‘The Great Steve Largent’

When he retired after the 1989 season, Steve Largent was the NFL’s all-time leading receiver. His records have been broken, but Largent’s place in Seahawks history – and on the 35th Anniversary team – remains unchallenged.

When asked about the most-memorable moment in his 14-season career with the Seahawks, Steve Largent could have gone so many places, because he took himself and the team so many places.

Instead, the Hall of Fame wide receiver offered a response that shows the man was – and is – even better than the player.

“There are a number of things, and I would put them in different boxes,” Largent said during a recent interview from his office in Washington, D.C., where he is president and CEO of CTIA-The Wireless Association.

“But the thing I’m most proud of from my career in Seattle was that I played my entire career in Seattle, and I really appreciate that. It gave me a special connection with the city and the people and the team that you just don’t find very often with professional athletes today.

“But I have that. Maybe I didn’t make as much money. Maybe I didn’t go to the Super Bowl. But that is something that nobody can take away from you – that special chemistry that was developed over 14 years that I was in Seattle. That’s a good thing. I like that.”

When it was pointed out that he had just offered such a Largent-esque response, he laughed and offered, “I mean it, too. It’s not just fluff.”

The Seahawks’ 35th Anniversary team, as selected by the readers of Seahawks.com:

WR Steve Largent
LT Walter Jones
LG Steve Hutchinson
C Robbie Tobeck
RG Bryan Millard
RT Howard Ballard
TE John Carlson
WR Bobby Engram
WR Brian Blades
QB Matt Hasselbeck
RB Shaun Alexander
FB Mack Strong
DE Jacob Green
DT Joe Nash
DT Cortez Kennedy
DE Michael Sinclair
OLB Chad Brown
MLB Lofa Tatupu
ILB Fredd Young
OLB Rufus Porter
CB Marcus Trufant
CB Dave Brown
NB Shawn Springs
SS Kenny Easley
FS Eugene Robinson
Special Teams
K Norm Johnson
P Rick Tuten
KOR Steve Broussard
PR Nate Burleson
Largent traveled the same fluff-less path when it came to his most-memorable game. His pick, of course, was the upset of a 12-win Dolphins team at the Orange Bowl in the second round of 1983 playoffs, which took the Seahawks to the AFC Championship game and remains the only road playoff victory in franchise history.

“That was just really fun and memorable,” he said.

His lasting memory, however, is not rooted in the reason – or reasons – you might expect.

Sure, Largent mentioned his two big catches – his only catches of the game – on the fourth-quarter drive to the game-winning touchdown. But the moment Largent dwelled on from the 27-20 victory was something completely different.

“I can still remember coming out of the locker room before all the pre-game stuff,” he said. “I was in the tunnel and I was standing next to (guard) Robert Pratt. Robert looked up at the sky and he said, ‘This is going to be a great day for us.’ And it was raining. I’m like, ‘What in the world is he talking about? It’s raining. As a receiver, you don’t want the ball wet.’

“But what he was talking about was that we were used to playing in that stuff, and the Dolphins weren’t. So that’s a pretty special memory for me.”

When it came time to select the franchise’s 35th Anniversary team, the readers of Seahawks.com did the totally expected. Largent not only was voted to the team, he was the leading vote-getter with 5,004 – 832 more than defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy, who finished second overall; and 1,517 more than Brian Blades, who finished second among the wide receivers.

“I’m grateful,” said Largent, who will turn 57 in September. “And I think the older I get the more grateful I am. It’s nice to have people still have fond memories of my time in Seattle and my playing career.

“It certainly was a very, very special part of my life.”

Not to mention team history. Largent was a huge part of the Seahawks’ expansion team in 1976 from Game One, after coming to Seattle in an Aug. 26 trade with Houston. The Oilers were planning to cut the receiver from Tulsa who they had selected in the fourth round of the ’76 NFL Draft. Instead, they traded him for an eighth-round pick in the 1977 draft.

What Largent did over the next 14 seasons rewrote the receiving section in the NFL record book, and still boggles the imagination:

He retired after the 1989 season as the league’s all-time leader in receptions (819), receiving yards (13,089) and touchdown catches (100). Largent also held the marks for consecutive games with a reception (177); 50-catch seasons (10); and 1,000-yard seasons (eight). At the time, he was only the second player in NFL history to be the career leader in the Big 3 categories at the same time, joining former Green Bay Packers receiver Don Hutson (1945).

He led the Seahawks in receptions for 12 consecutive seasons (1976-87), including a career-high 79 in 1985 and an AFC-leading 71 in 1978. He also led the club in receiving yards in each of those dozen seasons, including a career-high 1,287 in 1985 and a conference-leading 1,237 in 1979.

He started more game (197) than any player in franchise history and ranks No. 3 in games played (200) behind nose tackle Joe Nash (218) and fullback Mack Strong (201), who also are on the 35th Anniversary team. Largent is second in touchdowns scored (101) and third in points scored (608) – behind two more members of the 35th Anniversary team, kicker Norm Johnson (810) and running back Shaun Alexander (672).

He averaged 23.5 yards on his 100 career TD catches, including a 31.5-yard average on 42 TD catches from 1977-81 and averages that exceeded 36 yards in 1978 (36.1) and 1979 (36.3).

He was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995, when he also became the first Seahawks player to have his number (80) retired.

He was voted to the Pro Bowl seven times, and All-Pro five times. He also was selected the team MVP five times, and a team captain 10 times.

He was selected to the NFL’s team of the decade for the 1980s.

He was the first inductee into the team’s Ring of Honor in 1989, when he also was the first recipient of the Steve Largent Award – which continues to be given annually to the player who exemplifies the spirit, dedication and integrity of the Seahawks.

He was selected the NFL Man of the Year in 1988.

Rather than stats, Largent relished the status accomplishments.

“Other contributions that I look at now – with the perspective of being out of the game for 21 years – have to do with the leadership that I was given and tried to earn as a team captain and leader of our offense and team as a whole,” Largent said. “Those are things I really appreciate now, and really enjoyed and really shaped my life in a lot of respects.”

It should never have happened. Any of it. From his first game in ’76, to his 100th TD catch in ’89, to his Hall of Fame induction in ’95.

“I never even dreamed of playing professional football, because that was so far outside the realm of my rational thinking,” Largent said with a laugh while thinking back to his formative years in Oklahoma. “We often imitated – ‘Largent back to pass.’ Or, ‘Largent cutting up the right side.’ – like you’re playing an NFL game.

“But to even think those thoughts, I never even knew anybody who has become a professional athlete and there were not any professional teams in Oklahoma at that time.”

So his sights were set on other goals.

“In high school, all I was really thinking about was getting a scholarship and trying to go to college so I could get an education and play a little football,” Largent said. “That was about as far as I would be willing to think. By my sophomore and junior years in college, there were some scouts who came around and said, ‘Hey, maybe this Largent has a chance.’

“That was the first time it ever even struck my consciousness that there may be a chance for me to play beyond college. But still I didn’t know. It was a naïve, innocent approach to the game that I had. Playing professional football was not something I had on my to-do list – or even wish list – for most of my life.”

So how did all of this happen to a supposedly too-small (5-11, 191), too-slow (4.6 seconds for 40 yards) kid from Tulsa – a player Raiders Pro Bowl cornerback Lester Hayes once dubbed “The Caucasian Clydesdale”? That answer is best supplied by those who played against Largent, and with him.

“I’ve observed and absorbed a lot from him,” Hayes later said of Largent, when he also altered his descriptive reference tag from “The Caucasian Clydesdale” to “The Great Steve Largent.”

Continued Hayes, “He’s totally different from the typical jock. He has no ego. That’s unique for someone with such accolades. His strength comes from a higher power. You can’t explain Steve Largent by computer – he doesn’t belong on an NFL field. You put his size and speed in an IBM computer up in Silicon Valley, it would chew up his data card and laugh.”

It was Largent, as it turned out, who usually got the last laugh.

“He ran stuff nobody had ever seen at the time. He’d run an out-hook-and-go; then a double-out-and-go; then a hook-and-cross; then a pivot-and-go,” Hayes said.

“Some of the most exotic pass routes in the NFL began with him.”

And Largent only continued to refine and redefine those routes. Just ask Albert Lewis, who was a Pro Bowl cornerback for the Kansas City Chiefs when Largent was running all those routes for the Seahawks.

“I study wide receivers as much as anybody, and Steve Largent never ran the same route the same way two weeks in a row,” Lewis once said. “And that was amazing. You’re preparing for him to do something off a move, then he’d break another way and make the reception.

“You really couldn’t get a read off him.”

Paul Johns knew of Largent when he arrived as a rookie free agent in 1981, because he also had gone to Tulsa and he also played wide receiver. But it was seeing Largent work in practice every day that made Johns a true believer, and gave him an appreciation for Largent’s unique attributes.

“I’d watch him in practice and I was just in awe,” said Johns, now the team’s assistant director of community outreach after a neck injury ended his career during the 1984 season.

“I’d watch him run a route, try to emulate it. But the first time I’d run the route, I’d trip and fall.”

That’s because Largent had physical features that played into running those routes Hayes and Lewis referred to. Hayes always pointed to Largent’s strong ankles, which allowed him to make cuts at full speed. Johns added Largent’s slightly bowed legs, which gave him a lower center of gravity; and loose hips, which allowed his upper body to remain straight while his legs turned – and vice versa.

“I used to love to watch him run routes,” Johns said. “Steve would turn guys around. A defensive back would turn his back like he was getting ready to cover a go-route, and Steve would stop and run an out-route. He could do that because of those ankles, and legs and hips.”

Largent also was more than just a student of the game. He earned his PhD in film study.

“The biggest thing with Largent was in the film room,” Johns said. “He studied his opponent, just like they studied him – but in even greater detail. He knew the defensive back’s weaknesses. He knew how deep he needed to take a route before they would turn their shoulders to run with him. So he knew how to set guys up.

“Just like they say, ‘You never really sign your name the same,’ Steve would just make little subtle changes in his routes. You’d watch the replay and you can’t see the subtle movements he made to turn a guy around. But you’d see how open he would get and you knew why.

“It’s the little subtle things that made him great. He’d concentrate on the little things, and then the big things would happen.”

Then there was the competitive side of Largent, which did not match his blond-haired, blue-eyed, All-American-boy façade.

“Steve had a fire in him that was second to none,” Johns said. “Then he had immense and unmistakable concentration. When the ball was in the air, he felt that ball was his.”

But Largent also was the type of player – and person – who became even larger than the impressive stats he compiled on the field. Down after down. Game after game. Season after season.

Nate Burleson knows. He is the punt returner on the 35th Anniversary team, and now plays wide receiver for the Detroit Lions. But Burleson also grew up in the Seattle area, watching No. 80 take the position he would eventually play to unprecedented heights.

“I was a Largent fan growing up,” said Burleson, who was born in 1981 – when Largent’s career already was heading into the direction of Canton, Ohio, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“I didn’t know much about him as far as the technical side, I just knew he was the guy you wanted to have on your jersey when you were seen out. When you talked about wide receivers, Steve Largent was the guy you were referring to if you weren’t talking about Jerry Rice. In my era, it was either you’re talking about Jerry Rice or you’re talking about Largent.”

Or, comparing the two, since it was Rice who eventually ended up with the records for receptions, receiving yards and TD catches that Largent once held.

“Steve is really the only guy on an opposing team that, when we played, I was watching,” Rice once said. “He had a lot of influence on our offense, on how our receivers set up the routes. At least that’s what I was told.

“I really respect the guy.”

Told about Rice’s praise, and the possible parallels in their games, Largent laughed and offered, “There are no similarities. None whatsoever. Jerry Rice played the way I wished I could have.”

But Burleson can relate to what Rice was saying. It was after he became an NFL receiver, and especially when he joined the Seahawks in 2006, that his appreciate of Largent grew.

“Once I signed with the Seahawks, I did some research about the overall understanding of the Seattle Seahawks organization,” Burleson said. “I gained a lot more respect for Steve, just for the simple fact that I began to understand the technical side.”

Largent’s post-football career has been almost as notable. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1994-2002. He ran for governor of Oklahoma. He was even selected to People magazine’s list of “Most Beautiful People” in 1996. He has been with CTIA-The Wireless Association, which represents all sectors of wireless communications, since 2003.

His current job requires Steve and his wife, Terry, to live in the D.C. area. But they still consider Oklahoma home and will move back fulltime once he retires, in large part to be closer to their four children – Kyle, 31; Casie, 29; Kelly, 26; and Kramer, 25 – and four grandchildren.

“It has been an interesting life,” Largent said.

Not to mention quite a career.