Joel Bitonio hasn't known Alex Mack all that long. Before 2014, he'd heard about Mack, sure, but nothing beyond what the casual fan knows.
West coast guy. Played at Cal. Pro Bowl center. That was the scope of it for Bitonio, who similarly grew up on the West Coast and hummed under the radar as a high school and college prospect.
One season with Mack changed everything.
Bitonio's front-seat view of Mack for five games last season provided him with the ultimate perspective. And it went well beyond the on-field time they spent together before Mack's crushing, season-ending leg injury.
In 49 words, Bitonio perfectly summed up the question most outsiders can't fully answer.
Why is Alex Mack one of the NFL's most dominant centers?
"Intelligence, athletic ability and the way he plays the game." Bitonio said. "He's so smart, so athletic and then he plays so hard. If he gets tripped up or if he loses his balance, he's never going to be on the ground stopping.
"I think that's the whole package."
It's the first word, in shapes and forms, that follows any broad question about Mack's game.
"It doesn't just stop at football," Pettine said. "He is worldly. You can carry on a conversation with him in most any circumstances."
Joe Thomas flashes a smile when he's asked about Mack's devotion to reading. Whether he's in the cold tub, on the trainer's table or sitting next to his locker, Mack can be typically found with his face buried in books that range all across the spectrum.
Most recently, it's been the Game of Thrones series captivating Mack during his down time, even if it's just five minutes before he falls asleep.
"He's a big nerd, no doubt," Thomas said. "We always laugh because he was the guy that was reading books that had fictional maps on the last page and only nerds do things like that. He's the guy that always wants to talk about ghosts and goblins and wizards and goofy stuff like that that 12-year-olds like."
This goes beyond books, of course. The intelligence he utilizes on the field is ideal for the position he plays, the brains of the offensive line whose task is to read everything the defense is doing before the snap and relay it to his fellow linemen.
A lot of it is natural smarts for the cerebral, Cal-Berkeley educated Mack. But the behind-the-scenes work that fills his brain with not only everything he needs to know, but also everything the players around him need to know are what separates him from the average center.
"He's a tremendously smart, bright kid," said Jim Michalczik, Mack's offensive line coach at Cal who is now the offensive coordinator at the University of Arizona. "The big thing with him was learning the game of football more than just, 'what do I have to do?' Alex works so hard to pick things up. He's such a conscientious person. He wants to be right so much and he works so hard to not make mistakes.
"Alex doesn't want to know what he has to do, but what everyone has to do and how it affects the defense."
Michalczik had an idea Mack could be a good college center when he recruited him out of Santa Barbara's San Marcos High School. Mack was a 6-foot-4, 255-pound tackle, but Michalczik saw the necessary traits of a center -- a diamond-in-the-rough one, at that. One glance at Mack's Rivals.com page shows just two stars and headlines that focused more on his "Ivy grades" than his on-field accolades. Cal was the only school to offer him a football scholarship.
How Mack landed at the center position upon arriving at Cal is as basic as it gets.
"Five freshmen were in the recruiting class that year," Mack said. "It was all right, 'you're a tackle, you're a guard, you're a guard,' and he looked at the two people left and said, 'Alex you played center before. You know how to snap the ball. John do you know? No, all right. Alex will play center, John you'll play tackle and we'll adjust things going forward.' That was it."
Undersized and relatively inexperienced, Mack knew he wouldn't be needed as a true freshman. He dedicated himself to not only increasing his muscle mass, but also his knowledge of the game.
As a member of the scout team, Mack learned the basics of the offense for each of Cal's opponents. He also further engrossed himself in his own team's playbook and put himself in prime position to contribute as a redshirt freshman.
He leapfrogged a player in front of him to assume backup duties as a redshirt freshman. One year later, he was the starter.
"When did it click? I'm not sure, but he picked things up pretty quick," Michalczik said. "He would remember it and if something was different, you had to make sure to tell him why they're different, how and everything."
That thirst for knowledge grew infinitely when he arrived in Cleveland as a first-round pick in 2009.
During the season, Mack has a routine he doesn't like to break.
On Tuesdays, the NFL's league-wide day off, Mack takes his time away from the facility seriously. It's his personal time to clear his mind, mentally refresh and prepare. On Wednesday, he'll watch a game or two of the Browns' upcoming opponent. As the week progresses, the film session gets more and more specific. After the Browns install a package to stop a team's blitz, he'll watch how that team tried to beat that sort of protection.
Every minute in the film room makes the split seconds he has to read the defense and execute all the more routine.
"When you go out there and you're on the field, you can look at the defense and go, 'all right, I've seen this before, I've thought about this, I know what plays we want to run, I've seen this defense, this is the call," Mack said. "Sometimes you'll make the perfect call and the defense makes a better one. It doesn't always work but you try."
From his vantage point at the center of the offensive line, Mack sees things a player such as right tackle Mitchell Schwartz simply can't.
What Mack sees and how quickly and clearly he's able to relay it to the rest of the offense is essentially the play behind the play. If his assessment is off just a little, the play could be doomed before the ball is even snapped.
"He's always part of a play, he's always getting a set," Bitonio said. "In protections, he's telling us what backers are working at, who's going on who, he'll even make calls that tell the running back where. He kind of holds it all together in that aspect.
"He's really the glue of the offense. He's the glue that holds it together and keeps it all in the right place."
Mack wanted to play basketball in the winter just like his dad, Steve, a former player at Berea's Baldwin-Wallace College of all places.
There was just one problem.
"He said, 'well, basketball practice is at 6 in the morning, and there's no way I'm getting up at 6 in the morning," said Tony Becerra, Mack's wrestling coach at San Marcos High School.
So Mack, always hunting for the next challenge, spent his high school winters wrestling. It wasn't natural for the 6-foot-2, 250-pound teenager, especially when he was pitted against kids who had been wrestling for years.
Even when he started to find success as a junior -- he missed his entire sophomore year with a broken toe -- a nickname followed him wherever he was with his wrestling buddies. It wasn't flattering.
"We called him Goofy," Becerra said. "He was moving so fast and his feet were so big that he used to trip over his feet all the time. We'd do drills and we'd all be doing a drill and he'd fall to his knees. His first two years it was, "Goofy, Goofy, Goofy." The first time he made it to the medal stand his junior year, he fell off the medal stand. We're all just laughing at him because he was so goofy."
The clumsiness eventually faded and Mack morphed himself into a powerhouse heavyweight, able to combine strength and quickness to wear down his opponent and eventually use moves uncharacteristic with his size to end the match. He compiled a 28-2 record as a senior, ranked No. 2 in all of California and received a number of wrestling scholarship offers.
One moment stood out above the rest to Becerra.
During a state semifinal match, Mack was in trouble. In an inferior position, Mack had no way out but to utilize a move typically performed by lighter wrestlers. It's called a "Granby," and it required Mack to hop his feet out to the right, role forward and pop up in a standing position.
The way Mack saw it, he was simply doing what he had to do to win the match. He had no idea how much it surprised those around him.
"People were just like, 'oh my gosh,'" Becerra said. "What is this guy doing? He wasn't just a heavyweight who would try to wear his partners down."
So just how much does Mack's wrestling background help on the football field? The answers differ depending on who you ask.
Michalczik said a wrestling background works really well for centers because of the quick-twitch movement that's required at no other position. Yes, all offensive linemen have to be able to move quickly from their three-point stance into a blocking position, but only the center has to snap a ball first.
There's also the understanding of leverage and flexibility, mentioned by Thomas, that Mack needs for his matchups against players that can weigh as much as 50 pounds more than him. There's no ceiling in the heavyweight division of wrestling, so Mack had plenty of preparation for matching up with the likes of Danny Shelton and Vince Wilfork on the football field.
From Becerra's perspective, it's Mack's lateral movement and ability to keep whomever is coming for him directly in front of him. Becerra remembered one play from Mack's rookie season with the Browns where he drove the opposing nose guard 8 yards deep into the end zone on a play that started at the 1.
Mack's explanation is, perhaps, the simplest and he's one of the quickest to brush it off as a reason for why he's had so much success in the NFL.
"It's you versus another guy, duke it out, see who wins kind of atmosphere," Mack said. "In football, there's so many people and all these things going on and a play will be successful, and you might do a good job or bad job. It's a lot of muddy middle ground. Wrestling was one on one, whatever you put into it, you're going to get out of it, you're going to see the results on a single match.
"Plenty of people are in this league doing very well that never were wrestlers. For me, it helped me."
Mack was ready to give up. He was sick of this wrestling nonsense. It wasn't fun and there was minimal payoff.
After his first day of wrestling camp, Mack called his parents to come pick him up. They gave him the worst possible response.
"Well," Mack remembered, "if that's what you want to do…"
Mack stayed and quickly proved he belonged in a conditioning activity that might have broken him just one day earlier.
Mack was paired with a lighter wrestler in a relay race to see who could run two miles the fastest while holding a 45-pound weight above their heads. Mack's partner started and immediately fell behind the rest. He wasn't strong enough. Frustrated, Mack took over and never looked back. He sprinted the rest of the way and beat every other tandem.
On his way to grab some water, Mack relayed a message to Becerra.
"Just so you know, I hate running, and I just wanted to get it out of the way. Might as well make the best of it, do my best and get it out of the way," Becerra recalled.
"He's always been a hard worker. He's not an overachiever. He's just a hard worker and he gets what he works hard for."
As Mack prepared this offseason to come back from a serious leg injury, Pettine, on multiple occasions, said the coaching staff would have to protect Mack from himself. If it were up to Mack, he probably would have been on the field for every single play of OTAs and mini-camp. The coaching staff couldn't just go on Mack's word; they had to interject and keep him fresh before training camp.
Outside of the Orange and Brown scrimmage, at which he dressed but did not participate in 11-on-11 drills, Mack didn't take a single day of veteran's rest during training camp. He was relentless, sprinting between drills and working to get stronger and stronger with each passing day.
"It's unbelievable how much he sweats during practice. I don't know if that's a correlation of how hard he practices, but he switches his pants midway through practice so the quarterback is not so sweaty," Bitonio said. "He practices hard all the time. He doesn't take reps off. He's always trying to get reps with the quarterback that's going to be out there.
"The way he prepares for the week, he's dead-eye focused and knows what he needs to do to perform at his best."
Mack solidified this reputation with teammates like Thomas during his rookie season. And, again, it involved the thing Mack likes to do the least.
Every time Mack made a mistake -- and there were a lot of them as a rookie -- he was forced to run a lap around the field. Instead of jogging, Mack sprinted and quickly rejoined his group.
"He was like a 400-meter runner that camp," Thomas said. "He got really good at running laps. He was really fast in the 400-meter dash."
Inside the film room and during the slower moments of practice, Thomas' dry sense of humor helped motivated Mack to work even harder at the finer points of his craft.
Over and over again, Mack would be called out in meetings by former Browns offensive line coach George Warhop. Playing on the offensive line is a game of centimeters, and Mack struggled initially with putting his hands in the perfect place. And, well, Warhop let him know about it in the way most offensive line coaches do.
Mack grew frustrated. He felt like he was being picked on. Surely, his teammates felt the same way.
"I asked Joe one day, how come 'Hop never gets on you about your hand placement,'" Mack said. "And Joe said, 'Well, my hand placement's pretty good. I do a pretty good job with it. You have to be perfect and you won't get yelled at."
"The biggest thing to be successful in anything you do is when you put time into something, do it well. Don't just punch a clock," Mack said. "When you're at practice, have a reason to go to practice and try to work on something at that practice. If you're watching film, make sure you're remembering something from it. Don't just sit in front of the screen and have it playing. Try to engage what you're doing.
"Whatever your job is, make sure when you're doing something, actually do something."
Bitonio's memories don't go back as far as the rest. Still, he clearly rattles off memorable Mack plays that no one other than his teammates saw on the practice fields in Berea. They're simple plays that could've ended when Mack, after making his first block, tripped and fell to the ground, but they end with Mack popping up, storming down the field and making another block.
In just one year, it's changed Bitonio's mindset. He wants to follow the road map Mack's laid out to become one of the best at his position.
"You can be a good center who makes his blocks and makes his calls," Bitonio said. "But the way he finishes plays, if he's even with another guy, I think that puts him ahead."