Encore (from February of 2006): Seahawks’ start featured many Minnesota connections

A look back at a story I did the first time the Seattle Seahawks played in the Super Bowl against Pittsburgh back in 2006 looking back on the role a number of those with Minnesota ties played in the Seahawks’ early years:

By Frank Rajkowski

frajkowski@stcloudtimes.com

To say Bob Lurtsema still bleeds Seattle Seahawks’ blue would be overstating things a tad: The former NFL defensive lineman spent too much of his career with the Minnesota Vikings, and too many years around the team afterward, for his loyalties to lie with any other franchise.

But the man Minnesotans have come to affectionately know as “Benchwarmer Bob” was a part of the Seahawks during the team’s first season in the league in 1976.

And when they take on the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XL at 5:20 p.m. Sunday at Detroit’s Ford Field, Lurtsema will be firmly in their corner.

“The truth is, I’ll always bleed Vikings’ purple,” said Lurtsema, who spent four full seasons with the Vikings before spending 1976 and ’77 — his final two years in the NFL — with Seattle.

“Of the players who were there when I was with the Seahawks, there aren’t that many who are still connected with the team,” Lurtsema said. “Jim Zorn (a rookie quarterback in 1976) is their quarterbacks coach now, and (wide receiver) Steve Raible does their radio broadcasts. But there just aren’t that many ties anymore.

“Still, I’m rooting for the Seahawks to win. I hate the Steelers, because they beat us in Super Bowl IX when I was with the Vikings, and I do still love the Seahawks. So I’ll be cheering for them.”

Lurtsema now resides in the Twin Cities, the area in which he rose to fame through television commercials poking fun at his lack of playing time. He runs Vikings Update, a publication devoted to covering his former team.

He was signed by the Seahawks after the first game of the 1976 season as part of the deal that sent wide receiver Ahmad Rashad to the Vikings.

“For once in my life, I found out who the player to be named later in a trade was,” Lurtsema said. “In this case, it was me.”

More Minnesota ties

Lurtsema wasn’t the only member of the Seattle roster during the team’s debut season with strong Minnesota ties.

The Seahawks selected Vikings wide receiver Sam McCullum in the 1976 expansion draft. Dave Simonson, an offensive tackle who played college football at Minnesota, also was signed. He played for Seattle that season before going on to finish his four-year NFL career with the Detroit Lions in 1977.

“It was exciting to be a part of that first team,” said Simonson, who is now a police officer in Austin. “Seattle was a beautiful place to be and it was an interesting mix of older players and younger guys who were just starting out.”

Presiding over that mix was Jack Patera, the team’s first head coach. Patera, too, had a strong Minnesota background.

He came to Seattle after spending seven seasons with the Vikings as the defensive line coach under Bud Grant. He worked with the famed “Purple People Eaters” and helped lead Minnesota to its first three Super Bowl appearances.

“Working with Bud Grant was the nicest job I could possibly have had,” said Patera, who coached the team from 1976-82 and now resides in Cle Elum, Wash. “I enjoyed my seven years in Minnesota tremendously.

“I had played on an expansion team myself, with the Dallas Cowboys in 1960, so I was familiar with the toils and travails you go through in those situations. But when I had the opportunity to go to Seattle, I remember talking with Don Shula.

“He told me ‘Jack, if you get the chance to be a head coach in the NFL, you have to jump at it’.”

Adjusting in Seattle

Patera made the decision to bring Lurtsema to Seattle, having coached him with the Vikings and the New York Giants.

“Bob wasn’t maybe the greatest physical talent ever, but you could tell him things and he’d pick them up right away,” Patera said. “He was a very smart football player, and he brought his level of play up through being so intelligent.”

Lurtsema said he fit right into a system Patera had brought with him from Minnesota.

“His system was identical to the one we were running with the Vikings,” Lurtsema said. “I went out there, and the very first day he told me I’d be starting against Washington that week. I said ‘Whoa, I need some time to learn the defense.’ He said, ‘You’ve already learned it’.”

Going from the Vikings, an established NFL power, to the upstart Seahawks took some adjusting.

“You learn to refocus your goals,” Lurtsema said. “Instead of shooting for the Super Bowl, you’re trying to win more games than any expansion team ever had before that time.”

The Seahawks went 2-12. But through all the growing pains, Patera maintained the respect of his players.

“Jack and I always got along really well,” said Art Kuehn, an offensive lineman who played for the team from 1976-82. “In fact, we’ve gone hunting together since my playing days have been over.

“I remember one of my first encounters with him. I was walking down the hallway and I saw him. I was used to saying ‘hey coach’ and having them say ‘hey player.”

“But when I said ‘hey coach’ to him, he said ‘don’t call me coach, my name is Jack.’ That’s how he wanted to be addressed.”

“We want to Oakland (for a preseason game) that year and it was really hot,” Kuehn said. “Jack was kind of one of those old-school guys. When we traveled, he wanted us to look nice.

“One of our big defensive tackles came to (a team meal) wearing sandals, shorts and a cut-off t-shirt. Well, Jack just went off on him. So we knew he meant business, too.”

Kuehn said Lurtsema was a helpful guy to have in the locker room.

“Benchwarmer Bob was a great guy,” said Kuehn, who is now a school administrator at Interlake High School in Bellevue, Wash. “He had a great sense of humor and he really kept things loose.

“He was the kind of guy who always brought a smile to your face. I think that was part of why Jack brought him out here. He knew it wasn’t going to be an easy season and it would help if he had some fun guys around.”

Building blocks

Despite those early struggles, important building blocks were put in place. Zorn, who won the starting job at quarterback, would go on to throw for 21,115 yards and 111 touchdowns during his 11-season NFL career. He spent the 1995 and ’96 seasons as the quarterbacks coach under the late Jim Wacker at the University of Minnesota.

But the real budding superstar on that team was a rookie wide receiver from the University of Tulsa named Steve Largent. Largent, who caught 54 passes for 705 yards and four touchdowns in 1976, went on to play 14 seasons in the league and is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

After his retirement from football, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican Congressman from Oklahoma, serving from 1994-2002.

“The first day he practiced, you could see the discipline he had,” recalls Patera, whose brother Ken won acclaim first as an Olympic weightlifter and then as a professional wrestler. “Everything that you’d want to teach a wide receiver, Steve did perfectly. It didn’t really take more than one practice to see that he was a guy who was going to stand out.”

“He was the nicest kid you’d ever want to meet,” Lurtsema added. “I can see why he was elected to Congress and has had the success that he’s had. He was very bright. He was totally committed to the team itself. It wasn’t about any individual stuff for him.”

Homecoming

On Nov. 14, 1976, the Seahawks journeyed to Met Stadium in Bloomington to take on the Vikings. The game marked a homecoming of sorts for Patera, Lurtsema, McCallum and Simonson. The afternoon was declared “Bob Lurtsema Day” at the stadium and he was honored in a halftime ceremony.

“I remember an amusing story from when we went back to Minnesota to play the Vikings,” Simonson said. “It was ‘Bob Lurtsema Day’ and we heard that the Vikings were planning to have a little fun with him. The plan was that once they got way ahead, they’d play some games, like having everybody block him at once. But it didn’t end up working out that way.”

No it didn’t. Instead, the NFL newcomers proved surprisingly stiff competition for the Vikings, who would go on to win that season’s NFC title. McCullum caught a 7-yard touchdown pass and Seattle briefly took a 21-20 lead in the fourth quarter before falling 27-21.

“If they had instant replay back then, I think we would have won that game,” Patera said. “There was a play late when we thought (running back) Sherman Smith was in the end zone and the officials said he wasn’t. But who knows?”

“It was a really fun game for me,” Lurtsema said. “The best part was that I got to go up against (Vikings offensive lineman) Steve Riley and I knew him like the back of my hand.”

Today

Patera compiled a 35-59 record during his tenure with the Seahawks, which ended when he was fired early in the 1982 season.

He was replaced by Chuck Knox, but following the 1983 season, a team still made up largely of his players advanced to the AFC Championship game. (A tight end on that team was former Vikings head coach Mike Tice).

Still, it has taken 30 years for the franchise to earn its first Super Bowl berth.

“I thought we were on the right track at the time, so it’s been hard to see it take them so long to get to this point,” said Patera, was invited by the team to raise the 12th Man Flag at Qwest Field prior to a game earlier this season.

“I had my family there at that last game this year and we watched it from a suite. But all you do up there is watch the game on TV anyway. You’re up so high, you can barely see.

“So I won’t be there in Detroit,” Patera said. “I’ll call up a couple of my friends, they’ll come down and we’ll have a nice Sunday afternoon watching the game here.”

Lurtsema retains fond memories of his time with the Seahawks.

“It’s exciting to go from club to club sometimes,” Lurtsema said. “To see a different area and make some different friends. I met a lot of great people out there and it was a fun place to be.”

Frank Rajkowski

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