Steve Largent is home from the war, at least for this week. As he walks into his condo in the Seattle suburb of Juanita, Wash., his wife, Terry, plants a kiss on his cheek. His four kids send up a hallelujah chorus of “Daddy! Daddy!” He picks up his youngest, 3-year-old Kramer, and suddenly Largent remembers—his body feels as if a sadist with a ball peen hammer has lovingly worked over every square inch.
“It’s always like this the day after a game,” he says, lowering his contused self onto the couch. “You heal and recover.” As his kids scramble over him, Largent laughs. The healing begins right here.
To look at Steve Largent, it’s hard to believe he can make a living among the behemoths of the National Football League. Forget the divinity student face for a minute. Check out those stumpy legs, the 5’11”, 190-lb. frame—solid and tough but hardly wide-receiver material. You might expect that pro football’s all-time leading pass catcher would be taller, faster and maybe a chunk more muscular than the competition. Largent is none of the above, yet last year the 34-year-old Seattle Seahawks veteran beat Charlie Joiner’s record of 750 career catches, and this season he has replaced Joiner as the all-time yardage leader among NFL receivers. With 12,482 yards and 781 receptions to his credit, he has made more than seven miles of progress in his 13 years in the league. If Largent didn’t get that far by eating his Wheaties, he’s eating them now. As of this fall, he’s on the box.
His secret? “Well, he prepares as hard as any player I’ve ever had,” says Seahawks head coach Chuck Knox. “He was catching over 200 balls a day before he came to training camp this year.” Defensive back Dave Brown, a former teammate now with the Green Bay Packers, believes Largent’s edge is his intelligence: “Few receivers can read routes and coverages and make adjustments like he can,” he says. Steve Moore, the Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator, offers a more mystical assessment. He just shakes his head. “If I knew what it was, I’d tell you,” he says. “I can’t explain it, so I call it magic.”
Largent’s theory involves desire. “I’ve seen guys come along with more ability—they’ve been faster or bigger or stronger—but they never worked hard to develop themselves. Sometimes I’ve wondered what I could have done with their talent. On the other hand, the tag that I was too small and slow made me work hard.”
Truth is, Largent is a soul on fire, burning to prove himself through football, goaded by a childhood full of hurt and loss. As a boy growing up in and around Oklahoma City, Largent was, he says, “small, slow and insecure.” When he was 6, his father walked out of the house, never to return. Largent today has a casual relationship with his father, Jim, a Pennsylvania real estate developer, but at the time, he says, “I didn’t have a clue what was going on.” Three years after Jim Largent left, Steve’s mother, Sue, married John Cargill, an electrician with the Federal Aviation Administration, and the family moved four times in the next two years. “I never had any friends,” says Largent. “I never felt I belonged.” To make matters worse, he says, his stepfather drank heavily, and the household, with four boys, was in constant turmoil. “Any kid who grew up with an alcoholic parent will tell you how nauseating it feels never to know what it will be like when you come home,” he says. Often, Steve had to physically separate his arguing mother and stepfather, who eventually divorced. “I remember Mom coming to me crying, asking me, ‘What should I do?’ ” he once told a reporter. “I’d think, ‘I don’t know, I’m only in 10th grade.’ ”
Largent had a surer sense of where he stood on the football field. Considered too slow to play halfback at Putnam City High School in Oklahoma City, Largent tried out at wide receiver, where his tenacity and willingness to dive for balls earned him the respect that he craved.
In his sophomore year Largent met a cheerleader named Terry Bullock. Like him, she belonged to a Christian youth organization called Young Life, and Largent began spending more time at her house than at his own. They were married during their junior year at the University of Tulsa—one of only a handful of schools that were willing to offer Steve a football scholarship. Tulsa was rewarded for its faith, since Largent led the nation in touchdown receptions—with 14—in both his junior and senior years. “I was pushing myself out of fear of failure,” he says. “If I didn’t do well, I didn’t feel good about myself.”
Pro scouts were not overwhelmed, and in 1976 Largent went undrafted until the Houston Oilers took a chance on him in the fourth round. They cut him the following summer, but Jerry Rhome, a Tulsa coach who had moved on to the Seahawks, urged his new club to give Largent a try. After one shaky day in camp, Largent got his hands on the ball and a job and has held on to both with a passion.
Considering his size, and the vulnerability of anyone who catches the ball 781 times, Largent has been remarkably durable. Despite a broken wrist, back injuries, assorted knee problems and the usual weekly pounding, he has missed only three games in 13 years. He has chosen to negotiate his last three contracts—the current one will pay him an estimated $1 million this year—but Largent has always been an independent sort. In 1982 he angered some of his teammates when he announced that he would not honor a players’ strike if one were called. “I’m a Christian,” he said, “and God’s word calls a contract a vow.” The owners wound up locking out the players before they could strike, but the incident left a chill in the Seattle locker room, and the Largents wound up moving their family back to Tulsa, where they still spend the off-season.
A close-knit, traditional family, the Largents are creatures of habit. Friday night for Steve and Terry is date night, when they go to a restaurant to talk. Another custom is family night, when the kids choose the evening’s menu and activities. (One of their favorites is hide-and-seek, played in the dark, by the whole family, with flashlights.) The routine has changed a bit since Kramer was born. That was on Nov. 11, 1985, perhaps the best and worst evening of Steve Largent’s life. “I always cry at the births of my children because I get so emotional,” he says. “I was making jokes, feeling happy, when the doctor said to me, ‘Uh oh, we’ve got a problem.’ ” The newborn had an exposed spinal cord—spina bifida. The possible consequences included paralysis and retardation.
“I was crushed,” Largent says. “I broke down, went into a corner and wept. Then I heard Terry say, ‘God planned Kramer. Having him in our lives will be one of the greatest things that ever happened to us.’ ”
The day after Kramer was born, he underwent surgery to close his spine. Bowel and bladder problems are common with spina bifida, but so far Kramer has not developed any. Although he must use crutches for longer distances, the 3-year-old can already walk across a room unaided, and doctors say he may eventually gain full use of his legs. “He’s been a blessing for me,” says Largent. “When you have someone like Kramer, you think about all the things people have to overcome, and it makes you more sympathetic. His brothers and sister are very protective of him, but they play rough and tumble too.”
With a whoop, Kramer gets up off the floor and toddles unsteadily toward his father. “That’s it!” Largent cries. “That’s just great, Kramer!” The boy begins to totter, and his father grabs him just in time. Largent is accustomed to spectacular receptions, but it is clear from his expression that, to his way of thinking, this catch ranks as one of his finest.
—Jack Friedman, and Nick Gallo in Seattle