The topic today is work. Hard work. Relentless, indefatigable work. The level of work that turns heads in the gym and lifts eyebrows on...

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KIRKLAND — The topic today is work. Hard work. Relentless, indefatigable work. The level of work that turns heads in the gym and lifts eyebrows on the field.

The kind of hard work that makes players great.

In the NFL, the gold standard for work rate always belonged to longtime San Francisco wide receiver Jerry Rice. In the solitude of the weight room and the quiet of the practice field, Rice built himself into the greatest pass catcher in the history of the game.

Almost every day, while an assistant coach with the 49ers, Jim Mora watched Rice’s grueling training regimen. He told himself that when he became a head coach, he was going to show his players the tapes of Rice’s practices and challenge them to be like Rice.

“Nobody matched up with him,” Mora said of Rice. “His work ethic was legendary.”

When he became the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons in 2003, Mora went looking for the next Jerry Rice. He taped all his players looking to see who worked and who cruised.

“We would pull out the tapes to show the players how I wanted them to practice, and the guy we always pulled out was Pat Kerney,” Mora said. “He was the guy who was always going 100 miles an hour.”

At team meetings, Mora showcased film of Kerney the way Martin Scorsese might showcase Robert De Niro.

“I showed them Pat, and I told the players that this is the way I want practice to be,” Mora said. “I don’t want him to stand out in our practices. I wanted everybody to look like that guy.”

But defensive end Pat Kerney always stood out. When he became available in the free-agent market last winter, the Seahawks were willing to pay some $19.5 million for his unquenchable drive.

They paid him because they knew he was as close to a guarantee as they could get in this business. He can give them the pass rush from the corner that a beaten-up Grant Wistrom didn’t give them last year. And he can give them energy like a six-pack of Rock Star on an empty stomach.

Kerney, like Rice, has worked himself into greatness. He went from a walk-on at Virginia to a first-round draft choice in Atlanta to the Pro Bowl. That just doesn’t happen.

“The great ones hold themselves to a higher standard,” Mora said. “Guys like Pat, Jerry, [former Niners safety] Ronnie Lott. What’s made them great is that they consistently give tremendous all-out effort. They hold themselves accountable on every play.

“Some players might ease up on a few plays, but the great ones, they never take a play off. In Pat’s case, he refuses to relent. He can go and go and go and go. I think most of the great ones have that relentlessness.”

And yet, when he is asked about his work ethic, when you ask Kerney where it came from and why, at age 30, it still percolates inside of him, he shrugs. He doesn’t understand why it should be such a big deal.

“Growing up playing little league soccer I was taught if the whistle didn’t blow you keep going,” Kerney said after a recent Seahawks practice. “To me, that’s the way sports are designed. And to be honest I think having a good motor needs to be the rule in sports, not the exception.

“I think it can be contagious. On other teams I’ve played with in the past, I would like to think that I was able to help other guys push themselves a little bit more and get more out of themselves.

“To me, football’s kind of an exercise in futility, because you’re trying to be perfect. You expect to be perfect, while knowing you’ll never get there. No one ever has. No one ever will, but I’m always working toward that. That’s what I’m always demanding of myself, knowing that it won’t happen.”

Kerney fits the Tim Ruskell profile. A player who is as good in the locker room as he is on the field. A “character guy” who makes the players around him better.

Ruskell, the Hawks general manager, has an eye for ethics. He collects players with the combination of skills and intangibles like Kerney, Lofa Tatupu, Chuck Darby.

“I knew Pat would fit our culture,” Ruskell said. “You need a leader in every meeting room, and Pat is one of those guys. I was with him for a year in Atlanta, and he was the leader of the group. He made sure everybody ran hard through every drill at every practice. He was the vocal leader, as well as the inspirational leader, as well as the example-setter.

“Those are my favorite players. Talented guys who give you all they’ve got. Everything he does, it’s just full of go. There’s no jog through or ‘I’m tired.’ He’s gifted and then he works as hard as you can possibly work to keep himself in shape and ready to play. What more could you get out of a player?”

With Kerney, the Hawks know they’ll get everything he has. And they expect he will become contagious.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or