And he thought his day job was tough.
Roger Goodell was two hours into his attempt to summit Mount Rainier. It was dark, about 3 in the morning, and the NFL commissioner was staring at a challenge more daunting than labor peace in his league or handing out consistent, fair discipline to its players.
The light beam of Goodell's headlamp was shining into a scary abyss just before Disappointment Cleaver, the point at which the climb becomes a trickier push for the peak. A crevasse at least 150 feet deep was separating him from his rope leader, climbing expert Peter Whittaker. It was the kind of danger that can -- and has -- fatally swallowed a poorly prepared, disoriented or uncommitted climber.
"You know in football, there's always that one play that defines a game? I think for Roger, that was the moment that defined his climb. It was a little gut check," Whittaker said Thursday in a phone interview, back down near sea level after the expert climber and his renowned mountaineering partner, Ed Viesturs, successfully led first-time climbers Goodell, Seahawks coach Jim Mora and others to the 14,411-foot peak, the tallest point in the rugged Cascade range.
Whittaker climbs Rainier as easily as most people run through their neighborhood park. So he helped Goodell get through it.
He was about 30 feet ahead of and connected by rope to the 50-year-old commissioner, leading a 71/2-hour crampon stomp up the most heavily glaciered mountain in the continental United States. Suddenly, Whittaker felt the rope go taut at the crevasse.
Goodell had stopped.
"Are you 100 percent into this? You have to be. Right now," Whittaker firmly told the NFL's top man.
"Yeah," Goodell replied, somewhat unconvincingly.
Yet he stepped over the crevasse and continued on through what Viesturs called perfect climbing conditions. Now, Goodell can say what only about half of the approximately 9,000 who try to conquer Rainier each year can:
"I made it!"
"I think he suddenly realized what he was facing," Whittaker said. "He was maybe a little overwhelmed at the time.
"Yeah, up on top, I think there was a tear or two."
Goodell was safely back down Thursday, back into his professional life at a posh resort in Idaho for a conference with fellow commissioners of professional sports leagues.
"The commissioner, he did well. He really had to dig deep physically and mentally," said Viesturs, the only American to summit all 14 of the world's 26,000-plus-foot peaks without supplemental oxygen. "When he got to the top, he was pretty emotional. He told me it was one of the hardest things he's ever done.
"He was choked up. For a couple of minutes, he couldn't really talk."
And the 47-year-old Mora, a fitness nut who runs up a steep mountain trail near his suburban home multiple times a week?
"For me, it's been a lifelong dream to climb a mountain that loomed so large in my Seattle childhood," said Mora, who grew up around the city while his father was an assistant coach under Don James at the University of Washington before the younger Mora played for the Huskies.
"Plus, my fellow climbers and I had a powerful cause pushing us forward: United Way of King County's Response for Basic Needs."
As of Wednesday night, the climb had raised about $380,000 to provide food and housing and help getting government services.