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For departing Holmgren, wife is his biggest star

SEATTLE - Mike Holmgren is happily leaving the job he's loved and mastered for the last 17 years in the NFL. The reason is on the second floor of the Pike Market Medical Clinic.

Kathy Holmgren, who specializes in diabetes, waves to the crowd after raising the "12th Man" flag at the home finale.
Kathy Holmgren, who specializes in diabetes, waves to the crowd after raising the "12th Man" flag at the home finale.Read moreJOHN FROSCHAUER / Associated Press

SEATTLE - Mike Holmgren is happily leaving the job he's loved and mastered for the last 17 years in the NFL. The reason is on the second floor of the Pike Market Medical Clinic.

His wife, Kathy, a registered nurse who specializes is treating diabetes, is ending a checkup with a patient, a small, older man with bright eyes for whom English is a second language. For the last two years, she has volunteered at the clinic, which welcomes poor people off the streets of downtown Seattle.

She's done foot care, made home visits, and seen whoever comes through the door. She's also traveled to Africa, Romania and Mexico while volunteering for a medical outreach team.

"I know who the real star of the family is," said her husband, the exiting coach of the Seattle Seahawks, who makes about $7.5 million per year, has led teams to three Super Bowls, and is the league's winningest active coach. "And it's not me."

Holmgren's move away from football is for his wife. He married her in 1970, the year he graduated from Southern Cal and went to the training camps of the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Jets as a quarterback. She's been waiting and coping while Holmgren has coached football every year since 1971, when he was a history teacher running the freshman team at Lincoln High School in his native San Francisco.

"There couldn't be a better person to give to," he said.

On Sunday, before Holmgren's final home game, his wife had reluctantly raised the "12th Man" flag, Seattle's in-stadium salute to its fans, immediately before kickoff. It was the first time in 15 years she had watched one of his games in its entirety in person.

"She can't stay at the game because she cares too much," the coach said. "She said she had to be there for this last one. It was all very, very special."

It was as special as the charitable work the Holmgrens have done for decades.

Among the checks the coach writes to Africa is one for $20,000 each year to provide food for children attending a primary school in Rwanda. More than 500,000 people were killed in 100 days during the genocide in the country in 1994. Holmgren has been told his money feeds the entire school for a year.

He is also putting the leader of the school through medical school there.

A few days before Christmas, Holmgren had just finished a lunchtime appearance ringing bells in the Seattle rain, outside a department store, for the Salvation Army's annual holiday campaign. The man with 173 career wins, which ranks 10th all-time entering his final game with Seattle on Sunday at Arizona, walked unnoticed through the alley entrance of the clinic moments before a frail, elderly man huddled there to roll a marijuana cigarette.

His wife was gently talking with her patient as her towering husband walked slowly up wooden stairs to the second floor.

"Trying to surprise her - for the first time, after 38 years of marriage," Holmgren said, chuckling.

He stood about 15 feet from his wife, then five. Unaware, she talked and listened intently to her patient for a minute. Finally, she saw her husband, just as he leaned to kiss her on the cheek.

"I thought you'd be ringing the bells," she said, sounding puzzled.

The coach was there to see the clinic honor his wife for her two years as a volunteer. Holmgren, a glib communicator who excels in public speaking, prodded her to give a speech to about a dozen staffers, plus the Seahawks' chief executive officer, Tod Leiweke, and others.

"It will make me too sad," she said, before adding, as her husband's eyes moistened: "I love my patients. I love the whole meaning of this clinic: to serve the underserved."

Holmgren has a simple answer for why he's leaving: He promised his wife.

"We haven't been able to do this," Holmgren said. "We've been married for 38 years, and I've been coaching for that long, at least. And now, as Bill Walsh once said to us at a training camp: 'Guys, I hear that August is a wonderful month.' "

Holmgren's wife and Calla, one of their twin daughters and a gynecologist, have planned a spring trip to Uganda with Medical Teams International, a Christian humanitarian-aid and disaster-relief group. Holmgren's wife wants him to go, too, and he might - he's never been to Africa.

Holmgren knows details of a vicious insurgency in Uganda that has gone on for two decades. But he wonders how much he could help.

"I could tape an ankle - that's about all I could do," he said.

The wife and daughter got international attention during the Seahawks' Super Bowl appearance for being in the middle of a jungle in the Democratic Republic of Congo instead of in Detroit. The daughter was already going to Africa when Holmgren suggested that his wife join her - without considering that he might be in the Super Bowl months later.

Holmgren's wife and the Seahawks led a collection of donations at Qwest Field during his final home game to benefit the people of war-shattered Congo, where Kathy began her nursing career almost 40 years earlier as a missionary.

Humanitarian groups estimate that the ongoing war between government and rebel forces is killing nearly 45,000 people every month, half of them children.

Medical Teams International estimates that Seahawks fans raised almost $60,000. A chunk came from a family that was eating near the Holmgrens at a downtown restaurant hours after the game, in which the Seahawks upset the Jets. The family recognized the Holmgrens and wrote a hefty check on the spot, delivered by the headwaiter.

Leaving football will also better serve their four grown daughters, their six grandchildren, the coach's motorcycle, and the homes he has on a ritzy golf course in Phoenix and in the coastal mountains above Santa Cruz, Calif.

Holmgren, a 60-year-old disciple of Walsh, the Hall of Fame coach, became a Super Bowl winner in Green Bay and then a hero in Seattle for transforming the Seahawks and leading them to their only Super Bowl appearance, in 2006.

He will go down as one of the top three coaches ever in Seattle, with Don James, the University of Washington icon, and Lenny Wilkens, the NBA Hall of Famer who coached the now-relocated SuperSonics to their only league title.

The Seahawks won one division title in their 22 years before Holmgren arrived in 1999 from Green Bay. They won four division championships and were in the playoffs five consecutive times in Holmgren's 10 years in Seattle.

This last, lost season is the worst of Holmgren's 17 campaigns as a head coach. That's partly why these final days don't feel like the end of his career.

He said he would like an executive job like his pal Bill Parcells has in Miami.

"It's like a movie actor that all of a sudden gets too old to act in movies and then, all of a sudden, he wants to direct," Holmgren said.

But because of his promise to his wife, he said someday wouldn't be any sooner than 2010, if at all.

"I'm just going to kind of be open and try and enjoy the time, enjoy some of the months I've never really enjoyed before, at least in another way, and then, after that, see what happens," he said.

"Never say never is going to be my motto here."