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Broncos-Seahawks rivalry recalled in hard-hitting AFC West days

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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Brian Bosworth riled things up when he made disparaging remarks about John Elway in 1987. (Getty Images)
Brian Bosworth riled things up when he made disparaging remarks about John Elway in 1987. (Getty Images)

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Wide receiver Steve Largent caught 819 passes for 13,089 yards and 100 touchdowns, all of them the most in Seahawks history and among the most all time. But he names as his favorite play of his Hall of Fame career a tackle of Broncos cornerback Mike Harden.

The story starts in the previous meeting between the two teams. As Largent tried to catch a pass, Harden nailed him in the face with his elbow. The hit broke Largent's facemask, gave him a concussion and cost him two teeth. He missed the rest of the game. Harden was fined $5,000.

Largent felt like he owed Harden one, and when Harden intercepted a pass in the end zone in the team's next meeting, he sought vengeance. "I was chasing him from behind. He was obviously trying to avoid the tacklers ahead of him," Largent said. "He couldn't see me at all. He cut back to his left, right into me, right when I tackled him. I put a perfect hit on him."

After the hit, Largent stood over Harden for a beat before he realized the collision had jarred the ball loose. He jumped on it then sprung to his feet and jawed at Harden. The camera panned to Largent. He looked like a man grabbing a beer after finishing his honey-do list.

Revenge is sweet, or at least it was that time.

As the Seahawks and the Broncos prepare to play in the Super Bowl this Sunday, Largent's hit on Harden stands out as one of the top moments in the two team's long history. As members of the AFC West, they played each other twice a year from 1977 through 2001, when Seattle left for the NFC West. The teams have met just four times since 2001, but their total of 52 games against each other represent the most ever previous matchups among Super Bowl opponents.

The brutal nature of the Largent-Harden play might be misleading. The rivalry was fierce, but it was built on respect, not animosity. The players did not hate each other like they hated, say, the Raiders, also members of the AFC West.

"I would call it a gentlemen's game," said Brison Manor, a Broncos defensive end for seven full seasons and part of an eighth (1977-84).

Like several other players and coaches, Manor recalled close games and an evenly matched rivalry, and both were true for short stretches. But in the overall history of the rivalry, the Broncos hold a clear edge. The Broncos lead the series, 34-18, and outscored the Seahawks 1,222 to 1,011, according to pro-football-reference.com. They met once in the postseason, in 1983. The Seahawks won, 31-17.

Early in the rivalry, the Seahawks were an expansion team and played like it. They lost seven of the first 10 games against Denver, including the first four. When they finally beat the Broncos -- on a fourth-quarter touchdown pass from quarterback Jim Zorn to Largent -- the Seahawks counted it as a milestone win.

"They were kind of getting their feet wet at first," Manor said. "And when they finally got their feet dried off, they started playing good ball."

The rivalry produced one of Manor's favorite memories on the field, which was immediately followed by one he'd like to forget. He intercepted a Zorn pass, the only pick of his career. He returned the ball 16 yards before he was tackled -- by Zorn, whom Manor outweighed by 47 pounds. "I couldn't live that down," Manor said. "I made the play, and then he made the play back."

Steve Largent runs away from Broncos linebacker Rob Nairne at Mile High Stadium in 1980. (Getty Images)
Steve Largent runs away from Broncos linebacker Rob Nairne at Mile High Stadium in 1980. (Getty Images)

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Karl Mecklenburg played linebacker for the Broncos for 12 seasons. He's a motivational speaker now and often uses stories from his career to illustrate his points. More of his stories come from games against the Seahawks than any other team. He played against them more than anybody else, but that doesn't totally explain it. Strange things seemed to happen in and around those games. "It's nice that we're playing them now -- it makes sense that I'm using them so much," he joked.

Once, the team flew into Seattle in the middle of a snowstorm. The airport was closed, but the team plane landed there anyway, the only plane coming or going. Running back Sammy Winder hated flying, and when the plane suddenly jolted onto the previously invisible ground, one, and only one, oxygen mask dropped from above -- at Winder's seat. "He let out this horrible, blood-curdling scream," Mecklenburg said.

Another story Mecklenburg tells often in his speeches involves a game played in Denver. Seattle running back Curt Warner was leveled by safety Dennis Smith. Warner fumbled, and a mass of players chased the ball toward the Denver sideline, where Mecklenburg was standing behind a ball boy. The players veered toward the ball boy, who freaked out and dropped a ball he was holding.

It rolled onto the field, and chaos ensued, with players trying to figure out which ball to jump on.

Mecklenburg uses the story in his speeches to show that success doesn't happen by accident. Denver linebacker Tom Jackson had run a blitz called "Will-Shoot" on the play. He did everything properly. He went upfield as deep as the ball, he checked for a reverse or a bootleg, and then he pursued the play. When Smith crushed Warner and knocked the ball loose, Jackson recovered it, which wouldn't have been possible if he hadn't done his job right in the first place. Mecklenburg says Largent recovered the wrong one and couldn't understand why refs were signaling Denver's ball.

* * *

Denver players loved and hated playing in Seattle. The Kingdome was dank and nasty. But it was loud, and that made it fun, especially when they took the crowd out of it. Which was rare. It was more common for the crowd to get into the Broncos' heads. "It was a tough place to play, just like it is now," said Dan Reeves, the Broncos head coach from 1981 until 1992.

The Kingdome was the loudest, by far, of any stadium the team played in, Reeves said, and it was the first place he saw the wave. As it rolled around the stadium, fans rising and dropping in succession, screaming all the while, it sounded to him like a jet taking off. That gave him an idea. Pilots wear earplugs to save themselves from the noise. He gave his offensive players earplugs. "We weren't too successful with it," he said. "But it was so difficult you had to try something."

Denver wasn't much easier to play in. The fans sat close to the field, and the seats were made of metal. When fans started banging them, players on the field couldn't hear the coaches.

Perhaps the loudest trip came in 1987, after Seahawks linebacker Brian Bosworth made disparaging remarks about Broncos quarterback John Elway before the season opener.

Joe Nash, a Seattle defensive lineman for 15 seasons, said the crowd was full of fans wearing, "Ban the Boz," T-shirts. "They were all riled up," Nash said. "That's the last thing you want to do." The Broncos crushed the Seahawks in the game, 40-17. Elway threw for 338 yards and four touchdowns.

Elway remains at the center of the rivalry, then because he was always the best player on the field, and now because he is the Broncos' executive vice president of football operations. Nash says Seattle players had a secret nickname for Elway. "It was all due respect -- we called him 'The Freak,'" Nash said.

Nash recalled a group of defensive players studying film on Elway. They watched him standing in the shotgun, looking in one direction and yelling at his receivers. They watched as the ball was snapped when Elway had his head turned, watched the ball sail to his left, and watched him catch it even though he wasn't looking. They wondered how they're supposed to stop a guy who could do stuff you're not supposed to be able to do.

As bad as the film study was, on the field, it was worse. In 30 starts against the Seahawks, Elway went 20-10, throwing for 7,013 yards and 44 TDs, according to pro-football-reference.com, both highs in his Hall of Fame career. "Just chasing John Elway around, I still wake up at night thinking about it," Nash said.

* * *

Largent says Jackson was the most talkative defender the Broncos had. For the Seahawks, that player was Fredd Young -- who reportedly added the second ‘d' to his name after a college teammate said he hit so hard he caused opposing ball carriers to stutter. In one game against Denver, Young's incessant jibber-jabber saved his team three points.

Rich Karlis, the Broncos kicker for seven seasons (1982-88), said Young always hollered his name, and whatever else came to mind, as he prepared to kick. During a home game against the Seahawks, Karlis made the mistake of looking up when Young called to him. Young made him laugh, which messed up his preparation, and he missed the kick.

Karlis said a timeout was called before another kick later in the game. "I went over to the sideline and Dan Reeves said, ‘What are you doing here?' I said, ‘I don't want to sit there and let Freddy holler at me from across the line.'"

Though he played the bulk of his nine-year career in Denver, Karlis has mixed emotions going into the Super Bowl. Though he kicked for the Broncos for seven years, he has, in a sense, worked with the Seahawks even longer. He negotiated the naming rights deal for his employer, Qwest, to call the Seahawks' home stadium Qwest Field in 2004. It is now known as CenturyLink Field, and Karlis still manages that account as the director of sponsorships for CenturyLink.

He has lots of friends within the Seahawks organization. He sounded relieved to say he wouldn't attend the game so he wouldn't have to be forced to choose between the two. "I think I'm better off staying home," he said.

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