Coaches and players both on his team and across the field say new Vikings guard Steve Hutchinson is one of the best in the game at his position, and his contract and technique back that up.
Steve Hutchinson shared a childhood dream with millions of others.
The only difference is he may have achieved his, although he will never say so.
"My goal was to be the best, win Super Bowls and be in the Hall of Fame," Hutchinson said Friday. "But I'm not going to tell you I'm the best. It's not my job to decide that."
Leave that to the men paid to devise game plans and get around Hutchinson on Sundays.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ Legendary Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin: "A lot of offensive linemen get thrown into the same deal, and you can mix them up. But when you watch a tape, he stands out. He's just one of those special guys. He's strong, quick and smart. He can do it all."
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams, a former all-pro: "When he's on you, he's on you. You might be able to take him back a few steps, but he's going to get in front of you and put his hands on you."
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ Pro Bowl defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch of the Tennessee Titans: "If you asked all the offensive line coaches in the NFL to draw up a guard, it'd look like Steve Hutchinson. He's got size, speed, quickness and technique. He's really as close to a complete offensive lineman as you can get."
Hutchinson, 28, received more all-pro votes than Pittsburgh's Alan Faneca and Kansas City's Brian Waters for the 2005 season, bolstering his reputation as the NFL's best guard. And he commanded a contract from the Vikings that jolted the NFL contract landscape. Hutchinson signed a seven-year, $49 million deal that included $16 million in guarantees, a contract that far exceeded any given to a guard and was on par with the elite left tackles and discouraged the Seattle Seahawks from retaining him.
As the Titans watched film of the Seahawks' offense in preparation for a December game, Vanden Bosch recalled a comment from his defensive line coach, Jim Washburn.
" 'He's going to get paid like an offensive tackle.' "
The question, then, isn't if but why.
Figuring out other all-pros is relatively easy: San Diego's Antonio Gates led all tight ends in catches, receiving yards and touchdowns, and Arizona's Neil Rackers led all kickers in attempts and conversions. But a guard?
"Being a guard and offensive lineman, it's a unique situation because we're the one position that doesn't have stats," Hutchinson said.
Guards are mostly anonymous, their names hardly uttered, their actions hardly watched. Hutchinson was among those who zeroed in on more glamorous positions.
"Even growing up, who really paid attention to guards as a kid?" he said. "It was just the big-name guys."
A defensive lineman at Coral Springs (Fla.) High, Hutchinson admired Bruce Smith, Anthony Munoz and John Randle. After fielding scholarship offers from nearly every major college football program, including Georgia Tech after his sophomore year, Hutchinson chose Michigan over in-state schools.
"When I was a kid, I followed them, and when I got the opportunity, I thought that's where I always dreamed of going," Hutchinson said. "I don't know if it was the uniforms or watching them on TV or just the tradition."
Initially a defensive lineman on the scout team as a true freshman, Hutchinson seized an important opportunity as a redshirt freshman. Discouraged by the depth at his position, he asked to be able to compete for the vacant left guard position.
"I was on varsity all four years (in high school), and I never came off the field," Hutchinson said. "I came to college, and it was kind of an ego check, barely even dressing for games and traveling. I was like, 'I don't want to do this.' You know everybody has to pay your dues, especially at a school like that.
"But I saw an opportunity to play."
With the help of offensive line coach Terry Malone, Hutchinson quickly learned the fundamentals of his new position, and he immediately earned the starting spot on a team that would win the national title. He was a freshman All-American that season, and he would become only the second player in Wolverines history to be honored as an All-Big Ten Conference player four times.
And although he played alongside five players who would start in the NFL, Hutchinson always was his unit's best player, Vikings defensive tackle Ross Kolodziej said.
"Even with the O-line they had then, he was always, scouting report-wise, the strongest offensive lineman," said Kolodziej, who has faced Hutchinson in college while at Wisconsin and in the pros. "Physically, he was a man among boys as an underclassman. He was capable of making the transition (to the NFL) as an underclassman."
Technically, Hutchinson also was sound; Malone, now the tight ends coach for the New Orleans Saints, made sure of that.
"We did endless hand drills in college," Hutchinson said. "Hours and hours. I punched so much I felt like I needed shoulder surgery because of it."
Punching bags and rubber straps, which the players affectionately called "handcuffs," honed his hand techniques.
Malone's insistence on those drills has paid dividends.
"If he gets his hands on you, it's pretty much over," said Randle, a former Vikings defensive tackle, who practiced against Hutchinson when they were with the Seahawks.
Opponents also praised Hutchinson's footwork, which he attributed to his high school basketball days, and his strength. But Hutchinson said his workouts are not extraordinary.
"I just do kind of protocol workouts. Just whatever they (the club's strength and conditioning coach) have on the program sheet," he said. "There's not too much magic."
All of that combined is daunting to defensive tackles, Arizona's Darnell Dockett said.
"He's just so athletic," said Dockett, a defensive tackle for the Cardinals. "He's over 305 pounds, and he's flexible and strong, and he doesn't make mistakes. He'd make any running back look good, no disrespect to Shaun Alexander. I don't see how Seattle let him go. I was happy until I found out we're playing Minnesota (Nov. 26)."
But Vanden Bosch said there is something else that distinguishes Hutchinson.
"His toughness," said Vanden Bosch, who had 12.5 sacks last season for the Titans. "There are a lot of guys in the NFL with all the measurables, but he's got all that and toughness. That mean streak is the difference between good players and elite players."
Randle said he and his linemates immediately recognized Hutchinson's talent during his rookie season, in 2001.
"As a rookie, you could tell he was a dominating player," Randle said. "From the first play, you could tell, this guy is no joke. We had other veterans. But we could tell right away he was special."
For instance, Dockett said most offensive linemen are deficient in one aspect of the offense.
"He's so powerful and athletic that he can run block and pass block," Dockett said. "Usually, guys can do one or the other, but not both. He can."
Upper-echelon defensive tackles demand double teams. But Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Ed Donatell said Hutchinson is capable of handling those top defensive tackles on his own.
"People want to get Rod Coleman in a mismatch situation," Donatell said. "But Steve can match the intensity that those guys bring.
"We can create situations to make teams single block (a defensive tackle)," Donatell said. "But with a player like him, you don't have to worry about that."
Hutchinson isn't certain, but he estimated he has given up less than a dozen sacks in his 73 NFL games, with four of them coming during his rookie campaign.
"Last year, I don't think I gave up one. Two years ago, maybe one or two," Hutchinson said. "I take it pretty serious. But if it happens, you have to shake it off, because you don't want to lose your focus and get beat again."
Asked how many sacks he collected on Hutchinson in their four regular-season meetings, Dockett immediately answered, "None.
"I got him with some good moves, and made some plays. But as far as sacksÃ¢â‚¬Â¦"
Informed that he didn't seemed ashamed of that, Dockett said, "No.
"Ain't too many guys have any sacks on him. If you find someone who has, let me know, and I'll watch film on them."
As he honed his game, though, Hutchinson said he did not model his game after any other guards.
"There are guys who have skills and things that make them them," Hutchinson said. "Larry Allen, for instance. He's so strong and big, he can pick a guy up and throw him any ways. For me, I have to constantly focus on staying low, because a lot of the guys I play against are bigger than me."
Despite the clichÃƒÂ©, Hutchinson is his own worst critic. Asked what faults he might find in his game, Hutchinson mentioned minute details recognizable only to highly trained eyes.
"Maybe it's getting my hand quicker on a guy or more inside or taking another couple inches on a step," he said. "Maybe a step was too flat. Maybe I could cut the angle more at the man. There's numerous things. I can always do something better.
"I never feel satisfied with how I played or practiced," Hutchinson said. "I can always look at any given play and find things I can do better. I think a big key (to being successful) is never really being satisfied."
Asked to name the best guards he faced in his illustrious career, Randle rattled off three names: Randall McDaniel, Will Shields and Allen.
"He's right up there with those guys," Randle said of Hutchinson. "Steve has all those guys' qualities, and he's such a young guy."