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All drive, all heart: From De Pere to Seattle, Schneider has remained the same

Feb. 2, 2014
 
Former Green Bay Packers front office staffer and current Seattle general manager John Schneider, right, talks with head coach Pete Carroll.
Former Green Bay Packers front office staffer and current Seattle general manager John Schneider, right, talks with head coach Pete Carroll. / File/AP
John Schneider carries the football for De Pere Abbot Pennings in a game against Chippewa Falls McDonell in this undated photo. / Submitted

John Schneider’s NFL career path

1992: Packers scouting intern.
1993-96: Packers pro personnel assistant.
1997-99: Chiefs director of pro personnel.
2000: Seahawks director of player personnel.
2001: Redskins vice president of player personnel.
2002-07: Packers personnel analyst to general manager.
2008-09: Packers director of football operations.
2010-present: Seahawks general manager (added executive vice president to his title in 2013).

Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, left, embraces general manager John Schneider after the NFC championship game Jan. 19 in Seattle. / AP

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No one could have known that De Pere native and Abbot Pennings graduate John Schneider would grow up to become an NFL general manager.

But even in grade school at Notre Dame Elementary in De Pere, there was an indication football would be a big part of his future.

“In second and third grade, he had his own football cards and he was building his own teams,” said his father, Bill, a retired orthopedic surgeon who with his wife, Sandy, still lives in the De Pere house where John, his four older sisters and one older brother were raised.

Years later, after John was hired by the Green Bay Packers as a pro personnel assistant, he would wheel and deal with then-general manager Ron Wolf, also an avid football card collector.

“They were always trading cards and comparing their card collections after hours,” Bill said.

Schneider has combined his deep passion for football, strong work ethic, keen talent-evaluation skills and experience working under Wolf and alongside other prominent NFL front-office executives to become one of the best general managers in the league.

It has taken Schneider, 42, just four years to help guide the Seattle Seahawks to a Super Bowl berth. They will take on the Denver Broncos today at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., and Schneider has the chance to win a second championship ring after being a member of the Packers’ front office when they won the title in 1996.

There’s a common theme among friends, family members, former teachers, coaches and colleagues when talking about Schneider: He is extremely driven, but at the same time humble and unspoiled by success. Those qualities were evident at a young age and still apply today.

In the highly competitive and sometimes cutthroat NFL world, Schneider has emerged as one of the most popular and respected general managers.

“John’s so lovable, I mean I love him, I do,” said Kansas City Chiefs general manager John Dorsey, who was named 2013 NFL executive of the year and worked alongside Schneider with the Packers. “I look at him as a little brother, and I always will. I love being around him. He put a smile on your face. He makes you think. He’s very respectful. We had a lot of similarities in terms of principles we both believe in. John is a good man.”

Those qualities no doubt stem from Schneider’s upbringing, during which he was taught the value of hard work and that nothing in life is handed to you.

Always a leader

Bill and Sandy had their first five children in a seven-year span, and John came along as the baby of the family four years later.

The Schneider children abided by a few simple household rules: They did their homework before anything else and were required to be home to eat dinner together.

As for career aspirations, Bill and Sandy didn’t steer their children toward medicine, even though Dr. Schneider founded Orthopedics Associates in 1967 and Sandy worked as a medical technician specializing in bacteriology.

“We just told them, what you have to do is find something that you really love to do, and be totally passionate about, and then do it well, and then be the best at it,” Bill said. “All of our six kids have done that, and this is what John picked. He loves football. He’s a football person through and through.”

Schneider’s dogged persistence in rebuilding the Seahawks’ roster was never more evident than in his first year on the job in 2010 when Seattle had an NFL-high 284 transactions. Schneider will leave no stone unturned, whether it’s traveling to scout potential draft choices in person, making trades, scouring the NFL waiver wire or sifting through lists of free agents.

Schneider displayed that same determination growing up. He was undersized at just taller than 5-feet-6, but became one of the leading rushers in Pennings school history during two years as the starting halfback.

“He was a driven kid, he ran hard all the time,” said Al Groves, who was the Pennings football coach and now serves as an assistant at St. Norbert College.

“He was short but yet he had a body. It’s not like he was slight of build. He was pretty put together. Back in the day, weightlifting was not a big thing, but he did weightlift.”

In fact, Schneider encouraged his teammates to join him in the weight room.

“He was the best teammate you could ask for in terms of offseason work,” said Aaron Popkey, the Packers’ director of public affairs who graduated with Schneider from Pennings in 1989, one year before the school closed its doors, and was the Squires’ starting quarterback. “He really led the charge. There was a fairly good group of guys that worked out together and John led that group, kept us going, kept us motivated and really was a leader.”

Pennings went 3-7 in the Fox Valley Christian Conference when Schneider was a junior but improved to 7-4 the next season and qualified for the WISAA playoffs. Pennings pulled off an early-season upset of highly touted Milwaukee Marquette, and Schneider served as the key component in the Squires’ run-and-shoot offense that year.

Schneider also was a sprinter on the Pennings track team, and he and his older brother, Bill, a Squires’ running back in the early 1980s, still good-naturedly argue about who was faster.

Schneider loved athletics but also was a good student who earned A’s and B’s, was elected to the Student Council, was described as affable and upbeat, and would engage teachers and classmates in conversation.

Although he was an avid Packers fan, Schneider idolized running back Walter Payton, and his bedroom walls were plastered with posters of the Chicago Bears star. Schneider even wrote letters to Payton and received responses.

Foot in the door

He played football for one season at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., but a shoulder injury ended his playing career. His love for football remained strong, however, and he was determined to get his foot in the door with the Packers.

During his junior year in college, Schneider wrote three letters to Wolf hoping to land an unpaid internship in the scouting department. When that didn’t work, he followed up with a phone call and finally convinced Wolf to give him an interview.

Former Packers President Bob Harlan remembers following Schneider’s high school football career at Pennings.

“He was an intense competitor,” Harlan said. “I can see where somebody like Ron Wolf would like John. I mean John had a lot of drive in him and a lot of ambition. That he would approach Ron looking for a job, that doesn’t surprise me one bit.”

Schneider aced the player evaluation test Wolf gave him and was hired as a summer intern in 1992. After graduating the next year, he was hired full time in the Packers’ scouting department.

He joined a talented staff that included Ted Thompson, Dorsey, Reggie McKenzie and Scot McCloughan, all of whom went on to become NFL general managers.

Schneider was a football junkie who fit in well with that group. Despite his youthfulness, he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind or stand up for his convictions.

“John was pretty fresh out of college but that was the old days of the projectors, sitting in a dark room and watching tape for hours, and it’s something that I think he really enjoyed,” said Thompson, who like Schneider was hired by Wolf with no prior scouting experience.

One evening, Wolf assigned Dorsey and Schneider to go through a box of roughly 200 VHS tapes of mostly obscure players and report back to him the next morning. They meticulously worked into the wee hours of the night.

“He and I sat there, went through the whole box of 200,” Dorsey recalled. “And guess what, we found a player. You know who we found? Travis Jervey.”

The little-known Jervey, a speedy running back out of The Citadel, was drafted by the Packers in the fifth round in 1995 and played four seasons in Green Bay and earned a Pro Bowl berth in 1997 for his special teams prowess.

Always on the job

Finding diamonds in the rough is a personnel man’s dream, and Schneider has accomplished that in Seattle, most notably with All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman (fifth round) and Pro Bowl safety Kam Chancellor (fifth round).

But those finds don’t come without a lot of legwork. The life of an NFL general manager is far from glamorous, with long hours and continuous scouting trips.

When the Seahawks played the Packers during the preseason last summer, Schneider booked a golf outing in town with family members.

“He had his cellphone with him,” his dad said. “On every hole, 18 times, he was talking to an agent or player or somebody. I said, ‘Can’t you even play 18 holes with us?’ He said, ‘Dad, it’s my job.’ ”

It’s a job he wouldn’t trade for any other. Schneider doesn’t do it for personal recognition, similar to his mentors Wolf and Thompson.

“There’s something about being a general manager,” Thompson said. “Your name gets out there. People see you and recognize you on the street and that sort of thing, but just the scout part I think is, for me and I suspect it is for John, is still the most intriguing part of our job.”

Schneider is a skilled communicator but rarely conducts media interviews in Seattle, mainly because he would rather let others stand in the spotlight.

Schneider is as responsible for the Seahawks’ success as head coach Pete Carroll, who maintains a much higher profile. But Schneider gladly does his job in the background.

Some things never change. When Schneider was at Pennings and the star of the football team, he never acted like he was special.

“(Success) definitely didn’t go to his head,” said Mike Jelenic, one of Schneider’s classmates at Pennings who now works for the Packers as a computer systems administrator. “He was very personable, friendly, always gave everyone equal footing. He would talk to everybody at school. He wouldn’t play favorites.”

Even as his NFL scouting career was taking off, Schneider remained grounded and never forgot his roots. One former teacher said Schneider, years after he graduated from Pennings, would go out of his way to say hello and make conversation.

“I think his greatest trait is his people skills,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “He does a great job building relationships. He’s just a very personable individual.”

Schneider met McCarthy when both worked for the Kansas City Chiefs in the late 1990s, and the two eventually wound up in Green Bay. They are close friends; in fact, Schneider and his wife, Traci, introduced McCarthy to his eventual wife, Jessica.

“As I’ve told John, it clearly will go down as his greatest personnel evaluation transaction ever,” McCarthy joked.

Making his mark

One of the most difficult aspects of a general manager’s job is trimming the roster, and it’s no different for Schneider.

“He loves players and the players love him,” Bill Schneider said about his son. “The thing that he tells me all the time, he’ll call and say, ‘Dad, I have to let so and so go, I just hate to do that. This is a guy with a wife and two kids, this is his life. I’ve got to get him another job.’ And he’ll get him another job. ... A number of guys, John’s gotten them jobs with other teams.”

Among the personnel men who worked under Wolf, Schneider might be most like him because he is willing to take chances and will be aggressive in going after a player he really likes.

Schneider signed Terrell Owens early in his tenure as Seahawks general manager, traded for running back Marshawn Lynch and receiver Percy Harvin, and acquired quarterback Matt Flynn in free agency. Sometimes his moves work, but not always.

“I really admire that,” Wolf said of Schneider’s style. “He’s not afraid. I think that’s why they’ve been so successful.

“They spent all that money on Percy Harvin, he’s played one game I think, but that didn’t detract from the season that team had. So that’s a heck of a trait, not to be afraid. ... I always believed ‘to thine own self be true.’ I think John Schneider takes that and runs with it. I don’t think he’s afraid.”

Wolf encouraged Schneider, then 25, to leave the Packers after the 1996 season for a better job as pro personnel director with the Chiefs under Marty Schottenheimer.

Wolf told Schneider: “ ‘John, you’ve got to do it. If you want to learn the business, this is a whole different business here, and you’ve got to see the entire picture. ... You want to get out and get around.’ ”

Schneider spent three years in Kansas City before joining Mike Holmgren and Thompson in Seattle in 2000 as director of player personnel.

A year later, Schneider was named vice president of player personnel under Schottenheimer with the Washington Redskins. He was only 29 but essentially assumed the role of general manager.

That job lasted only a year because impatient Redskins owner Dan Snyder fired Schottenheimer and his staff after an 8-8 season.

Schneider took the setback in stride.

“He said it was one of the great learning experiences, working with a fellow with that type of personality that Dan Snyder has,” Bill Schneider said. “John has told me it’s added to the bricks in the past because it was just another thing that you learn working with a person like that.”

When things didn’t pan out in Washington, Schneider returned to the Packers in 2002. He first worked for then-general manager and coach Mike Sherman and then Thompson when he took over as GM in 2005.

Schneider was promoted to director of football operations in 2008 and served as a trusted adviser to Thompson.

“(We) make sure we’re pushing the envelope a little bit to come up with different ideas,” Thompson said. “John was pretty creative in that regard. He could come up with certain scenarios and things like that. Often times, we didn’t pursue those but it was good work and it was good in terms of trying to stay on top of what’s going on around the league.”

Reaching the peak

When Schneider was hired as Seahawks general manager in January 2010, McCarthy hated to see him leave.

“Personally, I did not want to see John go, that’s for sure,” McCarthy said. “I miss the daily interaction. We always enjoyed working together and he’s a dear friend, but professionally it’s an opportunity he had to take advantage of.”

Some wondered if Schneider was accepting a position with a limited role because Carroll had final say over personnel decisions. Normally the general manager hires the coach. In this case, it was the other way around.

But their relationship has flourished, and Carroll has followed nearly all of Schneider’s personnel decisions. It was Schneider who pushed hard to draft quarterback Russell Wilson in the third round in 2012, a move that has paid off handsomely.

After the Seahawks defeated the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC title game two weeks ago, Carroll took the rare step for him of awarding a game ball in the locker room to Schneider.

“I don’t give out game balls, because I just don’t,” Carroll said to his team. “But there’s one guy I want to make sure and point out, the guy that did this with me, partnered side by side the whole time, every step of the way. John Schneider’s fricking awesome.”

Schneider came from the back of the locker room, hugged Carroll and addressed the NFC title team he constructed.

“I’m so proud of you guys, I’m proud of everybody in this whole room, the whole building,” Schneider said. “But just to watch you guys work every single day. I’ve watched a lot of you guys work since you were like, shoot, freshmen in college even. Every one of you is so special. You guys have no clue what goes into this and I’m just really proud of all you guys. Let’s go kick some ass (in New York).”

When the NFC championship trophy was presented on the field after the game, Schneider was on the podium with Carroll and Seahawks owner Paul Allen, but he was barely recognizable because he wore a cap that covered his eyes.

When one of his sisters asked why, Schneider replied: “So they couldn’t see my tears.”

It’s a long way from the quiet streets of De Pere to the giant Super Bowl stage, but as Schneider has made that triumphant journey, he hasn’t seemed to change one bit.

“I saw John in the draft room, the way he operated,” Harlan said. “I saw the confidence Ron had in him. John was one that I would never be surprised if he had success. I think he had success written on him.

“I’ll take you all the way back to what he was in high school. He was a little guy who was a great football player, and he had great passion for the game, and he had great passion to succeed and he did. He succeeded at the high school level. ... Now he’s come into the pros and done a remarkable job and had a remarkable career and still is at a very young age.”

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