It is the sort of question often asked of Super Bowl contestants who grew up in football-rich California, a question usually eliciting answers filled with legends and lore.
Who’s the greatest high school player you’ve ever seen?
Alex Mack, the Atlanta Falcons’ star center and the first Santa Barbara kid to appear in a Super Bowl, digested the query earlier this week and stroked his beard.
“You’re putting me on the spot here,’’ he said, beginning a long pause. “Let me think about it.’’
In four years at San Marcos High, from 2000 to 2004, Mack played against future college and NFL stars sprinkled throughout the Southland. His prep journey was one long highlight video, his peripheral vision filled with the future greatness that surrounded him.
“Duncan Krier,” he finally said.
“Duncan Krier, our middle linebacker.”
Again, who? An ensuing Google search could find no evidence that a “Duncan Krier” ever played in the NFL, on a college team, or even for San Marcos High.
Holy hell, Alex really said that about me?
The only “Duncan Krier” who popped up was a ticket salesman for a minor league hockey team in Portland, Ore. A phone call was made. A message was tentatively delivered.
“Is this Duncan Krier? Alex Mack just told everyone at the Super Bowl that you were the best high school player he had ever seen.”
There was a prolonged silence.
“Yeah, I’m that Duncan Krier,” the voice said. “But don’t lie to me, man.”
He said he had not spoken to Mack in a dozen years. He said the observation was striking him like a bolt from another life.
“That’s wild. That’s insane. Holy hell,” he said. “Alex really said that about me?”
There was another long silence.
“The crazy thing about it is, I think he’s probably right,” Krier said. “And I still think about that almost every day.”
This was supposed to be a Super Bowl story about the literal and figurative center for the NFL’s best offense. This was supposed to be about how the acquisition of the smart and solid Alex Mack was the biggest reason Matt Ryan suddenly became an MVP candidate and the Falcons won the NFC championship and are headed for a title showdown with the New England Patriots.
But in answering that question like he did, Mack pulled back the curtain on a much broader Super Bowl story, one involving the luck and blessings bestowed upon every player in America’s greatest game.
For every Alex Mack, there is a Duncan Krier. For every star, it seems there is an equally bright light who grew up alongside him and yet somehow faded. Maybe it was injury. Maybe it was fate. Whatever it was, it illustrates the fine line between a man playing in the Super Bowl and a former teammate watching on TV.
There have been a thousand stories this week about all the Alex Macks. This story will be about the thousands of players who are Duncan Krier.
“Do I watch Alex and think that could have been me? Do I wish that actually was me?” Krier said. “Hell yes.”
They grew up together in Santa Barbara, buddies since kindergarten. They played on the same scruffy fields, fought the same silly battles. The only difference was in their temperaments. Krier was aggressively reckless. Mack was quietly strong.
“I was the wild kid,” Krier said. “He was the gentle giant.”
When they were approaching adolescence, both boys were big enough that they often played in youth leagues with older children. While Krier relished the opportunity, Mack wasn’t as enthusiastic.
“I remember at one point, him not wanting to play football with the older kids, and I was like, ‘C’mon man, just sign the waiver and let’s go play, let’s go tear it up together,’” Krier said.
So they did, through youth league and into high school, Mack feeding off the inspiration of his vastly different buddy.
“We really pushed each other all the way through,” Mack said.
By the time they were established in high school, so were the traits that would ultimately separate them. Where Mack became a powerful rock, Krier remained a dazzling flare.
“Duncan was a maniac,” said Dare Holdren, San Marcos’ defensive coordinator when both boys played there. “He liked to hit people. All he wanted to do is hit people. He just loved playing football and blowing people up.”
Mack, meanwhile, was a wrestler who often won his physical battles with not only his huge body but his mind, smothering opponents from impossible angles.
Then came the day when football tore them apart forever, with Krier’s knee shredding under a pile, an injury that would eventually require three surgeries.
“Alex came to my house the night of the injury, and I knew it then,” Krier said. “His football career was just getting started, and mine was over. I wasn’t good in anything else in life. I lost everything I was living for.”
While Mack was signing with California, Krier was throwing away his handful of recruiting letters and descending into a pit of alcohol and depression. While Mack was blocking for Marshawn Lynch, Krier was battling his demons while digging ditches, fixing roofs and occasionally living under collected driftwood at the beach.
“Alex was a star, and I was spiraling, and I couldn’t see a way out of it,” Krier said. “I should have tried to come back, but I wasn’t focused enough. I thought I didn’t belong in a classroom and was no good on a football field.”
While Mack became a first-round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns and an eventual Pro Bowl selection, Krier started a new career in the stock room of Home Depot, working his way up to supervisor, yet turning on the TV every Sunday to the most painful of reminders.
“On one hand, I was so proud of watching my friend,” Krier said. “On the other hand, I was like, but for one play, that could be me.”
With help from his family and professionals, Krier eventually escaped the spiral and realized his life had worth beyond the football field. Today, though worlds apart, their paths are actually headed back in the same direction.
Last spring, while Mack was signing a contract with the Falcons worth more than $28 million in guaranteed money, a focused Krier was settling in as an account manager for the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks with a home and a family.
“I look where he’s at, and look at where I’m at, and sometimes it can be rough, but it’s also like, I’m OK now,” said Krier, who is 6 feet, 260 pounds and bearded like Mack. “I was dealt a bad hand, but I’m happy.”
That happiness will show on Super Bowl Sunday when Krier is inviting 10 friends to his house to watch “my man” play for the Lombardi Trophy. He won’t be wearing a Falcons jersey, as his only Mack souvenir is a signed Cleveland Browns jersey that was sent to him after Krier made the request through Mack’s mother.
“I’ve never been able to reach him all these years, but he still remembers me, and that’s enough,” Krier said.
His friends don’t really know their shared story, but they will surely hear it in Krier’s voice, his heartfelt cheers drowning out the loss of a dream, the greatest watching the greatest.