Seattle’s season ended with a disappointing wild-card game loss, but what defined that season was the players’ strike, which led to replacement players and a rift between stars Kenny Easley and Steve Largent.
As Kenny Easley stepped to the microphone for a roughly one-minute speech at halftime of the Seahawks-Colts game on Oct. 1 to commemorate the official retiring of his jersey, the first thing he did was point to the rafters of CenturyLink Field where his No. 45 had just been unveiled.
“It’s really terrific to be here tonight to see my number retired alongside Steve Largent, my teammate,’’ Easley said.
Easley later said the remark hadn’t been planned.
“It was just a reflective comment, looking up and noticing that my number was beside his,’’ Easley said.
There was a time, though, when anyone close to the Seahawks figured the last name Easley would mention during such a speech would be Largent’s.
Thirty years ago this month, the two Seattle sports icons — two of the only four Seahawks to have their numbers retired and also two of the only four players to spend their entire careers in Seattle who are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame — found themselves on opposing sides as the NFL saw its season disrupted by a players’ strike.
Easley, a native of Chesapeake, Va., where public schools became integrated during his youth, was Seattle’s NFL Players Association representative and avidly encouraged his teammates to walk out for what remains the last time NFL games have been missed because of a strike.
Largent, who would go on to become a four-term Republican congressman from Oklahoma, wasn’t in favor of the work stoppage and was one of five Seahawks to cross the picket line and play in the three “replacement player’’ games.
It was a circumstance that caused the two to have no real relationship for decades.
“I think it’s fair to say that when Steve and I were teammates we weren’t the best of friends,’’ Easley said. “Because I was the player rep and when we went into those strikes, there were some things that happened with certain players crossing the picket line that made it untenable for me and other people.’’
And while every team had to deal with the strike and its aftermath, a perception has long lingered that the Seahawks — maybe because of the differing views of their two stars — were more divided than many other teams.
The strife was part of a season that began with Super Bowl dreams — Sports Illustrated picked a Seattle-New York Giants grand finale — and instead ended in a controversial overtime loss in a wild-card playoff game.
“I felt it was a difficult time,’’ said Gary Wright, the team’s longtime public-relations director. “I’m sure (the strike) had something to do with (the team’s record). I think if you look at it logically it had to disrupt things, had to disrupt your flow.’’
It might seem like ripping open an old would by reliving one of the more disappointing seasons in Seahawks history, relative to the high expectations, at least, but the ultimate moral of the story is that time can indeed heal.
So much promise
Given the somewhat tortured nature of Seattle sports, maybe it makes sense that one of the most anticipated seasons in Seahawks history to that point began with strike talk growing louder throughout training camp.
NFL players had also struck during the 1982 season, missing seven games, ultimately receiving a new five-year agreement that included severance packages and increased postseason pay, among other things. Many maintained the players might have gotten that without a strike. But some players thought maybe it had sort of worked.
And at the beginning of the 1987 season — the last year of that agreement — some players, egged on by NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw, were again itching to strike, hoping this time to obtain free agency.
Seattle fans, though, were eager mostly to see if the team could fulfill the promise it showed at the end of the 1986 season when it won its last five games to finish 10-6. The Seahawks that season had been the only team to defeat both of the Super Bowl participants, Denver and the Giants, beating the Broncos 41-16 in the season finale. Excitement only escalated when in June the Seahawks beat 37-1 odds to win a lottery and the right to take Oklahoma’s hard-hitting, sunglasses-wearing, mullet-wearing linebacker Brian Bosworth — as famous as any college linebacker could ever possibly be — in a supplemental draft.
In a Sports Illustrated story the week the season began that was headlined “Steve Largent and the rest of the Seahawks figure to meet a Giant obstacle in Super Bowl XXII,’’ SI’s Paul Zimmerman wrote “The Vikings loom as the NFL’s most intriguing dark horse, a distinction Seattle would enjoy except that everyone is jumping on the Seahawks’ bandwagon.’’
The Seahawks were led by Easley, entering his seventh season and three years removed from being the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, and Largent, who was coming off a streak of 1,000 yards or more receiving in eight of the previous nine years, all but the 1982 strike season.
Seattle’s season began with a surprising 40-17 loss at Denver, with John Elway throwing four TD passes and Broncos fans throughout booing the brash Bosworth who had said before the game he wanted to get a piece “of John Elway’s boyish face.’’
But the Seattle team everyone expected to see surfaced in week two as Seattle built a 37-7 third-quarter lead en route to a 43-14 home win over Kansas City.
NFL players, though, had voted to strike after the Monday night game on Sept. 21, with Seattle players holding meetings that grew surprisingly contentious, with Easley trying to sell everyone on the union’s stance and Largent, backup quarterback Jeff Kemp (son of future Vice Presidential nominee Jack Kemp) and a few others questioning the wisdom of walking out.
“A lot of those strike meetings, if people would have had pitchforks and torches I wouldn’t have been surprised,’’ said Dave Wyman, now a sports talk-show host on ESPN 710 Seattle but at the time a rookie linebacker who thought he might be headed to a starting role until the team landed Bosworth in June (in fact, he recalls finding out Seattle won Bosworth by reading about it in the San Francisco Chronicle on the morning he was graduating from Stanford).
“It was just one of those things where everybody gets all fired up and screaming and yelling. I just remember sitting there going, ‘What a mess this is.’ ’’
Wyman, who says he respected Easley for his playing and leadership as much as anyone he ever played with, said he remembers meetings when Easley would be “screaming and yelling’’ at Largent, trying to get him to see Easley’s side.
“I think Kenny was really trying to do what he thought was right,’’ said Wyman, who says he wasn’t really in favor of the strike but had been advised by his agent to go along with it.
Unlike in 1982 when the season simply stopped, the owners in 1987 decided to field teams with whatever players they could get and keep the games going.
Seattle general manager Mike McCormack encouraged the vets to all stay out to try to assure team unity. Easley, meanwhile, helped discourage former Seattle QB Jim Zorn, at that point out of the league for two years, from crossing the line and quarterbacking the replacement Seahawks. Zorn decided against it after talking to Easley and would instead play one game with Tampa Bay.
But as teams began playing games with replacement players that counted in the standings, some vets grew antsy.
By the time the second replacement game had been played, with little sign of a thaw in the league’s stance, many big names began crossing, including Joe Montana, Tony Dorsett and Howie Long.
Seattle went 1-1 in its first two replacement games, after which it became clear to most that the players were crumbling.
As the Wednesday of the third replacement player game approached, five Seahawks crossed — Largent, Kemp, center Blair Bush, kicker Norm Johnson and linebacker Fredd Young — as rumors circulated that the strike was close to ending.
A day later, exactly 30 years ago this Sunday, it did, with the players deciding to return after 24 days on strike.
But the NFL decided that only players who had reported by Wednesday at 1 p.m. could play in that week’s games.
That left Easley and most of the rest of the “real’’ Seahawks a few more days of stewing, forced to watch their teams play that weekend on TV.
That Sunday in front of 8,310 in Detroit, playing against mostly replacement players, Largent caught 15 passes for 261 yards from Kemp in two-and-a-half quarters before asking to come out with an eventual 37-14 victory well in hand.
They are single-game Seahawks records that remain to this day.
A deflating ending
With the strike over, players faced the challenge of coming back together as a team, especially since the Seahawks. like virtually all the other teams, kept a few of the replacement players.
While hard feelings lingered for a while, eventually most got back to the task at hand.
In fact, the Seahawks seemed to rebound more quickly than many thought they might, and quicker than may be remembered today.
In Seattle’s first post-strike game, the Seahawks beat the Raiders in Los Angeles 37-14. A week later they beat a Minnesota team that would go on to the NFC title game 28-17.
Seattle won four of its first five after the strike and was in first place in the AFC West before hosting the Raiders in a Monday night game that has come to define the season, if not Bosworth’s career. During a shocking 37-14 Los Angeles win, Bo Jackson first broke free for a 91-yard TD that compelled Al Michaels to say he was running all the way to Tacoma, and then later a 2-yard score in which he plowed through Bosworth on his way to the end zone.
Wyman defends Bosworth on the latter run, noting he simply was a step late and not in position to take on Jackson properly on a play that continues to get wide circulation anytime the subject of The Boz arises.
“It wasn’t like he got flatbacked,’’ said Wyman of Bosworth, whose career would end after three seasons due to shoulder injuries. “Everybody talks about him being a bust. But he played his ass off. For a rookie, he had a really good year. He was a monster that season.’’ Bosworth, in fact, was second on the team in tackles with 81.
The loss to the Raiders, though, kickstarted a late-season slide that led to a 9-6 record and having to go on the road to play a wild-card game against a Houston team quarterbacked by Warren Moon.
“The one where Fredd Young intercepted the ball and we didn’t get it?’’ says Wright.
Yes, that one.
In a game largely dominated by Houston, Seattle forced overtime on a 12-yard Dave Krieg to Largent touchdown with 26 seconds left.
On Houston’s first possession of overtime, Young appeared to intercept a tipped pass at about the Oilers’ 42. But the pass was called incomplete on the field and in what was the second year of the first incarnation of replay, the call stood after review.
Moon quickly drove Houston into field goal range and that was that.
Easley, just 28 years old, would never play again.
The following April, Easley, whose relations with the organization remained strained from the strike, was traded to the Cardinals for quarterback Kelly Stouffer.
Then he was diagnosed with a kidney condition that initially nullified the trade (Seattle eventually got to keep Stouffer for first- and fifth-round picks, instead).
The condition ended Easley’s career and led to a lawsuit against the team with Easley alleging it had occurred due to painkiller use during his time with the Seahawks (a settlement was later reached).
That led to a 15-year estrangement with not only the Seahawks but basically all things football as Easley returned to Norfolk, Va., to start a new life.
In what has become an oft-told part of Easley’s story, his relationship with the Seahawks thawed in 2002 when new owner Paul Allen insisted he be inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor, telling Easley no one else would be honored until he was.
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Easley accepted, saying a big reason was the members of the Seahawks organization he had issues with were gone and he wanted his three children to understand and enjoy his football legacy.
Mending his relationship with Largent took longer, in part because they didn’t see each other,
“It was hard for me because I felt like I had a great relationship with all of my teammates all of the time except for Kenny,’’ Largent said in August when he attended the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction. “It was never issues on the field, just off the field.’’
In 2014, Largent — at the time working in nearby Washington D.C. — got asked to speak to the Norfolk Sports Club Jamboree.
The organizers, having no idea of the players’ history, asked Easley to introduce him.
“I honestly didn’t know what Kenny was going to say about me, good or bad,’’ Largent said in August.
Easley said he wasn’t initially sure what to do.
Then his wife, Gail, told him to accept the invite and make up with Largent.
“She was the one who suggested that this would be a good opportunity to clear the air and sort of let Steve know how I felt and to start anew in our relationship,’’ Easley said.
“She said, ‘Look, you can’t hold on to a lot of these things. If you hold on to these things for the rest of your life, they are going to kill you. So this is a great opportunity. He is coming into your backyard. Go ahead and say what you’ve got to say and mend that fence.’’’
So Easley did. He talked about 1987 but also about how there was a time and a place to move on.
The two later had breakfast to say whatever needed to be said one last time. Largent has since been a regular participant in Easley’s charity golf tournament in Seattle each summer.
“He’s buried the hatchet and I’ve buried the hatchet and it’s been a fantastic relationship,’’ Easley said.
Said Largent in August: “From that point on there have been no scars or issues between me and Kenny. But it took a long time.’’
Time enough to again become teammates.