Mahler has an approach that has made him one of the most popular and influential voices in Seattle sports. It also has made him one of the most polarizing — even in the world of sports-talk radio, which is known for its large personalities.
He goes by a few names, although most people know him by one.
To his wife, Gina, and former Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren he is David Mahler. To old buddies he is Dave. To just about everyone else he is Softy, the loud, impulsive and passionate sports-radio personality at KJR who describes his style as being “a hyperactive, out-of-control tornado.”
The difference between David Mahler and Softy is so minimal that it can seem as if there isn’t one. But Gina is an expert on the subject.
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“The greatest thing about David is what you see is what you get,” she says. “There are no airs. It’s just him.”
She pauses, looks at him, smiles — the spousal equivalent of warning sirens and flashing red lights.
“Now, I will say this, and please don’t be offended,” she continues. “I don’t want this to be rude.”
“Here we go,” he says.
“When he’s on the show and when he’s with people, he’s kind of like the monkey that you throw peanuts at and he gets more wound up.”
He lowers his face so it’s practically touching his chicken sandwich. “Oh, my God,” he groans.
“But when he’s at home and it’s just the two of us and there’s not an audience and I’m not throwing peanuts at him, he is kind of chill.”
The key to Softy’s success is that he has never tired of catching (or throwing) peanuts. That approach has made him one of the most popular and influential voices in Seattle sports. It also has made him one of the most polarizing — even in the world of sports-talk radio, which is known for its large personalities.
But whether you are absorbed or infuriated when his engine starts firing, he already has won because he made you do the one thing he does as well as anyone: He made you care.
5 questions for Dave ‘Softy’ Mahler
Among his loyalists, Softy is beloved for his passion. He rants, raves, cries and shouts depending on how his teams — your teams — are doing. Fans relate to him because he cares as much as they do. Sometimes that’s the problem.
Among his critics, he can cross the line with personal attacks or rash reactions. Washington State and Oregon fans loathe him, and he gleefully antagonizes them. Gina wishes he would keep sports in better perspective, to which he counters, “It’s not just a game. It’s never just a game.”
And even Gina concedes the importance of that conviction. “It’s what makes him so phenomenal on the air, because they are so, so important to him,” she says.
The problem is the off switch. Best anyone can tell, he doesn’t have one. Work-life balance? He doesn’t have that, either.
In February, he flew back from the Super Bowl in San Francisco after a week away from his wife. He got in Saturday morning. By Saturday afternoon, he was watching Washington play Arizona and tweeting updates to his 60,000 Twitter followers.
“I probably should have been with my wife,” he admits. “And I could tell in her voice that she was disappointed, and I don’t blame her. I felt bad for going. But in the end, I made the decision.”
He calls this his sickness, and it is a common ailment to anyone who is passionate about his or her job. He is so consumed by Twitter, Facebook and the shadow of the Internet that he can’t unplug, blurring the lines between work and hobby. He is captive to his obsession and the convenience of appeasing it.
Nineteen years ago, he was a 24-year-old radio host with a funny nickname but not much traction. He had gotten that nickname as an intern just a few years earlier when one of KJR’s producers thought his pudgy configuration made for good nickname fodder, and so … Softy.
In 1997, Mike Gastineau, the longtime KJR personality, had an idea. What if Softy made a bet on the air? What if he declared that he would ride a bike to Pullman if the Cougars beat his Huskies in the Apple Cup?
So he did.
And then Washington State won.
The next summer, Softy began riding. He did shows in towns along the way before pedaling into Pullman on Day 5. He rode into Martin Stadium, handed Washington State coach Mike Price a football and informed him that he had won the battle, but not the war.
That night he did a show from a bar, The Coug, amid heckling WSU fans. It had been 67 years since the Cougars had played in the Rose Bowl before ending that streak the year before. The first 67 pitchers of beer are on me, he shouted.
“The place went from absolutely hating me to loving me,” he says. “It went bananas.”
What’s more revealing — that a 20-something Softy spent nearly $500 as part of a crazy bet, or that it’s easy to imagine 42-year-old Softy doing the same thing?
Ever since he has morphed into one of the Apple Cup’s starring characters. Loved by most Washington fans, hated by most Cougars.
He has been kicked out of the Pullman Holiday Inn because of disparaging comments he made about WSU, and he half-jokingly offered his listeners a $20 bounty to whoever pulled down the WSU flag when ESPN’s Saturday morning pregame show, “College GameDay” visited UW.
“He’s like the wrestling heel,” says Ian Furness, a Washington State fan and KJR personality. “He’s the perfect rival.”
If Washington State fans offered the honorary title of most hated Husky, Softy’s lengthy resume would sit at the top of the pile. It’s not just that he’s the Husky with the loudest microphone, or that he enjoys taking shots at the Cougars. It’s that he didn’t even go to UW.
As a sophomore at Bellevue Community College, he got a job as an intern at KJR and decided a foot in the door was all he needed. Also, he readily admits he never had the grades to get into UW.
“Does it bother me when people bring that up?” he says, his voice dialing up into the one you hear on the radio. “Honestly, a little bit. They know it’s the one thing that can push my buttons.”
But he might be even more reviled among Oregon fans.
Once, when Oregon was playing a bowl game in Seattle, he painted his face gold and purple and showed up while Oregon was practicing at Bellevue High School, his alma mater. But the temptation for absurdity was too persuasive. He also walked into Bellevue’s locker room and saw Oregon coach Mike Bellotti, who succinctly told him to get the hell out of there.
“I have to weigh this all the time,” says Kevin Shockey, Softy’s longtime producer. “Part of what makes him good at his job is being insane, being out of control and going too far.”
When Oregon loses, Gina begs him to keep quiet, stay off Twitter, take the high road. But he can’t help himself.
During UW football games, he sits in the press box so he can take notes for the postgame show. But he has nearly been thrown out for yelling and pounding tables.
When he was in his 20s and the Sonics were in town, he questioned coach George Karl about not playing center Ervin Johnson more.
Karl’s explanation: “The basic reason is we play small all the time, and personally I think you’re an (expletive).”
Softy: “Thank you.”
Karl: “You’re welcome.”
Softy plays the audio of that exchange every once in a while.
There are only two things that can’t happen on his show, and both inform everything he does: He can’t be boring, and he can’t lack energy.
“If I ever lose my passion or my edge for the topics I cover, I’m dead,” he says. “I’d be no good to anybody.”
For all his quirks, Softy is effortlessly transparent and self-deprecating. Part of his charm is his willingness to admit things like, “I drive my wife nuts at games. Absolutely nuts.” Or to say, “I heard fat ass a lot on Twitter.” (That statement is in the past tense because he has gone from 270 pounds to about 185, on a careful diet plan).
He occasionally fills in on national shows, but it’s weird listening to him. He doesn’t sound like Softy; the energy doesn’t crackle with the same voltage if he’s not talking about the Huskies, Mariners or Seahawks.
Even his would-be enemies appreciate that about him.
“People don’t always believe me when I say this, but I think he’s great,” says Jeff Nusser, the editor of CougCenter.com who admits he’s of the minority opinion among Coug fans. “I love his passion.
“And the way he wears his emotions on his sleeve makes it all that much more fun when he’s on the short end of it — listening to him and Hugh Millen on my drive home from my dad’s after the 2012 Apple Cup is one of my favorite things ever.”
Softy says he is a homer, not an apologist, the difference being that although he openly roots for his teams, he also criticizes them.
He has ripped the Mariners plenty and cried after the Seahawks won the Super Bowl. He relentlessly backs the return of the Sonics and the project to build a new arena because he misses his team. (He also has launched personal attacks against Seattle Times reporters and publisher Frank Blethen over coverage of the proposed arena.)
The exception to his root-and-rip rule is UW basketball coach Lorenzo Romar, who Softy says he has a hard time going after because he is such a quality person.
One of the most amazing things about Softy is that he has never lost the innocence of a fan. He is a die-hard “Star Wars” fan — his house is stuffed with collectibles — but he would never want to be in one of the movies because the proximity would “kind of ruin it.”
And yet that proximity has never bothered him with sports. He once got into a shouting match with Ken Griffey Jr. and still gushes that Junior is his favorite player. As close as he has gotten to the heart of the thing — and sports can be ugly from that intimacy — his fandom remains unpolluted.
His wife says social media is the worst thing that ever happened to him. Her favorite line of his is, “It’s for the show, honey.”
She wishes he had a hobby other than sports, but he feels naked if he doesn’t watch a game.
“I can’t get away from it,” he says, as he pulls out his phone to see if former UW basketball player Brandon Roy has texted him about their segment on the show that afternoon. “I say that I will, but I don’t. Maybe for an hour or so I can do it, but then I panic. What the hell kind of weirdo does that? What kind of sickness?”
Attempts to scale back haven’t worked. He loves seeing movies but still checks his phone during them. Same when he’s on vacation in Maui.
“I’ll get the elbow to the ribs,” he says. “I think I’ve heard the words, ‘Get off your phone’ more times than I’ve heard ‘I love you.’ And I totally deserve it!”
But he is proud of a small victory. When UW played Stanford in men’s basketball this year, Softy and Gina celebrated Gina’s birthday at dinner with family. As much as it pained him, he stayed out of the game conversation.
“I wasn’t tweeting about the game because I was having dinner with you guys,” he says, turning to Gina.
Gina playfully glares at him, the sirens and lights flashing once again.
“No,” she says, “but you did yell at the manager because he didn’t have the game on in the restaurant.”
You want an off switch? That’s the best David Mahler can do.