SEATTLE — This could be it for Steve Largent--his last game. This could be it for one of the smartest, shiftiest, craftiest, nicest, finest, most underestimated people ever to slip into football apparel, a guy who supplies living proof that you do not have to be half-man, half-monster to survive in today's National Football League.
Twelve years ago, the Houston Oilers let Largent slip through their fingers, and footballs have been falling through Houston fingers ever since. The Seattle Seahawks, meantime, have been proud to say that, win or lose, away or home, rain or dome, they have had their hands on one of the best pair of hands in the NFL, which makes them sad to think that Sunday's game at the Coliseum against the Raiders could be the last game he ever plays.
You could sense a sort of underlying gloom in the room last Sunday night at the Kingdome, on an otherwise enchanted evening that featured a 42-14 mauling of the Denver Broncos and kept alive Seattle's hopes of winning its first division title. Largent, a charter Seahawk, a man who has performed for them and suffered with them from the very beginning, might very well have been playing in front of these fans for the last time.
"Don't Leave, Steve" a 50-foot banner read, and across every railing and wall were draped drawings of Largent and messages to and about him. Throughout the stands sat people of all ages, wearing copies of Largent's jersey, and many of them looked more like real football players than he did. They looked bigger and tougher and meaner, including the women and children. Largent himself looks like somebody who couldn't hurt a fly pattern. He's the size of Brian Bosworth's arm.
Steve Largent is sort of the Stretch Armstrong of pro football. He has been tugged, pulled, yanked, cranked and hurled, yet he always comes back for more. He is a grown-up Mr. Bill, in Seattle uniform No. 80, a 5-foot 11-inch, 191-pound, 34-year-old wide receiver who has caught passes in 166 consecutive games, an NFL record.
"Balance, quickness, great feet, great hands, great desire, you name it, he's got it," said San Diego Chargers assistant coach Jerry Rhome, who was Largent's offensive coordinator at the University of Tulsa and later influenced the trade that brought Largent to Seattle. "And moves! He can move just as well and just as fast in a full football uniform as he can wearing nothing but shorts, and not every football player can say that.
"The guy can get in and out of moves better than anyone I've ever been around," Rhome said.
In Seattle, Largent is all but worshipped. Not only have his effort and talent been recognized, but ask anybody in the Seahawk organization and you will be told a story or two about Largent's largess, about how generous he has been with his time to good causes, about how many sick children he has called on the phone or visited, about how many civic or charity functions he has aided.
One of the reasons Largent has sidestepped most inquiries about his pending retirement, a Seahawk official theorized the other day, is that if the Seahawks had known Sunday's Denver game might have been Largent's final home appearance, they would have scheduled some sort of ceremony on his behalf. Largent's ego doesn't require that. This is a guy who personally requests the club to feature someone else in each year's highlight film, to spread the attention around.
Once again after Sunday's game, Largent dodged the question of whether he is calling it quits. "You never know," he said. "I might feel one way one week and another way the next."
Most people in Seattle sense that Largent already has made up his mind to call it a career, and hope that at least the Seahawks can defeat the Raiders for the division title and maybe even luck into one last home game during the playoffs, unlikely but not impossible.
"I've enjoyed playing here," Largent said. "I wouldn't trade a minute of it. The only thing that's been missing is any sort of championship. But we've still got a chance. Stranger things have happened. This could be a Super Bowl season for Seattle, you never know."
No, you don't. Just as the Oilers never knew what they had when they had it. When they went for Largent as the 117th player selected in the 1976 NFL college draft, they were not expecting much. He was smallish and slowish and not all that well known, even though, as Rhome pointed out, "Most people have forgotten that Largent led the nation in touchdown catches both as a junior and as a senior."
Houston let him go. Back then, though, a waived player claimed by another club could be recalled, and traded to the one making the best offer. Rhome, who had joined the expansion Seahawks to coach their quarterbacks and receivers, talked his employers into spending an eighth-round pick. Then they made a phone call the Oilers never should have answered.