In 1976, the Seattle Seahawks’ first season, the team picked up Greg Collins, a linebacker waived by San Francisco.
Collins arrived the day of an exhibition game.
“Go in for Coffield,” the defensive coordinator told him.
“Great,” Collins said.
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He started onto the field, then stopped and turned.
“Who’s Coffield?” he said.
On an expansion football team, players get thrown together, from lots of different places.
But the first Seahawks had one thing in common: They needed something after football. Players made too little to be set.
Eight players formed the team’s original linebacker corps. After football they became: Actor. Teacher. Pastor. Counselor. Firefighter. Three went into business.
Four decades later — as Seattle enters the playoffs with high hopes and a record tied for league best — their stories speak to a team’s humble beginnings and its players’ second acts.
Training camp was in Cheney — hot, remote Cheney. The head coach, Jack Patera, remembers 112 players taking the field: “It was a zoo. You didn’t know who they were. You taped their names on the front of their helmets.”
Mike Curtis was an exception. Everyone knew who he was. He’d been a four-time Pro Bowler with the Colts and was among the game’s toughest linebackers, which in the era of Butkus and Nitschke, is saying a lot.
After welcoming the team, Patera did something he’d seen Bud Grant do in Minnesota: He said that if any player had brought a firearm to camp, he should drop it off for safekeeping.
“I never really expected anyone to bring a pistol or anything,” Patera says. “But right after the meeting here comes Mike Curtis knocking at my door, and he says, ‘Here’s my gun.’ ”
Curtis became one of the team’s three captains.
His first week of practice, Collins was getting yelled at by Larry Peccatiello, the linebackers coach. A bird flew over and let loose. Collins saw Peccatiello get hit; he watched it run down the coach’s shoulder.
“It was a sign of something,” Collins says. “I just haven’t figured out what.”
Ed Bradley came over from the Steelers, where he’d backed up Jack Lambert, Jack Ham and Andy Russell. The odds of cracking that lineup? Not good. So Bradley asked to be in the veteran allocation draft, in which existing teams made some players — those deemed expendable — available to expansion teams.
Bradley remembers Seattle’s coaches riding the players: “You guys are a bunch of losers. The only reason you’re here is no one else wanted you.” Hearing this, the players would whisper among themselves: “The same could be said for our coaching staff.”
In Pittsburgh, veteran players ran what Bradley calls “the turkey scam.” Bradley brought this over to Seattle. Through word-of-mouth — ideally, untraceable — conspirators let it be known that a local grocery store was giving out Thanksgiving turkeys to any Seahawk. All you had to do was show up and ask.
Rookies were the usual victims. They’d show up, ask for a free bird and get a confused stare. But in Seattle — and there’s glee in Bradley’s voice as he says this, even with four decades gone by — “we also got an assistant coach.”
Bradley became another of the team’s captains.
For most of the 1976 season, the starting linebackers were Curtis, Bradley and Ken Geddes. All had come via the veteran allocation draft, a process one team’s trainer called “more secretive than the Normandy invasion.”
The order in which the two expansion teams — Seattle and Tampa Bay — selected players from other clubs wasn’t made public. But Seattle’s top pick was Geddes, a three-year starter for the Los Angeles Rams.
Rams coach Chuck Knox told Geddes on the down low, to help Geddes with negotiating leverage. Because the college draft came later, Geddes was the Seahawks’ first-ever draft pick, without the fans ever knowing.
The team’s first general manager, John Thompson, says his assistant had been with the Rams and was “very high on Ken. He knew what he could do.” Plus, Thompson says, the team “put a lot of emphasis on character.”
Geddes grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., the fourth of 17 kids. Before he was a teen, he worked after school at a door manufacturer and a soda bottler. He picked blackberries and sweet potatoes. He helped his mom do other people’s laundry. “It was something that we did,” Geddes says. “I never thought about being poor.”
Then his mother became pregnant again. The baby was stillborn, and his mom died from an infection. Geddes was 12.
In seventh grade, he quit going to school every day. A math teacher suggested Boys Town, the Nebraska school mythologized in film, with Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan, saying: “There isn’t any such thing in the world as a bad boy.” Geddes had seen the movie. He wanted to go.
At 13, he boarded a bus, alone. He arrived, west of Omaha, to discover Catholics were real. He’d never seen one — and figured the movie had made that part up. Once settled, Geddes flourished. He played on the basketball and football teams — state champions, both — and joined the student government, working his way up to commissioner. As a senior he ran for mayor of Boys Town, losing by one vote.
He went on to college, at Nebraska, where he played nose guard and linebacker, and earned a degree in education.
Geddes played eight years in the NFL; his biggest contract was $250,000, spread over three years. He worked the offseasons — in Seattle, as an assistant manager at Jack in the Box. He also secured a real estate license. He planned for life after football, determined not to lose all he’d gained. “I knew what it was like, not to have,” he says.
In the veteran allocation draft, Don Hansen came to Seattle from Atlanta, Ken Hutcherson from Green Bay.
Jim Zorn, the Seahawks’ first quarterback, remembers Hutcherson’s arrival. His T-shirt said: “Going to Seattle to do God’s Battle.” During the preseason he hurt his knee and went on injured reserve.
Hansen remembers running onto the Kingdome’s fake turf his first exhibition game: “I hooked my toe and fell flat on my face.” He was traded to Green Bay before the regular season started.
That left, as the main backups, Collins, Randy Coffield and Sammy Green. The latter, both rookies, went from rivals — Green played at Florida, Coffield at Florida State — to roommates. Green was among those suckered into asking for a free turkey.
“I was more inquiring than demanding,” he says.
That first year, the Seahawks went 2-12. Even so, Peccatiello says, the fans were as passionate then as now: “They would cheer everything. They might even cheer a dropped pass.”
But many of the players were accustomed to winning. Bradley had won two Super Bowls with the Steelers, Collins a national championship at Notre Dame.
And then there was Mike Curtis. He’d played with Bubba Smith and Johnny Unitas. His interception, with 59 seconds left, had led the Colts past the Cowboys in Super Bowl V. “He was a legend,” Collins says.
Curtis was now 33, past his prime. Two images defined him — a leaping tackle of Roman Gabriel around his head (imagine the fine these days), and a jarring hit on a fan who ran onto the field. Old teammates say Curtis was a curious blend — irascible and intellectual, intense and shy. “Just a gentleman — one of the nicest people I ever met,” Green says.
Curtis prized independence and will. His autobiography, “Keep Off My Turf,” describes his first semester at Duke: He got three F’s (calculus, zoology, French), two D’s (English, history), and one A — in physical education. The athletic department prescribed more PE classes. Curtis refused: “I wasn’t taking the Mickey Mouse route.” Shunning “snap courses,” he not only earned his degree, he made the dean’s list.
His first year in Baltimore, rookies “were made to do stupid, silly things, usually in the nude.” Curtis refused: “I wasn’t going to put up with that crap.”
Twice, he crossed the picket line when NFL players went on strike. The game had “minor inconveniences,” he wrote, but players were blessed. When he was the sole veteran to report, “I sat down and ate my meal alone.”
On the Seahawks in 1976, Curtis had the second-most tackles, with Bradley third. That year, Seattle played at Tampa Bay. Both teams were 0-5. The day was hot and the game ugly, with 35 penalties assessed. With 42 seconds left, Seattle up three, Tampa Bay attempted a field goal that threatened overtime. Curtis blocked the kick.
It wasn’t the Super Bowl, it was the Expansion Bowl, but Curtis walked off a winner.
Greg Collins grew up in Michigan, one of six boys. At Notre Dame he earned a business degree and captained the Irish under Ara Parseghian. He was big — 6-3, 227 pounds — and tough. He was not fast.
As a rookie for San Francisco in 1975, he played every game but did not start. He was a regular for Seattle in 1976, but did not start. 1977 figured to be his year: The Seahawks had traded Ed Bradley after their first season, opening the way for Collins.
At the end of training camp, players liked to get out of Cheney — hot, remote Cheney — fast. Patera knew this. When camp broke in 1977, he told the players: Be safe on the roads.
Collins had a fast car. Lots of players wanted that one passenger seat in his yellow Porsche 911S, but the player who asked first was Zorn — the starting quarterback.
“I’ll give my version,” Zorn says, of what happened next.
They picked up sandwiches to go, but Collins was casual as could be, in no hurry. When they reached the car, their teammates had left, heading west on I-90. Collins pulled out driving gloves. Putting them on took “about two minutes” as Collins stretched the gloves over each finger, “like he was in a movie.” Collins looked at Zorn and smiled.
“We get going, and we are flying, and I’m thinking this is great.” How fast were they flying? (“About 100,” Collins says. “About 130,” another teammate guesses.) It was great, Zorn says, until they began passing teammates — using the road’s shoulder.
When the Porsche caught up to Patera, Collins slowed down — but still passed. Zorn looked over: “I wave, with a sheepish grin.”
Patera, watching the Porsche zoom by, couldn’t help but think: “‘After the speech I just gave them?’”
The next day, Patera cut Collins. He never became a starter.
(Recently, hearing Zorn’s version, Collins laughed and said, “That might be what Jim remembers, but I’ve never had driving gloves — never, ever.”)
Growing up in Fort Meade, Fla., Sammy Green loved to read and write. But come high school, everyone knew him for football. Football took over.
He left the University of Florida without a degree, then played four seasons with Seattle, another with Houston, and two more in the USFL. His highest salary “might have been $55,000 or $60,000,” he says.
After football, he worked on an irrigation crew in Alabama, listening as others, not knowing he had played, talked pro football; they mulled injuries and betting lines, dissecting players “like they’re horses.” He did a little coaching — some high school, some college. Then he found his way back to his first love.
He returned to the classroom, getting his bachelor’s degree, then a master’s in teaching. He recently finished his course work for a second master’s — this one in English — and is now thinking doctorate.
While taking classes he worked as a reporter for a small Iowa newspaper (“one of the best jobs I ever had”) and as a jazz DJ at a small Des Moines radio station — midnight to 6, Mondays. “That’s a spot that nobody wanted,” he says.
For the past 15 years he’s taught. At Washington High School in Cedar Rapids, his classes have included perspectives in literature and advanced composition. He’s also taught a college course on Shakespeare.
He’s got nerve damage — in the last two years, he’s twice had surgery on his spine — and in 2012 he joined the thousands of ex-players who have filed concussion lawsuits against the NFL. They include at least 16 of the original Seahawks.
After the NFL, Randy Coffield returned to Tallahassee and became a firefighter. “I was actually interested in it before football,” he says. Hansen returned to Georgia and became a pharmaceutical sales representative and manager. Hutcherson became a pastor in Redmond.
Injuries kept Hutcherson from ever making Seattle’s active roster. But teammates say he had a lasting impact through his faith and example. In a 2010 memoir, “Hope is Contagious,” he wrote of his willingness to court controversy — his embrace of politics, his vigorous opposition to gay marriage — and his struggle with prostate cancer.
Hutcherson wrote that he transferred three rules from sports to his faith: “1. The coach is the coach. 2. You better know his playbook. 3. You do not change the plays.”
He died last month at 61.
Ed Bradley, a Wake Forest graduate, returned to North Carolina and spent close to 33 years in the scrap-metal recycling business, at one point becoming part-owner.
He spent nine years as a radio analyst for Wake Forest football. And he co-chaired an annual golf tournament that raised money for a Childrens hospital: “Over 25 years, we raised more than $2 million.”
Bradley retired on Tuesday.
After one year with the Seahawks, Mike Curtis closed out his career with Washington. He went into commercial real estate, buying and selling apartment complexes. Business thrived, then fell flat.
A few years ago, he moved in with Sonny Odom, an old friend and teammate from Duke who lives in Arlington, Va. Curtis stayed for about 16 months. “He’d sit in our living room, and we’d laugh for hours,” Odom says.
Curtis, now 70, has problems with his memory, Odom says. In 2011 a FOXSports columnist wrote that Curtis was dealing with brain injury, a threat faced by many retired players. He now lives in Florida, near family.
Without success, Odom has pushed to get Curtis into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Dozens of members have written in support, including Dick Butkus, Don Shula and Joe Namath. In November, Curtis was inducted into the Maryland State Athletic Hall of Fame.
After getting cut in Seattle, Collins played one year in Buffalo, where he didn’t start.
He thinks maybe that’s why he drifted a bit after football. His first act felt incomplete.
He tried real estate, but with high interest rates, “It didn’t work out very well.” He sold memberships to private campgrounds, but “when it came time to asking for the money, I wasn’t very good at that.”
After he moved to Southern California, some friends suggested acting. He gave it a shot — and a new career was born. For the past 30 years, Collins has had a colorful run, appearing — rarely for long — on such signature shows as “Cheers” and “Seinfeld.” Early on he did “The A-Team,” “Full House” and “Falcon Crest.” More recently he appeared on “Workaholics” and “True Blood.”
Collins, 61, has done movies from “Armageddon” to “Con Air” to “Operation Delta Force 4: Deep Fault.” He plays tough guys — think cops and military officers — with roles that include “Prison Guard #1” and “ Warrior #2.” He also plays bad guys. He gets shot a lot. He says friends watch his work, eager to see how he’ll die.
His old teammates never know where they’ll see him next. He did a McDonald’s commercial, but there’s another one they talk about more. You can find it online. It’s worth looking for. In YouTube’s search field, type: Viva Viagra Motorcycle. Look for the smiling man in the helmet.
Ken Geddes stayed in Washington. He worked for a nonprofit that helps families in need. Then he got certified as a drug and alcohol counselor and earned a master’s degree.
He became a counselor in Seattle’s middle schools — first Whitman, then Aki Kurose — working with kids the same age he was when he boarded that bus to Boys Town. “When I needed help, there was someone there to help me,” he says.
He learned that for students, the most important word is their name. So he memorized them. Each morning before school, he would wait outside, often in the dark, and greet the kids. If someone’s name escaped him, he would say, “Good morning, my friend.”
He helped kids navigate relationships — with classmates, with adults — stressing the power of kindness: “It’s difficult for people to dislike you if you like them.”
At Aki Kurose, Geddes worked with Ron Howard — another original Seahawk, now an assistant principal. Howard says Geddes was an “outstanding teammate” and a “tremendous counselor,” having known him as both.
Geddes is now 66. His daughter is an assistant principal at Seattle’s Garfield High. His son teaches math at Evergreen Middle School in Redmond.
When Geddes retired in 2011, Aki Kurose dedicated a bench to him, inscribed with his trademark greeting: “Good morning! Make it a great day or not, the choice is yours!”
Ken Armstrong: 206-464-3730 or email@example.com