The Catch Of The Day
This story originally appeared in the Oct. 20, 1986 issue of Sports Illustrated.
Woodinville, Wash., tucked away in the Douglas fir and evergreens, has an old-fashioned redbrick schoolhouse with a bell on top. A banner stretched across the main street trumpets an upcoming Lions Club Salmon Festival. Life is peaceful in this unincorporated burg (pop. 25,000), some 30 miles northeast of Seattle.
But there's havoc at a house in a cul-de-sac on the east side of Lake Washington. The blacktop driveway is a minefield of kiddie toys: multicolored skatebords, tennis balls, squirt guns, tiny scooters, Big Wheel bikes. The front yard is overrun with little creatures dressed in psychedelic pedal pushers.
In the middle of this madness Steve Largent, the Seattle Seahawks' All-Pro wide receiver and the man with the best hands in the game, is calmly tossing a football with his son Kyle, a seven-year-old blond moptop wearing hot-pink pants. Another son, Kelly, a two-year-old terror, is zigzagging his tricycle through Steve's legs. Daughter Casie, 5, is in the nearby garden, digging for slugs.
"Dad," Kyle says happily, "thanks again for letting me go to the Seahawks game yesterday."
The game was against the Steelers on Sept. 7, opening day in the NFL. It was an experience Kyle's mother, Terry Largent, won't soon forget.
"Kyle ordered hot dogs, hot tamales, popcorn . . ." she says, roling her eyes. "He asked me a lot of questions about what was going on. I don't think he'd ever sit still long enough to watch Steve on TV, though."
Kyle frowns. "Sure I would," he says. "For about an hour."
A pair of pigtails pops up from the mud. "Not me," Casie says. "I'd rather play with my slugs."
Dad and Mom crack up. "That'll keep a guy humble," Largent says.
Largent, in his 11th season with Seattle, is well on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He ranks third on the NFL's alltime reception list with 648,80 behind San Diego's Charlie Joiner. His 10,377 yards are third alltime. When he caught a 17-yard pass from Dave Krieg in the second period of an Oct. 6 game against the San Diego Chargers, Largent set an NFL record for receptions in consecutive games (128), bettering the streak set by Harold Carmichael of the Eagles in 1972-80.
Through all this success Largent has been able to keep his priorities straight and his life in order. He has been married almost 12 years to Terry, his high school sweetheart. Every Friday night is still Date Night at the Largent house; a couple of weeks ago they went to a Neil Diamond concert, then stopped at the Dairy Queen for a milk shake on the way home. Monday night is devoted to their children. No Monday Night Football for this crew unless Largent is playing in the game.
Largent is the highest-paid wide receiver in football -- he negotiated his $ 800,000-a-year contract himself -- yet he drives a Pontiac station wagon. On Tuesdays, his day off, he drives a Chevy van in a car pool for the First Baptish Church school.
"You're never as good or as bad as they say you are," says Largent, 32. "How significant or insignificant am I? In the context of eternity, my football achievements mean very little.
"To a large extent, my job consists of running downfield, beating a guy and catching a ball. In one-on-one defense anybody should be able to get open."
The Raiders' All-Pro cornerback Mike Haynes doesn't buy that. He believes Largent is anything but the common man. "He's the most deceptive receiver in football," Haynes says. "What makes him so special is that he'll change patterns to fit the situation. That's very unusual. It's almost as if the quarterback says to him in the huddle, 'Do whatever you want.Just get yourself open and I'll throw to you."'
There was the time when he ran downfield with Lester Hayes, the Raiders' All-Pro cornerback, in hot pursuit. Largent stopped, spun completely around and then took off across the middle to catch the ball. Then there's his signature move, the one where he leans so far in one direction that he looks as if he's going to topple over. But he doesn't. Without warning, he zips off in the other direction. "Steve is the master of tom-foolery," Hayes says. "He has run pass routes on me that I've never ever seen or dreamed about."
What separates Largent from other receivers are his quick feet and strong ankles. He is able to change direction quickly when he's running patterns, and he executes those changes at top speed. In addition he has a keen sense of balance; his smallish (5' 11", 190 pounds), thick-legged build and his medium stride work to his advantage.
But Largent believes his biggest asset is his concentration. For example, according to records kept by the Seahawk coaches on "makable catches," Largent caught 95% of the passes thrown to him last year. Put it another way: He dropped only five balls.
"We went pheasant hunting in Kansas one year, right after Christmas," says Larry Guerkink, Largent's close friend and his baseball coach at Putnam City High in Oklahoma City. "We were out in a wheat field, and Steve turned to me and asked, 'What do you look at when you shoot?" I said, 'I watch the bird." And Steve said, 'You ought to watch the head." Later I got to thinking about that. That pheasant is flying 30 or 40 miles per hour, 600 yards away, and Steve has the ability to pick out the head -- not lose sight of it -- and then shoot? That's incredible concentration."
Steve Largent was born in Tulsa on Sept. 28, 1954. He has a brother and a stepbrother; another brother died three years ago. When Steve was six his father left home, and soon after, his parents were divorced. Largent usually sees his father whenever the Seahawks come East to play. "When I introduce him to people, I call him Jim," Largent says. "There is no way I can call him Dad."
When Largent was nine, his mother, Sue, remarried, and Largent's life was turned upside down again. His stepfather, John Cargill, had a job in the civil service, and during a two-year period Steve moved four times. "I never had any close friends," Largent says. "I never felt like I belonged."
In the spring of 1969, when Steve was in the ninth grade, the family was in Oklahoma City. But Largent wasn't happy. "There was no way to establish myself in school," he says. "In the past there had always been sports. But at that time of year there was no football.
"I wasn't a part of the In crowd. I wasn't handsome. I wasn't popular. I was a nerd. My hair was all frizzy, and that wasn't cool. So I'd get up real early in the morning, comb it in one direction, let it dry, then comb it in the other direction. There was a tremendous amount of pressure to fit in. And I was in a lot of pain." He gravitated to what he calls "the cynical, life's-been-bad-to-me crowd," and he got into some minor trouble.
"Once, I was sent to the vice-principal's office and told to be at school early the next morning for three licks," Largent recalls. "Well, that was the worst. I had to wait all night. So I decided to stick my knee pads in the seat of my pants to protect myself. Whack! The vice-principal looked at me funny. Whack again! Finally he said, 'What have you got in your pants?" Then I really got it."
In hopes of straightening him out, his mother and stepfather encouraged Steve to go out for the football team in his sophomore year. But when he decided to sign up, he found that at least 140 other kids had the same idea. He went home dejected.His mother urged him to go back. He tried out at halfback but failed. "The coach gave me [some handoffs] and told me I wasn't quick enough," Largent says. "That's how long it took him to assess my ability.
So he was sent over to where the wide receivers were practicing. "The lines weren't as long," he says. There he met coach Gene Abney, a large, gruff man with a short temper. Abney drilled him in the hot Oklahoma sun until he was ready to drop. Largent loved it. "If there was something I did well, like diving for a catch, he praised me," Largent says. "Man, I went all out. He drove me till my tongue was hanging, but I didn't care. Positive feedback was all I needed."
Meanwhile, life at home was becoming unbearable, Largent says his stepfather was drinking heavily -- Cargill maintains he was drinking only occasionally -- and Steve's mother asked the teenager to be the peacemaker. "I can remember a ham being thrown across the kitchen," Largent says. "My mom would come to me crying and say, 'What should I do?" And I'd think, I don't know. I'm only in 10th grade."
At about that time he met Terry Bullock in his Latin II class. She was a straight-A student, Putnam City High Pirates cheerleader, popular, pretty and selected by her classmates as Miss Pirateer. Steve told her she had "the best looking legs" in the school and asked her to go to the sophomore class picnic. She said yes, but Steve never showed up because his friend's car broke down.
In his junior year Steve asked her to a sock hop in the gymnnasium after a football game. Again Terry said yes. "But she waited inconspicuously for me outside the door," Steve says.
"I didn't want anybody to know if you stood me up again," Terry says.
Steve laughs. "I kissed you goodnight on the first date," he says. "Do you remember that? I went back and told my friends it was the best kiss I ever had, that I was in love."
"I felt the same way," she says.
In Terry, Largent found his first true friend, a best buddy he could depend on. They hung out in a booth at The Across The Street hamburger restaurant, drinking milk shakes and eating curly french fries called Suzy Q's. On the night before a football game, after Steve was asleep, Terry would sneak over to his house and leave a box of cookies out on the front porch. Then she would decorate the front of the house with orange and black streamers and banners that read RECEIVE'EM, STEVE'EM.
Terry provided the stability Largent had longed for and helped instill in him the confidence he had lacked. Her family gave him comfort. "It was fun to go over To Terry's house, to see her mom and dad getting along," he says. "Her father was always there; I envied that. I practically lived at Terry's house. I was there after school, for dinner and all weekend long."
With her steadying influence Largent developed into an All-State football player. One of his teammates at Putnam City was Pat Ryan, now a quarterback with the New York Jets. Largent was also an All-State catcher for the Pirates baseball team; one of his pitchers was Bob Shirley, now with the New York Yankees.
Largent wasn't recruited by many football powers because he lacked speed and height. He received a scholarship to Tulsa and starred on the school's freshman team. In his junior and senior years he led the nation in touchdown catches, with 14. His success wasn't limited to the playing field. He was selected by the school's alumni board as one of the top eight seniors and was graduated with a degree in biology.
None of that seemed to matter to pro scouts. In high school he had run only 4.85 seconds in the 40-yard dash, and at Tulsa he wasn't that much faster, so the scouts declared him much too slow. Even though he managed to cut that time to 4.65 before the 1976 draft. Largent wasn't selected until the fourth round, by the Houston Oilers.
"There's a difference between being fast and being quick," Largent says. "And there is such a thing as football speed. Track guys run like crazy. But put the guy who holds the world record in the 100 on a football field, get a defensive back to jump in front of him, and he'll probably break his ankles trying to stop or change direction.The way you run on a track -- with body-lean and on the balls of your feet -- is different from how you run pass routes. To run routes you have to have more body control."
The Houston Oilers were a veteran team coming off a 10-4 season, and Largent knew that he had little chance of catching on.Soon after draft day he went to Houston to negotiate his contract. "I didn't have a clue," Largent says. "Tom Williams, their assistant G.M., said, 'How about incentives for being among the top three receivers in the league?" I said, 'Great." He had to be thinking, This kid will never do it." Largent showed up at the Huntsville, Texas, training camp, a wide-eyed rookie. "It was an unbelievable scene," he says. "They were just a bunch of good ol' boys -- hard drinking, hard knocking and hard talking. I felt so naive.
"Bum Phillips had chili and beer parties for the players on one night and played dominoes with them on another. Bubba Smith and his brother Tody were two wild, wild guys. There was somebody named Dr. Doom [Robert Brazile]. Dan Pastorini had a blowup doll in his locker. And John Hadl roomed with his son -- that's how old he was! I'd never played with anybody who had kids.
"We practiced twice a day for an hour and 10 minutes, at the most, in the blazing sun. Bum gave us two water breaks. There was no way anybody could get thirsty in that time, but these guys were dying! Because we were hardly ever on the field, I couldn't get a grasp of the offense, and I was too immature to realize I had to study on my own."
After the fourth exhibition game Largent was placed on waivers. The Seahawks, a new expansion team, picked him up on the advice of Jerry Rhome, Seattle's quarterbacks and receivers coach. Rhome had been a Tulsa assistant when Largent was there. In return, Seattle gave Houston an eighth-round '77 pick.
But Largent's first day of practice with the Seahawks was almost his last. "Steve dropped everything," says Rhome, now with the Washington Redskins. "He fell all over the place. Jack Patera [then the head coach] pulled me aside and asked, 'This is the guy you've been raving about?'
"I went over to Steve and found out he had worn himself out traveling to Seattle. So I said, 'Look, I'll guarantee you'll make this team. I'll see to it you won't get cut." And Steve said, 'I promise I won't do this tomorrow."'
Sure enough, the next day Largent was his old self. Two weeks later, in the 1976 season opener, he came off the bench against the St. Louis Cardinals to make a spectacular diving catch. He also dazzled Patera with his blocking skills. Largent has now scored more points (493) and played in more games than any other Seahawk.
"If Seattle hadn't been running an offense I was familiar with, I wouldn't have made the team," Largent says now. "And I probably wouldn't be in football today. I've caught a log of passes in my career. I've been consistent; I've never had a bad season. But I've always been in a system that has allowed that to happen. I've had coaches who were willing to throw me the ball, and I've had quarterbacks like Jim Zorn and Dave Krieg who will not quit practicing something until it is right.
"I'm not saying anybody could have come in here and done what I've done. But I'm not saying I'm a great football player. I've also been very lucky."( ( It is Monday night, the children have devoured their Popsicles, said their prayers and are tucked snugly into their beds. Terry settles into the sofa and says that bedtime, bathtime and mealtime are the only portions of the day when she realizes just how much work -- and how overwhelming -- four children can be.
It's quiet now in the rambling, rustic house, and it reminds Largent of a night at training camp last summer. Though he ws living only a 15-minute drive from home, he was lonely for his family; he missed the kids. So he wrote postcards to his children, telling them how much he loved them and what he appreciated most about each of them.
"Kyle is really obedient. He listens," Largent says, smiling as he talks about each child. "We're fortunate he's our first, so the others can learn from him.
"Casie is so sweet. She loves to be consoled, to kiss and make up. I never grew up with sisters, so it's a bit of an effort for me to play dolls with her. That concerns me, but I force myself to do it, to braid her hair before I go to work in the morning, because she needs me, too.
"Kelly is just a wild man. He can hug you one minute and bite you the next.
"And kramer. . . . Well, Kramer is special, for obvious reasons."
Kramer James Largent, who was named after Steve's close friend Jim Zorn, was born Nov. 11, 1985, with spina bifida, an open spine.
"We were having such a great time in the delivery room, joking around with the doctor," Terry says. "Kramer was born, and I was ecstatic, euphoric. A few seconds later, I heard, 'Ah . . . we have a little defect here." I felt like somebody had just dropped a load of logs right on my heart.
"Steve broke down and cried. It tore me up to see him crying so hard. I told Steve that God had planned Kramer and that adding him to our lives would be the greatest thing to ever happen. And I haven't been wrong."
Shortly after birth, Kramer had surgery to close his spine. Though he has progressed remarkably since then -- doctors believe he will have almost full use of his legs -- it is too early to tell about his bowel and bladder functions. Terry says Kramer is "a happy baby. The happiest of all our children." And for that she is thankful.
"My life had always been so easy, so smooth," she says. "I had never given a thought to how others outside of my immediate family were feeling. I am a much more sympathetic person today. This is a very valuable thing in the children's lives. They will grow up with much more tender hearts."
Steve is already feeling the effects of a tender heart. "When a son is born who is normally healthy, you look forward to throwing the football to him," he says. "You plan that when he gets older, he'll catch frogs and run around the neighborhood with all the other kids.
"But when you have a child with a birth defect you have no expectations -- good or bad. If he does anything, it's exciting. For the longest time I never thought Kramer would be able to sit up. It frustrated me. But when he did, I cried. Imagine how I'll be the day he finally walks."