SAN DIEGO — Steve Largent is living proof that some pro football people place too much reliance on the information that comes out of computers.
The computers said Largent was too small and too slow, so the Houston Oilers drafted him relatively low and quickly got rid of him. Because of their shortsightedness, Largent's pro career almost ended before it began.
But being only 5-feet 11-inches tall and taking 4.8 seconds to run 40 yards didn't faze Largent, a University of Tulsa alumnus. Today he is the pride of the Seattle Seahawks, one of the superstars of the National Football League, and the highest-paid wide receiver in the game at $770,000 a year.
"Sometimes speed is overrated," Largent said in a telephone interview. "I've seen guys who run fast in track but don't have good football speed. There's more to receiving than 40-yard times."
Largent didn't have to elaborate. Size or no size, speed or no speed, he has an uncanny knack for getting open. And along with his pocketful of moves, he has as sure a pair of hands as there is in football.
Still, there is no telling what line of work Largent might be in today if the NFL hadn't expanded in 1976. The Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers entered the league that year, and in the frantic hunt for live bodies, the Seahawks picked up Largent from the Oilers in a preseason trade.
To put it more accurately, the Seahawks stole him from the Oilers. He had been drafted in the fourth round, which wasn't high, considering that he had twice led the nation in touchdown catches, and all the Seahawks gave up for him was an eighth-round choice.
After just one regular-season game, Largent was a starting wide receiver. After his second season, he was voted the Seahawks' most valuable player. Now he is a perennial All-Pro--and the Seahawk who will pose the biggest problem for the Chargers on Sunday when they take their 8-1 record into the Seattle Kingdome.
Before this season is over--barring serious injury--Largent will become the most prolific receiver in NFL history. And in a few years, he will become a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
With some players, the latter statement would be open to conjecture. With Largent, there is no way he can miss.
Interestingly, the man Largent is chasing for the two major receiving records is the Chargers' Charlie Joiner. Before he retired last December after an 18-year career with Houston, Cincinnati and San Diego and became the Charger receiver coach, Joiner set records of 750 receptions and 12,146 yards. Largent is second in catches with 730 and third in yardage with 11,720.
Largent also trails Don Maynard, who gained 11,834 yards in 633 catches for the New York Giants, New York Titans/Jets and St. Louis Cardinals from 1958 to 1973. In addition, Largent is closing in on the touchdown-pass record set by the legendary Don Hutson, who played for the Green Bay Packers from 1935 to 1945. Hutson caught 99 touchdown passes; Largent has caught 92.
Even at 33 and in his 12th pro season, Largent shows no signs of slowing down. He leads the AFC with 36 receptions and 591 yards, and he ranks fourth in the NFL behind J.T. Smith of St. Louis (49), Roger Craig of San Francisco (47) and Pete Mandley of Detroit (37). Largent has extended his league record for consecutive games with at least one catch to 146.
For a couple of days, Largent was just 19 short of Joiner's reception record, not 20. But after an exhaustive study of films of the Seahawks' Nov. 9 game against the New York Jets, the NFL took a catch away from Largent and gave it to fullback John L. Williams.
It seems that because Largent's feet didn't touch the ground before he threw what was intended to be a lateral to Williams, he never officially had possession. He tossed the ball to Williams while in midair.
Not that losing one catch out of 730 is a big deal, but Largent disagrees with the decision.
"I think it's a case of nit-picking," he said. "To me, the question is whether you had control of the ball. Obviously I did, since I lateraled to another player. The spirit of the rule is that if you have the ball in your hands with both feet inbounds, it's a catch. It was a planned play.
"Miami ran the same play against San Diego three years ago when the Chargers won in overtime (34-28). One of their receivers caught a pass on a curl pattern, like I did against the Jets, and lateraled in midair to Tony Nathan. The play went for a touchdown, and they ruled it a reception and a lateral.
"I'm not that concerned about it, but I think the decision in my case was wrong."
Largent had to admit his quest for Joiner's records was on his mind, but said it was too early to talk about going into the Hall of Fame.
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about the records," he said. "They would be an accurate reflection of what I've done in my career. Still, I wouldn't call them goals. They are things that may happen.