Usually on the first day of training camp, pro football teams put a stopwatch on their wide receivers to see if they've lost any speed over the winter.
The Seattle Seahawks never bother to time Steve Largent to find out. He hasn't got any speed to lose.
Largent could catch a pass in a wheelchair. He could play the game just as well in hip boots.
You look at Largent's NFL record and you picture a guy who has won two or more Olympic medals, who was either a high hurdler or a 400 relay man. He can run a 9.6 100 or a 4.3 40, you figure, and he can run those dazzling out patterns so quick that no cornerback in the league can keep up with him. You figure he's so fast, only three people in the league know what he looks like.
Or, maybe, you conclude that he's physically overpowering--6-7 or so in his stockinged feet, 250 stripped, a runaway tank out there.
Something has to account for those 620 receptions, 9,994 yards and 78 touchdowns. Only four guys in league history have better stats than that.
Then, you see Steve Largent in person and you figure somebody's playing an elaborate joke. Either this guy is an impostor or the record is a hoax.
Guys go to the electric chair faster than he gets off the line of scrimmage. He has this mop of blond hair and bright blue eyes and a slightly bandy-legged lope. "It's part of his secret," an ex-Denver coach used to say. "The first three years he was in this league they thought he was the water boy."
The book lists Largent as 5-11 and his weight in the 180 range. He makes up for not being fast by not being big. Some day, you are sure, Steve Largent is going to be sitting at a bar trying to convince somebody he played all those years in the toughest football league there is and they're going to snicker: "Sure, son. I bet you just scared those Chicago Bears to death!"
As a matter of fact, Largent did. He not only has played in the NFL for more than 10 years, he may lead it before he is through. Only 31, he is currently fifth on the all-time list of pass receivers.
Only Charlie Joiner, Charley Taylor, Don Maynard and Raymond Berry lead him in receptions. Only Maynard, Taylor and Lance Alworth top him in touchdowns. He will catch Taylor with his next touchdown, which will be his 79th. Maynard has 88 and Alworth 85.
If he catches a pass for six yards Friday night against Denver, he will become only the fifth receiver in NFL history to reach 10,000 yards in a career.
Largent will catch that pass. He has not been blanked since Nov. 13, 1977. He has caught a pass in 122 consecutive games.
How does a guy who moves just faster than a bus queue and looks just big enough to go to PG movies alone terrorize the interceptor commandos of the NFL? Well, you have to remember Lance Alworth's nickname was Bambi. An innocent look is worth 10 receptions apparently in this league.
Largent's guile is more than just the choirboy look. "He swirls," a Ram defensive back explained. "It's like trying to cover smoke."
Largent runs his routes like a spy trying to shake a tail. He darts. He doubles back. "He tends to disappear," his coach, Chuck Knox, said.
When the ball comes down, Largent seems to materialize underneath it. Joe DiMaggio used to catch fly balls that way. When they came down, he was there. Something seemed to whisper in his ear before the ball was hit.
Largent seems to have the same instinct. It can't be taught. Some teams, the San Diego Chargers, notably, seem to have pass routes so artfully drawn and timed that a ribbon clerk could get open. The Seattle Seahawks are more straightforward. They don't beat you with fancy patterns. They beat you with a bust in the nose.
What Largent does is not always right off the blackboards. "You have to feel a game, you have to check out what's available," he says.
His style is continuous motion. His patterns are as fluid as syrup over waffles, as relentless as a flood. "You get no rest," Denver defensive back Louis Wright once sighed.
In the NFL, speed, like French cooking or Oriental philosophy, is an overrated commodity. If it were all that critical, how do you explain that four of the first six all-time receptors would be guys who would have trouble staying ahead of a forest fire? Largent, Maynard, Berry and Fred Biletnikoff would never be threats in a track meet.
Football coaches remain unconvinced. They hang around the high-hurdle finishes; they drool at the long-jump pits.
Rumor has it that when Largent was drafted by the Houston Oilers, the staff called the scouts on the carpet to complain: "I thought you told us this guy was an All-American pass catcher?"
"He was!" protested the scouts. Led the nation in touchdown catches at Tulsa in 1974 and 1975!"
"But this guy can't jump!" pressed the coaches.
"Doesn't have to," insisted the scouts. "Where he is when the ball comes down he doesn't have to jump," the scouts told them.
Houston wouldn't listen. They waived Largent, sent him home to Oklahoma City to consider a 9-to-5 job and a career in a three-piece suit.
"If it weren't for Jerry Rhome, who had been my assistant coach at Tulsa and who was now with the Seahawks, I probably wouldn't have been in pro football," Largent says.
That's why the Seahawks never time him. If they had relied on a clock, Steve Largent would really have had to go into a pub and say, "I could have had a career as a wide receiver in the NFL. I could have been good," and someone would have said, "Go on, Largent, those speed merchants would eat you alive!"