Jim Mora nearly sprinted to the top. That's not some metaphor to explain how he became an NFL head coach at 42 or why you're certain to...

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KIRKLAND — Jim Mora nearly sprinted to the top.

That’s not some metaphor to explain how he became an NFL head coach at 42 or why you’re certain to hear him listed as a leading candidate for various coaching vacancies the next few months.

No, this is the top of an actual mountain we’re talking about. A peak just south of Interstate 90 — Tiger Mountain — and a 3-mile trail that is like a shot of whiskey in one critical way. It’s straight up.

Mora picked up the workout from Mark Pattison, his college roommate at Washington and a former NFL receiver. They run it every week, getting to the top in less than 40 minutes and coming down in about 25, a rapid-fire round trip that provides a snapshot of the compulsive, competitive drive that is Mora’s calling card.

Any Seahawk who went with Mora to the mountain saw that this offseason. Patrick Kerney lost his lunch before he got to the top. Marcus Trufant ran it once and decided that was enough. Mora beat them both to the top. Darryl Tapp and Jordan Babineaux, too.

Maybe that trip to the top of the mountain is a good metaphor to symbolize Mora’s route to the top of the coaching food chain because he’s a leader, but he’s not too far removed from the men on the sideline. He’s 46 years old, with some serious Type-A tendencies, an unending reservoir of energy and a motor that doesn’t stall, stutter or stop.

“He’s a high-energy guy, but what’s amazing is the consistency of that,” Kerney said. “Certain people make a great first impression and that impression sort of wanes as time goes on.

“The energy he had the day I met him, the day he signed as coach of the Atlanta Falcons, that energy has not waned a bit.”

Mora has become our high-voltage issue here in Seattle. Someone who joined the Seahawks staff to coach the secondary after being fired as Atlanta’s head coach and whose name was invoked often during the speculation of Tyrone Willingham’s future at Washington. Some UW fans handed out buttons bearing Mora’s name before the Huskies beat California earlier this season.

Everyone knows he’s a hot coaching prospect, and he has already been mentioned as a candidate for the vacancy at UCLA. Not everyone knows about the energy and enthusiasm that is the reason he is such a hot commodity.

That competitive drive was apparent way back when Mora was at Interlake High School in Bellevue, preparing for a playoff game against Issaquah. Teammate Steve Pelluer got his hands on some Issaquah stationery and wrote letters to certain Interlake players, deriding the team and the players. Mora was furious, but not for the reason you’d think. He was mad he didn’t get a letter before the game Interlake eventually won.

“I didn’t want to write it because I thought he could recognize my handwriting,” Pelluer said. “He was mad because he didn’t get this berating letter about how we were going to get crushed.”

That passion and pride is difficult to describe, impossible to fake and a reason so many players swear by him as a coach.

An American original

He’s not a junior.

Not technically. His middle name is Lawrence. After his grandfather. His father, who coached the Saints and the Colts, has a middle name of Earnest, and while he’ll refer to himself as Jim Mora Sr., that’s just to make sure everyone is clear on who’s who.

His son is an original. No doubt about that. The son of a coach who had worked at three schools in the eight seasons before he came to Seattle in 1975 as an assistant under Don James at Washington.

Mora arrived as an eighth-grader, attended Hyak Junior High in Bellevue and played three sports for Bruce Brown, a fellow who still calls Mora “Jimmy.”

“You just liked him right now, Day 1,” Brown said. “He was a great teammate, and that might be the best compliment I can ever give kids.”

Mora could play running back but his junior-high team had a couple of pretty good ones, so he played tight end. When his dad was able to get free to watch a game, Brown made sure Jimmy got three carries. He scored twice.

Defense was the kid’s signature, though. He was a fearsome hitter in the backfield at Interlake.

“He loved being a safety and coming up and cracking on people,” said Pelluer. “He didn’t want people to help the other team up. He wanted to intimidate people.”

Mora walked on at Washington, playing special teams and some backup linebacker. He had grown up in this game. He was a ball boy at the Rose Bowl and later with the Seahawks after his dad went to work for Jack Patera.

“He was on track to be a head coach from Day 1,” said Pattison.

James coached that Washington team from a tower, emblematic of a generation of coaches who kept a firm distance. Mora is the kind of guy who’s hip-deep in the enthusiasm and the energy of the players on his sideline.

“I don’t know if we’re in his image or he’s in our image,” safety Brian Russell said. “But I think he’s very similar to a player.”

A coach’s employment depends on his ability to put his players in the right positions with the proper instructions. He’s there to provide answers, especially in the secondary where assignments and responsibilities are so fluid.

“He’s just really responsive to any questions or issues you have,” Russell said. “You bring something you feel is a gray area and he will go solve the problem.”

Hooting doesn’t defend a third-down pass. Hollering doesn’t stop the fullback during a goal-line stand. It’s the combination of Mora’s red-hot fire poker of enthusiasm and his ability to give proper marching orders that distinguishes him.

“Everybody talks about how cool he is,” safety Deon Grant said. “But it’s even better when you’ve got a coach who’s cool but knows his stuff. I can’t say I have went into one game not having great preparation during the week.”

Background noise

Mora spent one year coaching in college and then he went to the San Diego Chargers in 1985, where one of his responsibilities was keeping the soda machine full.

He has been in the NFL ever since. He has coached the Saints defensive backs and coordinated the 49ers defense, his charisma and communication skills becoming his calling card.

That’s why his silence speaks so loudly. He did not respond to interview requests for this story. To talk about himself would risk sounding like a self-promoter, or worse yet, a coach coveting another’s job.

Better to stay silent.

He led the Falcons to the NFC Championship Game in 2004, his first year with the franchise, but the next two years his team went 3-7 in the month of December, failed to make the playoffs both years and then came last year’s radio interview on KJR-AM in which he proclaimed the Washington coaching job as his dream destination. That didn’t go over well down South. Not even after Mora said he was joking on the air with Hugh Millen, another college roommate.

After Atlanta let him go, Mora became a finalist for the Dolphins’ head-coaching job. The New York Giants expressed interest in him as a defensive coordinator, too, but he came to Seattle, injecting a little enthusiasm and a whole lot of confidence into a defensive backfield that is emboldened with some swagger these days.

“What I see Jim doing is having fun this year,” Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said. “And he’s a great communicator.”

He’s someone who speaks the players’ language. A coach who downloaded specific songs for his players to warm up to when he was in Atlanta. Someone who challenges his players and challenges himself.

The kind of guy who runs up Tiger Mountain every week, usually starting at 5:30 in the morning, a miner’s headlamp to light the way and Pattison at his side. It’s that competitive drive and determination that will have him back on top of a football team before too long.

Danny O’Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com