American sports fans love a winner, but they love a scrappy underdog even more. When the Seattle Seahawks joined the National Football League as an expansion team in 1976, they started out as a rag-tag collection of unloved NFL mutts and strays. Northwest fans loved them anyway – even with a 2-12 record that first year – but it was their chutzpah and fearless flair that made them fan favorites nationwide.
As the saying goes, it’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.
Jack Patera was the first-year head coach for the first-year franchise and he was every bit the old-school guy who’d been around the NFL block. He was a big, burly presence on the sidelines with his arms crossed and a scowl on his face. It was said that you couldn’t drive a dime between his lips with a croquet mallet.
Jack Patera was a Northwest native graduating from Washington High School in Portland and was an all-conference tackle at the University of Oregon. On Sundays, Patera played next to Johnny Unitas, Dick “Night Train” Lane, Art Donovan, Gino Marchetti, Don Shula, Raymond Berry, Ollie Matson, Alan Ameche, Bob Lilly and Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb. He played for or coached under Weeb Ewbank, Tom Landry, George Allen and Bud Grant. As an assistant defensive line coach, his charges were none other than the Rams’ “Fearsome Foursome” (Rosie Grier, Deacon Jones, Lamar Lundy and Merlin Olsen ) and later the Vikings’ “Purple People Eaters” (Carl Eller, Gary “The Norse Nightmare” Larson, Jim Marshall and Alan Page).
That’s the old school.
As much as he would have preferred otherwise, he knew that his Seattle underdogs couldn’t battle in the NFL with toughness and execution, so their only chance was to baffle them with something else. And did they ever.
In the early years, the Seattle Seahawks were an electric assortment of fake punts and field goals, flea-flickers, on-side kicks and kitchen sink chicanery in an otherwise conventional and conservative league. Patera said that given his team’s lack of talent compared to other NFL teams, they had no choice but to give them the “Globetrotters’ routine.”
Years later, Patera told Tom Danyluk of Pro Football Weekly, “all those crazy calls you saw weren’t made by the seat of our pants. They were all well-scouted, well-planned decisions. If we were going to throw out of a field goal formation, we only ran the play if the defense lined-up exactly like we expected them to. An onside kick? Only when the opposing tackles would turn and leave too quickly. I guess I learned it from my days as a player with the Colts when I used to return kickoffs in practice against our coverage team. I was always fooling around with trick plays, looking for ways to be creative on special teams.”
“One day Lenny Moore and I were back waiting for a kick,” Patera said. “I said, ‘Lenny, you sneak up the opposite side of the field and stay behind. I’ll throw the ball back to you.’ Well, the play worked perfectly and we scored a touchdown. Everyone was laughing and having a good time with it. (Coach) Weeb Eubank liked the play so much we put it in against the Rams and scored again. After the game, the writers asked Weeb where he got it. He said, ‘I dreamed it up while I was sitting on the toilet.’ I’m thinking, ‘give me some credit, will ya Weeb?’”
Howard Cosell loved to promote those zany Seahawks in his Monday Night Football halftime highlights and he called them his favorite team. In 1979 the Seahawks’ national reputation was sealed in their first game on Monday Night Football when they surprised the Atlanta Falcons with three fourth-down conversions, an onside kick, a fake field goal TD pass to kicker Efren Herrera, and a final score of 31-28.
While the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were busy losing their first 26 games, the spunky Seahawks found ways to scratch out seven wins in their first two seasons. Then the Seahawks surprised everyone with a 9-7 season in 1978. Patera was voted Coach of the Year and General Manager John Thompson was named Executive of the Year. Proving it was no fluke, they went out and won nine games again in 1979.
Vikings coach Bud Grant warned Patera that they’d won too soon. As the Seahawks slid backwards in 1980 and ‘81 in the tough AFC West, Seattle fans experienced disappointment for the first time.
Times got tougher in 1982 when NFL players went on strike and Patera cut popular receiver – and outspoken union representative – Sam McCullum. The move smacked of petty resentment at the time and was later ruled unfair termination in court. Patera likely lost his team with that move and ultimately lost his job during the player’s strike after two lackluster losses to start the season.
Patera is a proud man and admits to being disappointed at how it ended. Regrets? Probably some. But as stern and strong as he could be on the sidelines, he’s just as easy-going and content in retirement.
Patera now spends his retirement with another set of dogs that he loves very much. He leads a quiet life on 10 acres outside of Cle Elum, just the other side of Snoqualmie Pass. Elk wander outside his window and he’s happy to be a regular guy in a small Northwest town.
“I’m very happy,” he told Jim Moore of the Seattle Poat-Intelligencer. “Things don’t move very fast over here. The pace is exactly like I always wanted - slower than slow. I get up and let the dogs out. The big dog fetches the paper. He comes back while I’m making coffee… the carpenter shows up at 8:30, and we go over the day’s schedule. Then I sit around and watch him. I don’t know where the day goes.”
Jack Patera and his teams will always hold a very special place in the hearts of Seahawk fans along with Jim Zorn and Steve Largent in the wild and wooly early days of Seahawks football.
Kristopher Jones writes regularly for Seahawks.NET. Feel free to reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.