BERKELEY — Cal center Alex Mack may not just be the best football scholar-athlete in the country. He may be the best football scholar-athlete of a generation.
That may sound a tad grandiose, but the 2008 Draddy Award winner given to the nation's top football scholar-athlete beat out a group of finalists that National Football Foundation president Steven Hatchell called "without a doubt their best class ever." The Draddy Award began in 1990.
"If this is on balance the best class ever, then to have him stand out, that's pretty special," Hatchell said. "He just stood out."
Mack won the Draddy Award at the National Football Foundation's annual awards dinner in New York on Tuesday night. He was chosen over 14 other finalists from all divisions of college football.
Mack was awarded a $25,000 post-graduate scholarship, and the other finalists received $18,000 scholarships. There were 164 nominees.
"This is a validation of Alex Mack's hard work and dedication in the classroom and on the field," Cal chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau said. "(It) also is a validation of our commitment to provide our students an excellent academic program and an outstanding athletic experience. I could not be more proud of Alex, of our faculty, of our coaches and of Cal's athletic program leadership. This award recognizes athletics done right."
Mack received his bachelor's degree in legal studies last spring with a 3.61 grade point average. After considering a jump early to the NFL — he's considered a possible first-round draft pick — Mack decided to return for his final season and start pursuing his master's in education.
The award recognizes the combination of academic success, football performance and community leadership. Past winners include current NFL quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Chad Pennington, along with 1996 Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel. The Draddy Award is commonly referred to as the "Academic Heisman."
"Winning the Draddy Award is so significant because what it stands for," Manning said. "It acknowledges not only our accomplishments on the field, but more importantly in the classroom and in the community. To me, to be recognized by your peers as the Draddy winner, as one of the top leaders and scholar-athletes in the nation, is one of the highest honors you can receive. I want to congratulate Alex for his hard work."
Mack is a member of Cal's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and has been involved in charitable causes and after-school programs for local elementary school kids. In February, he participated in a charity dance contest in which he competed against performers from San Francisco's Oberlin Dance Company. Mack helped promote the event, doing a photoshoot in which he crouched down in his center's stance and had two petite female dancers sit on his back.
At Tuesday's Draddy ceremony, the audience was shown a presentation of each finalist. The crowd roared when Mack's presentation included that promotional photo.
"He couldn't be more deserving of this honor," Cal director of student-athlete development Amy Bair said. "I've always admired Alex in working with him. He's not afraid to jump in and be a strong role model. Every meeting, he's always the first one to speak up and ask questions. And he does everything with a smile on his face."
Mack said the reason for his success across different arenas is simple: If you're going to do something, do it well. He's just as competitive in the classroom as he is on the field and always is looking to make some kind of contribution.
"I've always really tried to succeed," Mack said. "I try to be engaged. Early on in my academic career, I figured if I had to be in school, I might as well enjoy it. That's kind of my personality. If I'm going to be somewhere, I want to do something. I don't want to just sit back and not do anything."
Mack admits he's had to make sacrifices to produce such a well-rounded college resume. He's had to pass on social events and travel..
"He was a frequent visitor to my office hours," said Cal professor Richard Muller, who teaches the popular class 'Physics for Future Presidents,' which Mack took during his freshman year. "He always asked thoughtful questions. I've watched him practice. He's full of energy. Alex has learned how to be alive. He's not intimidated by it."
Both Cal coach Jeff Tedford and athletic director Sandy Barbour attended the dinner and said Mack was shocked when he was announced as the winner in front of an audience of approximately 2,000 people. Mack beat out such finalists as quarterbacks Graham Harrell (Texas Tech) and Chase Daniel (Missouri).
The award was determined by a committee of about 20 members, which includes New York Yankees chairman George Steinbrenner, who was an assistant football coach at Northwestern and Purdue during the 1950s.
"Just creating the award for honoring the hard work that all of us have done is a real big honor," Mack said. "It's just really special to make such a big honor for academic achievement and athletics because we work really hard. Just to do well in one takes a lot of effort. To come home after practice and hit the books and start working on everything else, you make a lot of sacrifices. It was a really great honor just to be mentioned among those other guys. Just being there was recognition enough."
Mack likely would excel no matter how long he pursued his studies, but that will be put on hold for awhile. Many mock drafts project Mack going in the first round of April's NFL draft.
"I know Alex well enough to know that he's really proud of this," Barbour said. "He's very, very proud of his ability to do both at a very, very high level. He, more than anyone, knows how hard he had to work to achieve this. Although he wasn't asking for any recognition of that, this is exactly that. And it's nice to get that recognition."