No. 93: Steve Largent

No player in The Football 101 inspired more disagreement, more consternation, more immovable viewpoints among the people I consulted with than Steven Michael Largent, a 5-foot-10 (maybe), 187-pound (maybe) wide receiver from Oklahoma who broke all the records, won all the hearts and has left behind a parade of football fans who feel sure that he was the most underrated or most overrated player in NFL history.

“I just don’t see how you can have a list like this without Steve Largent,” one football expert told me.

“He compiled some good numbers for the time,” said another, “but, I mean, he was All-Pro just once. It just felt like there were always better receivers.”

“You’re telling me that the guy who broke Don Hutson’s 44-year-old record for touchdown receptions wouldn’t be on your list?” said a third. “I mean, that’s really, really tough.”

“I have great respect for what he accomplished … but I’ll bet I could think of five or 10 receivers who will not be on your list who, I think, were every bit as good as Largent,” said a fourth.

And so on. I’ve thought a lot about why Largent sparks such massive disagreement. I think there can be any number of factors. Largent played for a Seattle expansion team that was often fun … but rarely a contender. He never played in a Super Bowl and, all due respect to the Seahawks’ exciting playoff run in 1983, never came especially close. He put up massive numbers for his time but those numbers have lost a lot of their shine as other receivers have soared by.

But let’s be frank here: I think the big thing with Steve Largent, the thing we have to acknowledge even if it isn’t the most comfortable conversation, is: Steve Largent’s whiteness.

That shouldn’t put him in a different category, but it’s hard to deny that it does. There were 18 wide receivers named All-Decade in the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s, ’00s and ’10s. One is white. There have been 18 wide receivers elected to the Hall of Fame who played in the 1980s and after. One is white. When Largent retired, his 100 touchdowns were the most ever for a receiver — the game changed and it’s now tied for ninth on the list. The other nine players are all African-American.

Largent’s whiteness stirs different emotions in people. He became a brand, an archetype, a cliché — the small, slow, white possession receiver who, if the analysts are to be believed, succeeds on hard work and good hands and sheer grit. For years, it seemed like every successful and semi-successful mid-sized white wide receiver — from Brian Brennan to Ricky Proehl to Wayne Chrebet to Wes Welker — was called the next Steve Largent.

The funny part of all of this is that Steve Largent, the player, was never really that guy at all. None of those guys mentioned really was the next Steve Largent. Do you know who the next Steve Largent was?

A guy named Jerry Rice.

Steve Largent was six years old when his father disappeared from his life. “That sculpted my life,” Largent would say. “It created a very insecure kid.”

Steve Largent was in the 10th grade when his mother came to him to say that she felt trapped by her alcoholic and abusive second husband and asked him what she should do. “It was just a bad scene,” he would say. He felt entirely and utterly alone.

I bring up these two small stories because to see Steve Largent at his peak — curly blond hair, big smile, all the endorsements, a million catches, beloved Seattle icon, this is a guy who People magazine later pronounced one of America’s most beautiful people — you would never know that his career was forged out of pain.

“I needed someone to love me,” Largent would tell Jenni Carlson of The Oklahoman. “And the people I chose were my coaches.”

There’s one sure way to impress coaches — that is to outwork everybody else, to care more than anybody else, to be tougher than the rest. So that was Largent. At Putnam City High School, he would catch 300 passes every single day to make certain that he never dropped one in a game. He would go over his routes, step by step by step, to make sure that he did it exactly right each time.

He was not the biggest athletic star at Putnam City High — not even close, to be honest. Alvin Adams, who would go on to become the NBA Rookie of the Year and an All-Star, was at Putnam City. Bob Shirley, who would go on to an 11-year big league career as a pitcher, was at Putnam City. There were even players on the football team who were clearly better than Largent.

But nobody worked harder for the coach’s love, and despite indifferent grades, Largent got a scholarship to play at Tulsa, where he impressed another coach, a former NFL quarterback named Jerry Rhome. And this is what really changed his life.

“I just saw a guy who would do anything to be successful,” Rhome would say. Largent became All-America at Tulsa, catching 51 passes for 1,000 yards his senior year, catching 32 touchdown passes for his college career, not that this changed anybody’s view of him. He was still 5-foot-10 (maybe), still weighed 187 pounds (maybe), still ran a 4.7 40-yard dash (maybe — a couple of coaches clocked him at 4.9) and the scouts yawned. Largent was the 15th receiver selected in the 1976 draft. Heck, he was the second receiver selected by the Houston Oilers.

“He has great hands,” Oilers coach Bum Phillips gushed … about Mike Barber, the first receiver the Oilers took. This didn’t prevent Largent from trying to win over his newest coach. “A great man,” he told reporters.

But when Largent got to training camp, he couldn’t do anything right. The Oilers were going to release him when they got a call from Seattle Seahawks offering a conditional draft pick for Largent. The Oilers did not need to be asked twice. They were undoubtedly puzzled why the Seahawks had any interest in the guy.

And the answer was … the Seahawks had just hired an assistant coach named Jerry Rhome. “Believe me, Largent can catch the deep pass as well as the short one,” Rhome insisted to reporters. “He can put that little move on you and be gone. He’s the best receiver I’ve ever coached.”

Whatever Rhome was telling reporters publicly he was saying three times louder inside the Seahawks coaching rooms … so it wasn’t great when Largent showed up at training camp and just started dropping passes and stumbling around and looking helpless. Rhome took massive insults from all over the Seahawks organization.

“Steve,” Rhome pleaded, “What the heck is going on?”

“Jerry,” Largent said helplessly, “I haven’t slept in nine days.”

He hadn’t. He was trying to support his family. He was trying to stay positive. He was trying to figure out what would become of his life if he got released. The pressure was overwhelming. But Largent settled in. He made the team. He made five catches in his first game, including a dazzling diving catch that might have been the very first great play in Seattle Seahawks history.

He also immediately became best friends with the Seahawks young quarterback, a zany left-hander from Richard Nixon’s hometown of Whittier, Calif. — Jim Zorn.

And the joy ride began.

When Steve Largent started having some success, sportswriters and analysts needed someone to compare him to … this is just how it goes in sports. Kobe is the next Michael. Rory is the next Tiger. Trout is the next Mantle.

And so in those early years, people compared Largent to Fred Biletnikoff.

They weren’t really alike, Largent and Biletnikoff. The latter was quite a bit taller, a high-jump champion when he was younger, a bombs-away receiver when he was young, a pure possession receiver by the time Largent came around. The real thing the two had in common was, indeed, their whiteness.

It was an effort — an effort that just kept going — to put Largent in a box.

“I don’t think Steve is anything like Fred Biletnikoff,” Rhome said. “I’ll tell you who he reminds me of: Steve Largent. And there may only be one of him.”

Rhome was right: Largent was an original.

“There’s something about him that’s unexplainable,” his quarterback Dave Krieg said.

“He had this way of making it look like he wasn’t going anywhere,” Hall of Fame cornerback Mike Hayes said, “and then he’d be by you.”

“It was amazing how he could snatch the ball out of the air,” Jerry Rice said.

Rice watched closely. Though Rice was much bigger than Largent and was considered a much better prospect coming out of college, some of the same questions haunted him. Rice was the third receiver taken in the draft even though his numbers at Mississippi Valley State were off the charts — he set 15 Division I-AA records as a receiver. There were those who didn’t think Rice was fast enough (he ran a 4.55 at the combine). There were those who thought that it would be hard for him to adjust, having come from a smaller school.

But the thing Rice knew was the same thing Largent knew … pure speed doesn’t matter, not for great receivers. No, what matters is how quick you can get in and out of your break. What matters is how fearlessly you can catch the ball in traffic. What matters is how precisely you can run your patterns. What matters is how well you block downfield. What matters is how good those hands are.

And in each of those categories, Steve Largent was the standard. Teammates called him “Yoda,” for the way he seemed to use the Force to get open, but it was really a lot simpler than that. Nobody was better at separating from defenders. Sometimes he would pump his arms really fast, as if he were about to take off in a cartoon puff of smoke like the Road Runner, only then he’d stop and be wide open. Or he’d seem to be running full speed and then he’d hesitate and cut and actually go top speed, leaving a defender behind.

“People would say, ‘I have no idea how he gets that open,’” Jim Zorn would say, laughing. “But that’s just because they had this idea about Steve. He was really fast. He was really quick. He had a million moves. And nobody had better instincts for the ball.”

Before 1978, only 26 different receivers had caught 65-plus passes for 1,000 yards receiving and six touchdown receptions in a season. Now, it’s true that in 1978 the NFL expanded from 14 to 16 games, making it a different achievement, but that doesn’t change the fact that for the next 10 years, Largent had at least 65 catches for at least 1,000 yards and at least six touchdown catches every … single … year.*

*Well, every year except 1982, the strike year, when he played only eight games. But he was on pace to do it that year too.

And he just started breaking records, left and right. In 1986, he set the record for most consecutive games with a catch in a Monday night game against San Diego. By the time he retired, he had stretched that record to 177 games.

In December 1987, in the season’s final game, he caught six passes against Kansas City to break the all-time record for receptions in a career. When he retired with 819 catches, he was more than 50 clear of No. 2 on the list.

In September 1988, in a game against San Diego, he caught four balls for 71 yards to break the all-time record for receiving yards in a career. When he retired with 13,089 receiving yards, that was almost 1,000 yards clear of second place.

And finally, on Dec. 10, 1989, in a game at Cincinnati, Largent caught a 10-yard touchdown pass from Dave Krieg, the 100th touchdown reception of his career, breaking what had long been considered the unbreakable record of Don Hutson.

Jerry Rice now owns all four of those records, with 66 more consecutive games, 730 more receptions, almost 10,000 more yards and 97 more touchdown receptions.

But Rice — who has never been shy about expressing his views about other receivers — will tell you that before him came Largent.

“I think about how precise he ran his routes,” Rice said. “I idolized him. And I still do.”