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A Folk Hero and a Conductor: Finally Meeting #10

November 18, 2015

Jim Zorn has been a household name wherever I’ve lived since I was about the age of eight or nine.

For those of you who don’t follow football or the NFL, Zorn was the first quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks franchise, and emerged as such in its first training camp in the summer of 1976….a unique left-handed quarterback with a funny last name….and I can relate, because I happen to also be a lefty with a funny last name.

But I’m not a professional football player, in case you were wondering. I write indexes for technical documents….although I did play lacrosse for a very brief time in college.

Anyhow, those who were following the Hawks at the time knew him as the front end of a dynamic passing combination with wide receiver Steve Largent, and together they formed one of the most formidable passing duos in the latter 70s NFL over a span of four or five years.

I’m going to discuss Zorn’s football days with the team, and then morph things to the more personal side of this story….and finally meeting with this guy and our exchange.

In those fledgling days of the team, “Zorn to Largent” became a fabled combination and sprouted excitement about pro football in Seattle, even if the team didn’t always win games. However, the combination did lead the team to consecutive winning seasons in its third and fourth years with not just passing, but a little razzle dazzle in the form of fake field goals and other trick plays, along with a ton of heart — and tons and tons of guts.

What’s more fantastic about the combination of Zorn to Largent was the lifelong friendship between the two that blossomed right from the beginning, and in many ways is more significant off the field than on it. The two even did milk ads together for the Dairy Farmers of Washington! See a most memorable rendition of the ad campaign below.

And yes, Zorn and Largent were as squeaky clean as the ad suggests….never got into trouble. No controversies, no DUIs, no wife beatings, no sex scandals or any garbage like that. Ever. Outside of dedicated parents, perfect role models for a kid growing up in the Seattle area in the late 1970s. I couldn’t ask for anything greater, other than the blessing of living next door to a Sonic for a year — but that’s a story for another time.

All charm and milk ad musings aside, I believe understanding Zorn’s career with the Seahawks requires some framing of the NFL landscape in the latter part of the 1970s — as the context of pro football at the time makes Zorn’s and the early success of the Seahawks that much more remarkable.

At the time, most NFL offenses featured more of a running and scrambling game, because the league was not as pass-friendly as it is today, and the West Coast Offense like you see in today’s game hadn’t quite taken form yet (that would really take form under Bill Walsh and the 49ers team with Joe Montana the following decade). In the 70s, the rules of the game were different with pass protection, so cornerbacks could be more disruptive with receivers five yards outside of the line of scrimmage in a much more liberal way than is allowed in today’s game; the rule change that resulted to open up passing was commonly known as the Mel Blount Rule.

Unfortunately, the game of those times stifled the showcasing of quarterbacks around the league, but their abilities and intelligent play was still significant. The then St. Louis Cardinals were tough with QB Jim Hart. The then Baltimore Colts were tough with QB Bert Jones. The Cleveland Browns were on the rise with QB Brian Sipe, under coach Sam Ritigliano….and you may have heard of a guy by the name of Roger Staubach, the Captain America of the self-proclaimed “America’s Team,” the Dallas Cowboys. Misguided nicknames aside, no less formidable.

The then AFC West division rivals Denver Broncos had a brutal pest named Lyle Alzado on the “Orange Crush” defense, years before the advent of John Elway….the San Diego Chargers were an offensive juggernaut with QB Dan Fouts and WR Kellen Winslow….and the other division rival Oakland Raiders were always tough with QB Ken Stabler and later Jim Plunkett, Lester Hayes and Mike Haynes on the defensive corners, and a line with a dirty edge to it that took pride in knocking quarterbacks on their ass. And last but not least, Zorn went up a couple times in the 70s (both on the road) against Pittsburgh’s famed “Steel Curtain” defense — with L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes, and Dwight White; in addition to future Hall of Famers Jack Ham, Mel Blount (who’s defensive prowess allegedly ushered in that rule change), Jack Lambert and “Mean” Joe Greene — during the Steelers Super Bowl years when that dynasty was at the peak of its powers.

These were all fantastic, memorable players Zorn went up against — players who helped define their positions long before today’s game. Not just talented players — but gritty, ruthlessly competitive and wickedly tough football legends.

Zorn puts his scrambling prowess on display in a game against the Baltimore Colts in the Seattle Kingdome.

Zorn puts his scrambling prowess on display in a game against the Baltimore Colts in the Seattle Kingdome. Seattle Times

And Zorn pulled all of this off with a rather inexperienced offensive line to protect him, to say the least. If I’m trying to be nice.

Zorn was the leader of the 70s Hawks teams. He was a masterful, creative and athletic scrambler in the likes of Fran Tarketon of the Minnesota Vikings less than a decade previous. He created pass plays and yardage gains on the fly out of nothing. He’d connect with Largent and other receivers in dramatic fashion, and create sparks of hope for a team that had none.

Those sparks lit fires, and translated into wins.

Another intangible worth mentioning is that Zorn did all this in an era where the game was mostly played on artificial turf, when it was abysmal safety-wise and essentially hard as cement….many years before it was improved or done away with in favor of grass, like you see in today’s stadiums. Murder on the knees and body.

Of course, several of these games I was completely oblivious to due the fact that I was playing in soccer matches during the time of Hawks Sunday games at home or on the West Coast. During those games, half of which took place on our home field on south Bellevue’s Woodridge Elementary dirt/sand playing surface with a view of downtown Seattle, our soccer team would be minding its duties at-hand until unexpected and random roars would emerge from the sidelines….not for what we were doing on the field, but because the Hawks had scored a touchdown, and it came over a car or handheld radio that a parent had brought to the game.

When these cheers on the sidelines took place, I recall instances where my teammates and I looked at each other confused, like: “What happened? Did we do something?” Then it would dawn on us: “Oh yeah, THEY scored again.” It was annoying because our soccer team most days wasn’t scoring as much as we should, and it seemed like more cheers were aimed at the broadcast than at us. But hey….as long as someone’s having success.

Even though I watched him mainly on television, I did catch Zorn in the Kingdome on a few occasions. There was a game against the Chargers in the 70s, and then a brutal shutout by the N.Y. Giants in the early 80s (42-0, if my memory serves)….and I know there were other games. I used to pin the ticket stubs on the cork-board wall of the room I’d study in.

As the 1980s emerged, Zorn’s magic would soon run dry. I don’t really recall anything specific, but I do recall his struggles at times and a few more interceptions being thrown. The team’s record also sank them into the cellar for a couple years. It’s anyone’s guess as to what was happening….a lack of talent at other positions, O-line failures, receivers dropping passes, team chemistry falling apart under coach Jack Patera, who knows….but soon the great Chuck Knox took over as head coach, and no sooner did he substitute lefty #10 Jim Zorn from Cal-Poly Pomona with #17 righty Dave Krieg from Milton College.

I felt horrible for Zorn, but then the team turned things around and started to win….so sadly, for many fans he sorta got lost in that whole shuffle and first-timers playoff hoopla, and faded. But not for me.

I think it’s appropriate to quote author John Morgan’s take on Zorn and his time with the Seahawks — which is dead-on — from 100 Things Seahawks Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die:

….Zorn was thrown to the wolves. Expansion franchises chew up and spit out quarterbacks like they chew up and spit out head coaches….from his second year through his fourth, and again in his sixth, Zorn performed above the league average. And unlike Krieg or Hasselbeck, he did it despite little surrounding talent.

He did it with bootlegs and smart scrambles, and that essential expansion quarterback ability, toughness. He did it with trick plays and outlet passes, and a brotherly bond with Largent. He did it with resolve and canniness, abilities that made him a great quarterbacks coach two decades later. He did it ugly, but he did it, and left it all on the field. Zorn fought like 10 devils and had nothing to show for it but the victory.

He had piloted Seattle to its first two winning seasons, but it aged him….Zorn brought respectable football to Seattle, and when the Seahawks franchise was ready to catch up and make a run of its own, Zorn had to step aside because he had given all he could give. He didn’t play like a franchise’s first starting quarterback, but he suffered like it.

We can thank Zorn for his martyrdom. His starting career was short and almost entirely lacking in glory. But Zorn gave a young franchise, built from one draft and castoffs from other teams, a little life and a little promise. All is cost him was his dream and his career.

Seattle QB #10 Jim Zorn and WR #80 Steve Largent during a home game

Seattle QB #10 Jim Zorn and WR #80 Steve Largent during a home game. Seattle Times

There’s few that would remember this, but Zorn actually took over for Krieg, who had a horrible game in the 1983 AFC Champoinship game against the then L.A. Raiders. Spearheading a 2nd half comeback, Zorn was involved in two touchdown scores, including running in one on his own. Unfortunately the Raiders defense was a bit too much that day, and sadly time was up. But not without a little extra glory for Mr. Z.

After the 1984 season, Zorn would move on to play with Green Bay and Tampa Bay before ending a 9-year NFL playing career in 1987.

Meanwhile, Zorn’s buddy Largent would continue his magic with the Hawks into the late 80s through a period of sustained success for the team, and emerge as the immortal face of the franchise. He’d retire after the 1989 season as the all-time leading receiver in catches, yards, and touchdowns in NFL history, all with Seattle. In 1995, he was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH — and his #80 was the second number retired by the Seahawks, as it should be, after #12 (for the fans). Among an endless waterfall of accolades that could take up discussion for literally weeks — it should be noted that Largent was a master with his hands before the days of receivers wearing gloves — a factoid that does not appear in the record books.

If you look up the definition of perfection in the dictionary, a photo of Largent catching a pass should be next to it. Nobody ever lived up to a nickname the way Largent did with “Yoda.” He was indeed a Jedi Master when it came to catching a football.

The greatest receiving hands in NFL history, period. Point to another receiver who was better at running his routes and catching the ball….anyone….seriously, anyone….and soon you’ll be poking holes in that argument. There’s no holes to poke with Largent.

Mr. Zorn, an authentic folk hero

Mr. Zorn, an authentic folk hero. Seattle Times

That all said with respect to Largent….in my opinion, Zorn is the true and authentic all-time folk hero of the Seahawks franchise, not just due to his early flash, magic and success….but because he showed us what it meant to pick yourself up with dignity after you fall. He held his head high without complaint when he was designated as the backup midway through the 1983 season, and took one for the team by playing an active supporting role to Krieg.

While it was difficult to watch as a fan, that was the true greatness and essence of Jim Zorn. His humanity and his humility. It made him that much easier to relate to….because he is human, like the rest of us.

Because most of us who have participated in any competitive endeavor are amateurs, and we know what it feels like to be a backup….to be benched….to hit a wall of ability….to feel the humility of playing a supporting role when someone else has the spotlight.

Zorn’s story is a reminder of who WE are. That he’s one of us.

Oh, and he’s great because he conducts symphonies too….not metaphorically, I mean REAL symphonies in music halls. Not kidding. More on that in a minute.

Over the years, I would scoff at any Seahawk who wore #10 — and even when I did it in jest — there was still part of me that felt utterly insulted. How dare they? THAT’S ZORN’S NUMBER!!!

If it was up to me, #10 would be retired throughout all of sports, or at least Seattle sports. Thus, when I returned to Seattle in the early 2000s after a decade and a half in Arizona, my first purchase at the team store at the new stadium was a replica of Zorn’s #10, with embroidered numbers and name patch. The real thing.

I’d wear it on Hawks game day for good luck. I wore it during the team’s run in 2005, and when they appeared in Super Bowl XL vs the Steelers when Zorn was Holmgren’s QB coach. When I wasn’t wearing it, it hung in my closet next to a contemporary #12 Hawks jersey, #24 Griffey Mariners jersey and an odd-looking tan Diamondbacks jersey.

When I purchased it, I didn’t really have any intentions other than wearing it during gameday and for special events, and that it was just simply cool to have a Zorn jersey. I don’t consider myself an avid jersey or sports memorabilia collector….a few bobblehead dolls and a few framed things on the wall, but that’s really it.

But to own a Zorn jersey signals that you’re part of the old school of Seattle….that your fandom peels back a few layers on the onion, seeking and understanding the essence of the early years of the team.

So, let’s fast-forward to January 2015, as the Seahawks were pursuing a second consecutive Super Bowl run off the heels of their victory in SB 48.

An event at Southcenter Mall was put on by the Washington State Lottery, in combination with a pep rally of sorts for the team. The main guest featured at this event was Zorn, and it was said that he would be taking autographs in the early evening.

Mr. Z rallies the 12s after raising the 12th Man flag on the site of the former Kingdome, where he used to play

Mr. Z rallies the 12s after raising the 12th Man flag on the site of the former Kingdome, where he used to play

Going to seek someone’s autograph isn’t typically my goal in life, but this was an exception to the rule. I was working near this location at the time, and saw an opportunity to meet one of my idols. I felt like daylight had finally shown through the clouds….after all those years of being in Arizona….after all those years of focusing on baseball….here was a chance to meet the man himself.

And, in the end, it had nothing to do with autographs….it was all about meeting this guy and having a chat….and specifically, qualifying a rumor a childhood friend of mine claimed that he saw on the news in the early 1980s: Jim Zorn conducting the Seattle Symphony. So….now was the opportunity to validate or debunk the rumor….from the man himself.

After waiting for the event to start, I was about 7th or 8th in line.

So after an initial hello and handshake, while he was signing my jersey the conversation went something like this, and I’m paraphrasing more or less:

PS: “Hello, I’m Paul. I grew up watching you throw passes in the Kingdome.”

JZ: “Really? Did you go to the game with your parents?”

PS: “Yes, I did….and other times with family friends. So….I have a question for you….do I understand correctly that you performed with the Seattle Symphony?”

JZ: (eyes lighting up) “Yes! A neighbor’s boy and I were invited to play for the symphony as guest musicians, so I took him down there and we performed.” (He went on with more detail, but I can’t recall…he said that he played some sort of brass instrument, maybe the bugle horn?)

PS: “That’s great….now here’s another question about that — something an old friend and I had debated over the years. Were you a guest conductor with the symphony?”

JZ: “Yes, I was!” (Seeming impressed that I would ask such a bizarre non-football related question.)

PS: (laughing and speechless) “That’s great!”

JZ: Now remember this Paul….these are the songs we played: “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” “Beethoven’s 5th,” and “Ode to Joy.” (says a few other things, but I’m still stuck at Twinkle Twinkle)

PS: (Still a bit tongue-tied, with a huge grin.) “That’s great.”

JZ: “Did you play in band?”

PS: (Oooo…another question!) “Umm, no. I….umm….” (Can’t recall what I said after that.)

We exchanged a bit more about something I can’t recall, then it was time for me to move on. We shook hands one more time before I left, both smiling. I had the impression he enjoyed the exchange as much as I did.

I guess I didn’t know what to expect, but this exchange really blew my mind. I find it interesting that when I commented about watching him during his playing days, Zorn’s immediate reaction is to ask about who was with me when I had those experiences….whether he intended it or not, his reaction suggests that the focus of those events shouldn’t be on him, but on what I had going on in my life at the time with friends and family. He reframed the experience for me in a way that was totally unexpected and meaningful.

The symphony performances are things of legend to begin with, so to engage him in not only discussing it — but for him to go into exquisite detail with song titles and all — is something that can’t really be put into words, but I’ll try.

Euphoric and otherworldly, maybe?

Or maybe just “Wow.”

At the end of the day, this I know. This man, Jim Zorn, is a total class act….even greater and more special in my mind than ever before. There’s nothing cooler than to have a role model you looked up to as a kid and idolized not only impress you in person for the first time, but be captivated by your words and engage you in conversation the way he did with me.

I do hope we continue that conversation one day….and something tells me we will.

As if all I’ve described in this post wasn’t enough, he even left me the gift of a message in his signature that resonates through the ages….the jersey Jim Zorn signed for me reads: “To Paul, Best wishes, Jim Zorn. Prov. 22:1”

Proverbs 22:1

A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.

Check it out, it's the Top Hat Indexer's top hat!

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