, it’s tough. I hate to be getting increased reps because of that situation, but they brought me in here to help the D-line and play whatever position.”
This is the second time in two seasons Williams has moved from his usual guard-gap tackle to become a midseason fill-in nose tackle over the center. He did it in his final season with Minnesota before Seattle signed him to a one-year deal with a $1.5 million base salary and another $600,000 in signing and roster bonuses in the spring.
That signing looks prescient now.
The 34-year-old Williams’ size and guile could become huge beginning Sunday. Kansas City will send All-Pro running back Jamaal Charles into the center of Seattle’s remodeling line.
At 6-feet-5 and 311 pounds, Williams is 4 inches taller and the same listed weight at Mebane. Carroll confirmed Williams will be playing more, and reasons that because of his workload this season he will be fresh for it.
“For this late in the season, he’s in as good of shape as he has probably ever been,” Carroll said. “And he’s a really good, stout, tough football player. He will give us great play in there. It will be a little bit different style, much different makeup size-wise and all. But he has great experience and he will adapt to this, I think, really well.”
The 12-year-veteran Minnesota drafted ninth overall in 2003 has played on 238 of Seattle’s 583 defensive snaps (41 percent), with a high of 40 plays against run-first Dallas on Oct. 12. Williams’ current pace for 423 snaps for the regular season, assuming he stays healthy to play all 16 games, is about to increase.
Mebane, five years younger, had played 278 snaps — 40 more than Williams — for 48 percent of Seattle’s defensive plays before he got hurt.
Williams’ snaps counts the three previous years with the Vikings: 720 last season, 859 in 2012 and 818 in 2011.
It would be assumed, with Williams having played roughly half the time he’s used to playing so far this season, there is fuel left in that tank. Even at age 34.
The Seahawks are assuming that.
“At this time, he would have played 500 snaps or so on the normal pace he was on,” Carroll said.
Williams certainly feels the difference.
“It’s definitely easier to walk around during the week without taking such a beating on Sunday,” he said, smiling.
That luxury, though, is about to end.