Hall of Fame receiver Steve Largent couldn’t catch the football at his first Seahawks practice, but became a record-setting legend who helped transform an expansion franchise.
RENTON — The question when Steve Largent showed up for his first practice with the Seahawks wasn’t whether he’d leave a lasting legacy, but simply whether he’d last at all.
Largent arrived in Seattle in late August 1976 admittedly rattled after being told he would be released by the Houston Oilers, but then traded to the Seahawks for an eighth-round draft pick.
Seattle made the trade largely because one of his former college coaches, Jerry Rhome, was the Seahawks’ quarterbacks and receivers coach and told the team to take a chance on him.
In his initial Seahawks practice in their inaugural season at the original practice field in Kirkland, Largent struggled to keep his concentration and catch the football.
“He dropped every pass in practice that day,’’ said Sherman Smith, now Seattle’s running-backs coach but then a rookie with what was one of the NFL’s two expansion franchises that year, the other being Tampa Bay.
“I was shaken up by being released (traded) by Houston and I just didn’t catch the ball very well,’’ Largent remembers.
Afterward, Rhome pulled him aside and told him to relax and let his talent take over.
“He just kind of gave me a sense of peace and I started catching the ball like I normally would,’’ Largent said,
He didn’t stop until his career ended 14 years and almost as many NFL records later.
“He’s the best I’ve ever played with,’’ said Smith.
And in our estimation, he’s the best who has ever played for the Seahawks, who this year are playing their 40th season. Largent tops the list of the 40 greatest players in Seahawks history.
Valid argument can be made for other players, notably the two who also spent their entire careers in Seattle and are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame — left tackle Walter Jones and defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy.
Like Largent, Jones was elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.
Largent gets a slight edge for longevity — his 197 games started are the most in team history (Jones had 180 in two fewer seasons). Largent was also a team captain a record 10 times. He also held many NFL receiving records when he retired in 1989 — including most receptions (819), yards (13,089) and consecutive games with a reception (177).
The Seahawks’ first superstar also provided a perfect template for a team that would have its greatest moments four decades later with a roster full of similarly overlooked and underrated players.
Even at Putnam City High School in Oklahoma City, the 5-foot-11 Largent was something of an underdog, moved early in his career, he says, from running back to receiver in favor of bigger and faster players.
He threw himself into sports, in part, to escape a rocky childhood that included a broken home and an alcoholic stepfather.
He was good enough to get a scholarship offer from Tulsa, but not to Oklahoma or Oklahoma State.
He was drafted in 1976, but not until the fourth round (pick No. 117 overall), and released by the Oilers after just four exhibition games. He remembers former Houston coach Bum Phillips telling him of his pending release (as the team worked out a trade with Seattle) and driving home to Oklahoma.
“I was crushed,’’ Largent said. “I cried all the way back.’’
Then came the trade to Seattle, a move that would change his life and alter forever the course of the Seahawks’ franchise.
After the rough first practice he began to, well, catch on, scoring a touchdown in the final exhibition game against the Raiders.
“You could see right then his greatness,’’ Smith said.
He was officially a backup for the team’s first regular-season game (the starting receivers were Steve Raible, now the Seahawks’ longtime play-by-play announcer, and Don Clune).
But Largent had five catches for 86 yards in the Seahawks’ first game, a 30-24 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at the Kingdome. At the end, Jim Zorn attempted a game-winning Hail Mary from about midfield intended for Largent but intercepted.
He moved into the starting lineup the next week, piling up catches and indelible moments. The fourth-quarter catch to help upset Miami on New Year’s Eve 1983 helped lift Seattle to the AFC Championship Game. Breaking the record for consecutive games with a catch on a Monday night home win against San Diego in 1986. The hit that caused a fumble on Denver safety Mike Harden in 1988, avenging a cheap-shot blast from Harden earlier that season.
Along the way Largent gathered almost as many fans for the way he represented the team off the field as for what he did on it. In 1988, he was the first Seahawk to win the NFL Man of the Year award.
He accomplished so much, yet one thing still gnaws at Largent: The Seahawks never got closer to the Super Bowl than the conference title game appearance in 1983.
“That’s your goal, to play in that game,” he said of never playing in a Super Bowl, “and it was tormenting to me every year. It was hard to even watch the playoffs once you were out of them.’’
Largent, 61, served in Congress for eight years and now serves on the board of directors of four companies as well as the board of trustees of the University of Tulsa.
And as he’s gotten older, what tends to linger more than the games and the records are the friends made along the way.
“Now I can look back on my career and I still wish we could have gotten to (the Super Bowl),’’ he said. “But the fact that we didn’t do that doesn’t scar in my mind the joy or the love that I had while I played, and my teammates and the coaching staff and the people that I got to meet. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.’’