Dave Hoffmann stands alone in the middle of a room with 20 doors. He is told that, at any moment, two assailants will enter and attack. He does not know which doors they will use. He does not know when. His objective is to subdue the assailants as efficiently as possible. Same as at Washington, his objective is to win.

And, if he’s being honest, he enjoys the unknown. He enjoys the challenge of it. It reminds him of his previous life as a middle linebacker — anticipating the snap, adapting and attacking, converting clear thoughts into thunderous collisions. He is 27 years old, the former Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year, 215 pounds of meticulously forged muscle. He is ready. He is unafraid. He is a heavy hammer, set to swing.

More than two decades later, he’ll call these “good times.”

Eventually, of course, the doors do open. Hoffmann adapts and attacks. He uncoils on his opponents, like a rattlesnake strike.

This is what it takes to train for the United States Secret Service.

The drill starts, then ends less than 10 seconds later.

· · ·

The most famous coach in Husky history coined “The Holy S**t Philosophy.”

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Don James taught it, and Dave Hoffmann lived it — and loved it.

“It was a beautiful thing,” Hoffmann tells The Seattle Times. “It was just the simple fact of, when your opponent’s done with the play or the game or whatever, that should be all he’s thinking: ‘Holy s**t. That was more than I ever expected, and I don’t ever want to do that again.’

“That kind of encapsulated what was already going through my head. He articulated it for me … and I loved it. I loved it. Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Hoffmann loved it before he could consciously define what “it” was. He loved it the second he started playing football as an eighth grader in Garland, Texas, in 1983. He loved it when he roamed the muddy mess between the hashes at Pioneer High, after his family moved west from Texas to San Jose a year later.

In his own words, he loved the ability to be devastating.

“That’s showing your true self, when you’re out there and getting to do your thing,” Hoffmann says. “In society, as we should, we act polite and friendly to one another. On the field, with your buddies, it’s just another aspect of life that you don’t get to turn on very often. So it’s a special time.”

The Huskies’ homecoming photo focuses on their toughness. Witness the Don’s defense, from left: James Clifford, Chico Fraley, Dave Hoffmann, Jaime Fields and Brett Collins, around Coach Don James.
The Huskies’ homecoming photo focuses on their toughness. Witness the Don’s defense, from left: James Clifford, Chico Fraley, Dave Hoffmann, Jaime Fields and Brett Collins, around Coach Don James.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Hoffmann found a second (or third?) home in Seattle; that he led the Huskies in tackles in 1990, 1991 and 1992; that his 46 career tackles for loss still ranks sixth in school history; that he was a consensus All-American in his redshirt senior season.

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Mike Rohrbach — a former Husky linebacker and the team’s chaplain during Hoffmann’s UW career — says that “Dave was just all about the intensity of playing inside linebacker for the Washington Huskies.” While he did, the Dawgs won a national championship in 1991 and appeared in three consecutive Rose Bowls. They inflicted their philosophy on overwhelmed opponents.

They were devastating, and so was Dave.

“I specifically remember a play at Arizona State,” Rohrbach says. “One of their running backs comes through the hole and Hoff hit him, and he came off to the sideline and I jumped on him and was like, ‘Dude, that was a rattlesnake strike.’

“He struck him, and the guy just went flat down.”

Like most others in his era, Hoffmann struck with his forehead first. It’s what he was trained to do. Former UW linebacker James Clifford says that “his forehead would bleed all the time. It didn’t matter. As soon as it peeled a little bit, he would tear it open again. In the first part of spring, the first part of two-a-days, when fall started up, you could count on Dave’s forehead being bloody.”

Hoffmann was a bloody, brutal 230-pound battering ram, blitzing with reckless abandon. He was a Husky hammer, set to swing. Rohrbach laughs about a photo he took of his fellow No. 54 that still hangs on the wall in his office. It captures Dave, at the Rose Bowl, with blood running like a red river down his nose. And in this case, there’s a catch:

The game hadn’t even started yet.

Dave Hoffmann was an inside linebacker for UW from 1989 to 1992. (Seattle Times file)
Dave Hoffmann was an inside linebacker for UW from 1989 to 1992. (Seattle Times file)

· · ·

Hoffmann walks into a Queen Anne coffee shop at precisely 11 a.m. on a February Thursday. He sports the same short brown hair he’s had since his sophomore year of high school, when his parents left him home alone and he buzzed his entire head. He wears khaki pants and a gray pullover that struggles to restrain his bulging biceps.

He’s in his 23rd — and perhaps final — year with the Secret Service.

At 49, it still looks like he could convincingly stuff the run.

“I consider myself blessed to be able to do what I can do today,” Hoffmann says. “I still work out all the time and I can run and do things. I just can’t go smashing guards and fullbacks all day long.”

He smiles, and clarifies.

“I probably could, but I could only do it twice a year.”

Hoffmann’s playing style was never conducive to a long career. Because he led with his forehead, he estimates that he went through “three or four” cracked helmets every season — and sustained significant neck injuries as a result. (Though, he notes, he managed to avoid major concussions.)

“I had a couple old-timer scouts tell me back in my junior year, ‘Dave, you’ll play (in the NFL). But you’re not going to last too long,’” Hoffmann recalls. “Back then you think you’re bulletproof.”

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By his senior season, the bullets started to sting. Besides his neck issues and a nagging groin injury, Hoffmann dealt with a crack in his left foot, as well as plantar fasciitis. He wore a protective boot throughout the week, practiced when he could, and played on Saturday. He was drafted in the sixth round of the 1993 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears, but he didn’t last long. By September 1995, his football career was over.

“After my junior year in college,” Hoffmann says, “I never felt quite the same.”

Hoffmann was 25 years old, with a sociology degree but suddenly no direction. He hadn’t planned for the rest of his life. He worked UW football games as an analyst and a sideline reporter. And at the same time, he struggled; he says “it was probably in the depression realm.” He faced constant reminders of a race he could no longer run.

“I had a hard time watching it on TV,” Hoffmann says. “I could watch a few plays and then that was it. There was something about it. Then the next year I could watch a series, and then by the end of the year I could watch most of a quarter.

“It was a couple years before I was really able to move on, I guess.”

Husky inside linebacker Dave Hoffmann (54) goes for a tackle against Nebraska in 1992. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)
Husky inside linebacker Dave Hoffmann (54) goes for a tackle against Nebraska in 1992. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

And, in other ways, he never did. He didn’t have to. Hoffmann found a second career that allowed him to utilize his physicality, that motivated him to work in a team environment to accomplish a greater goal. To put himself second. To prepare with a purpose. To adapt and attack. To win.

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He applied for local police departments and federal law enforcement agencies. The Secret Service organized an interview. Suddenly, Hoffmann was allowed to embrace another race.

“When you play football, everybody knows exactly who you are. There’s no hiding,” Hoffmann says. “It’s just, ‘What do you have, man?’ And you lay it all out there. It’s the same thing when you’re going through stuff in this job. Who wants to do it? Not everybody’s wired that way.”

Hoffmann was, and is.

· · ·

So, about the Secret Service:

There’s only so much Hoffmann can say.

He can confirm, for example, that his training lasted roughly six months — split between facilities in Laurel, Md., and Glynco, Ga., in 1998. He can add that it included hand-to-hand combat, firearms and driving training, runs through the woods, sprints, hills, and obstacle courses with ropes, bars and climbing that he sincerely says were “good fun.”

According to recent reports by Business Insider and the New York Times, Secret Service boot camp also entails work with role-players who create realistic threat scenarios, exercises inside a partial replica of Air Force One, water-based scenarios that include escaping an apparatus that simulates being trapped underwater in an overturned helicopter, and exposure to tear gas.

It’s not always good fun. It’s not a game. But Hoffmann immediately understood the stakes.

“I think you truly have to make your mind up before you go into something, that if I don’t make it out of here, it’s going to be because they hauled me off,” Hoffmann says. “It’s not going to be because I stepped away.

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“I think it’s similar to football in some regards. What you’re willing to give and commit to has to be something that you’ve already thought through.”

Granted, the Secret Service’s responsibilities include much more than protecting presidents. Fundamentally, it has two core missions: protections (involving elected leaders, visiting foreign dignitaries, facilities and major events), and investigations (safeguarding US payment and financial systems).

I think you truly have to make your mind up before you go into something, that if I don’t make it out of here, it’s going to be because they hauled me off.

From 2005 to 2011, Hoffmann served on the counter-assault team — an elite tactical unit that travels with the president. He says “that was probably the closest feel to playing football, because of the intensity of the training and how hard it was at times. They’re trying to make sure they have guys and girls that just won’t quit.”

Hoffmann has never quit — not now, and not then. It’s what made him a UW captain, and a special agent in the Secret Service. It’s what made him, according to Rohrbach, “one of the greatest leaders I’ve ever seen, on and off the field.” It’s what made him more than a forehead-bleeding, hard-charging Husky middle linebacker.

It’s not just that he wouldn’t quit. He held everyone else to the same standard.

“Dave was the best man at my wedding. He’s my best friend,” says Clifford, currently the director of strength and conditioning for the Seattle Mariners. “It’s from playing football and being together. But more so, it’s the man he is and the man he’s become and what he stands for.

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“He holds people to a bar and he doesn’t let them go below the bar. He doesn’t lower the bar for anybody.”

UW didn’t win back-to-back Rose Bowls by lowering the bar. And it didn’t just win because it had a 230-pound battering ram blitzing up the middle.

Hoffmann — a fierce friend, a selfless leader and the son of a Lutheran pastor — has always been so much more than the sum of his punishing parts.

“He’d bring it all,” Rohrbach says. “His intensity, his love for the game, his love for his teammates, his love of God, all packaged into one guy … it was a pretty powerful force.

“That’s what he was then, and that’s what he is now with the Secret Service.”

Linebackers James Clifford and Dave Hoffmann embrace following a ceremony honoring outgoing seniors on November 15, 1992. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)
Linebackers James Clifford and Dave Hoffmann embrace following a ceremony honoring outgoing seniors on November 15, 1992. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)

· · ·

He’s still standing in that room.

That’s life, after all. New challenges arrive without warning. You never know which door will open next.

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Only now, there’s an important difference:

Dave Hoffmann is not alone.

“It’s great to reminisce and talk about how things were, what we did and how we did it,” Clifford says of the bond with his UW teammates. “But now we get together and talk about our families, what our kids are doing, how they’re doing, and hardships that we have in life. Because life’s not easy. There’s a lot of things that come up and a lot of things you’ve got to deal with.”

New doors open every day — some more incomprehensible than others. On Feb. 7, 2018, Elle Hoffmann — Dave’s wife of more than 21 years — died by suicide following a years-long battle with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, stemming from an incident where she was hit by a drunk driver.

They met during a UW football game inside Husky Stadium in 1995. She was the mother of his children, Callie and Jaeger.

And then, at 48, she was gone.

“We never thought this was going to happen,” Hoffmann says. “There’s things in life that you’re going to go through. Some are great. Some are horrible, and you don’t know ahead of time. It’s probably good that you don’t because, my gosh, you don’t know how to prepare for it.

“She was a wonderful person and a great mom. We miss her, but I know she would want us to keep charging and doing our best and being the best people we can be.”

It isn’t easy, but Dave, Callie and Jaeger are charging ahead — adapting and attacking.

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And, at his lowest point, Hoffmann’s Husky teammates helped.

“The guys were there … instantly and always, and in exactly the right way,” Hoffmann says. “Like brothers. I’ve got two brothers, but a lot of these guys are just as much brothers as my own brothers. In the good times and bad, they’re right there.

“When guys like that say ‘I’ve got your back,’ it’s for real, and it’s special.”

Guys like James Clifford. Mark Brunell. Steve Emtman. Lincoln Kennedy. Shane Pahukoa. Jamal Fountaine.

When you have a bond with someone to where you can truly break down, or rejoice … that’s something powerful that we were able to cultivate at Washington.

For months, teammates continued to call and text. They sent messages on road trips and during lunch breaks at work. They said they’d be there if he needed to talk. They told him that they loved him. They proved, yet again, that it was never just a game.

“When you have a bond with someone to where you can truly break down, or rejoice — pull back the curtain and show what’s going on because you know that person loves you — that’s something powerful that we were able to cultivate at Washington,” Clifford says. “To this day, it’s lasted.”

Dave Hoffmann has lasted, too. Last September, he was transferred to the Secret Service’s Seattle field office. He moved from California to Washington (yes, for the second time). Now, he’ll be around for Husky football games. He can visit his brother, former UW defensive lineman Steve Hoffmann, for barbecues in Bellevue. He can shoot hoops with his nephews, Josh and Gabe, and dance with his niece, Emily. Steve laughs and says that “they all love their uncle Dave.”

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“It’s really like I’ve come full circle,” Dave Hoffmann says. “Being an empty nester now and with the kids in college, it’s kind of like one big loop.”

In May, Callie will graduate from Cal with a degree in political science. Jaeger is a redshirt freshman inside linebacker at Moorpark College, who plays a lot like his dad. From seventh through ninth grade, Dave also served as Jaeger’s defensive coordinator — constantly reminding him not to drop his head before he hits. Dave says that “I’m their dad, and that’s really — at the end of the day — everything.”

When he turns 50 in July, he’ll be eligible to retire.

And, if he’s being honest, Hoffmann isn’t entirely sure what the future holds. But his family, friends and teammates will face it with him.

So let the next door open.

He is ready. He is unafraid.