The story of Steve Niehaus, the Seahawks' first pick (No. 2 overall) in their first draft, shows just how hit-and-miss the process of team-building can be.
The shoulder still hurts. Even now, more than 28 years after Steve Niehaus played his final snap in the NFL.
The first player chosen by the Seahawks in their very first draft is 53 today, living in Fairfield, Ohio, and can’t throw a baseball.
“You can’t play in the NFL with one arm,” said Niehaus, a former defensive tackle.
Not for very long, anyway. Niehaus, who had been a star at Notre Dame, was chosen No. 2 overall in 1976, behind Lee Roy Selmon and ahead of Chuck Muncie, Joe Washington and Mike Haynes. He played three seasons in Seattle, one more with the Vikings and then his football career was over.
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Niehaus shows up on lists this time of year. Like the one ESPN.com put together, the top 50 draft busts of all time. There was Niehaus at No. 21, sandwiched between a pair of Penn State running backs, Curtis Enis and Blair Thomas, and ahead of Seattle quarterbacks Kelly Stouffer (No. 23) and Dan McGwire (No. 38).
Niehaus’ inclusion is not altogether accurate, and it’s certainly not fair. After all, Niehaus isn’t someone who alienated teammates like Ryan Leaf did or let character flaws foil a career. He’s a guy who went out and racked up 9 ½ sacks that first season in Seattle and was named the NFC defensive rookie of the year. But even then his shoulder was hurting. He underwent surgery his second season and was never the same. That shoulder makes it a little difficult to bear the burden of explaining why things didn’t work out in the NFL.
“It’s hard to explain to people,” Niehaus said this week in a telephone interview.
He was a big man who had the misfortune of having a bad shoulder. It would pop out of place occasionally, and Niehaus would lie there and twitch and wait for someone to reset the joint.
At one point, he played with a leather strap tied to a sleeve he wore, a harness that held his arm at his side to keep his shoulder from sliding out of joint. Turns out having an arm cinched to your side wasn’t all that much easier than having it tied behind your back.
Niehaus underwent surgery his second year, but a 3-inch screw didn’t help. He stayed in the NFL through the 1979 season, but the operation was the turning point.
“Once I got it operated on, I was done,” Niehaus said.
The Seahawks traded him to Minnesota before the 1979 season. One more season and his career was over. A footnote in Seattle’s history.
Niehaus always did love Seattle. He found the air so clean and the water so clear, and he liked it so much that he moved back, driving a truck for Pepsi after his football career. He returned to Ohio in 1990. His family was there, including his daughter, and so he went to work for Budweiser. Now he works for the construction company of a high-school friend that employs several hundred people.
He’s still a football fan, still watches the Seahawks, but the truth is he prefers watching college ball. The draft has changed a lot in the 32 years since Seattle picked him.
Niehaus said he received a $100,000 bonus when he signed with the Seahawks. Last year’s No. 2 pick, Calvin Johnson, signed a six-year contract that totals $64 million, with at least $27.2 million of that guaranteed.
Niehaus wasn’t watching on television when the Seahawks chose him in the draft. That’s because it wasn’t on television. Niehaus was in his room at Notre Dame when he got the call.
A coin toss is really what decided Seattle’s pick that season because Selmon was the clear-cut No. 1 choice. Tampa Bay and Seattle entered the league that year and had the top two picks. The Bucs won the toss and with it the right to pick Selmon, who became the first Tampa Bay player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
The Seahawks went second, their choice coming down to a decision between Niehaus and Muncie, a running back from California who came with questions about his character. Seahawks personnel executives stayed at the headquarters until midnight before that first draft. They had concluded on the selection of Niehaus at about 6 p.m., but John Thompson — the team’s first general manager — wanted to run through the rationale one more time. That took six hours.
“I just wanted to make sure absolutely everybody involved in the personnel decision was completely on board on it,” Thompson said this week.
No doubting that decision then. Not during that first season, either, when Niehaus set a Seahawks record for sacks by a rookie that still stands and no one would have considered calling the first draft pick in Seahawks history a bust.
Danny O’Neil: 206-464-2364 or firstname.lastname@example.org