Bouncing around the league for 10 years wasn’t an experience NFL quarterback Hugh Millen planned but still grateful for. His football career led him to play with 93 pro ball players and he learned from coaches that went to the Super Bowl. But his beginnings as an athlete and as a person weren’t as smooth as other star players in the league. His mother had seven broken marriages, with his first step-dad being a heavy-weight boxer who physically abused his family. Although these stings of life did bring him down, Hugh kept coming back up, grinding his teeth and staying focused on his goals in life and sports. Hugh shares the moments of truth in his life that kept telling him to quit, but he didn’t and instead reacted positively to the experience. Learn why there really is no need to win every day, all you need to do is give yourself a chance to keep throwing the ball and keep throwing it hard.
We’ve got another fantastic, awesome and incredible guest. I say this because I’ve known this guy for 30, 40 years. His name is Hugh Millen. We went to high school together, played football. He was a quarterback, I was a wide receiver. Then we went on to the University of Washington. I took a more direct path. He had to go down to a JC before he transferred. He became our starter on a very successful team. We ended up number two in the country. We both ended up getting drafted in the NFL. He played ten years, I only played five. Nonetheless, how many guys can actually say that they went to high school together and let alone being in the same city, town and then making it all the way to the top of the rung, in this case being the NFL? Hugh talks about his adversity that he went through growing up. Not the greatest family life and he had a lot of stepdads in there. Some weren’t so kind as others and he had to really feel the wrath of that. Post his NFL career, he’s come out and he’s been on the radio up in Seattle, the football expert for the Seahawks and the Huskies and is a part of the Husky Honk pre and post-game shows for the Huskies. They’ve been doing this now for nineteen years. That’s a long time. I had a ton of fun getting caught up with my old teammate, friend and we just go through it all. You’re going to love this episode. It’s a little bit longer but we always go a little bit deeper. What else would you expect with buddies? That’s what we do. As always, remember to rate and review. Go to iTunes, Finding Your Summit. It’s all happening in the right way so that we can continue to broadcast these episodes. On that note, let’s go talk to Hugh.
As always, go in, rate and review on iTunes, Finding Your Summit. If you want to find out any more info on me, you can find me at MarkPattisonNFL.com. The podcast has continued to grow and I’m very appreciative of that. Without further ado, let’s talk to Charles, The Captain.
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Hugh Millen: A Lookback On The Challenging Life And Career Of An NFL Quarterback
This episode brings a lot of extra meaning to me because I’m interviewing one of my longtime friends, Hugh Millen. Hugh is just an amazing individual on so many different levels. I’ve known this guy now for 35 plus years.
It’s good to be with you, MP.
There are a lot of people who know you and there are a lot of people who don’t know you. I want to set that up first. We’re going to go forward and then we’re going to go backward. For those that don’t know, Hugh and I went to high school together. How often do you get the great fortune of playing football in high school with one of your buddies then going on to the University of Washington? In our case ,we were the quarterback-receiver duo, and then we both get very fortunate to get drafted into the NFL. He had a little bit longer career than I did. Nonetheless, what are the odds of anybody making it that far? I’m just so proud of the fact that he did it and he certainly did it with a lot more odds to overcome. It’s just a remarkable story.
I think we met each other when I was probably a sophomore, maybe you were a freshman in high school, something like that. Where we first came together was at Roosevelt High School in Seattle, about twenty blocks north of the University of Washington. We just started hanging out. We had a lot in common. You love football. I love football. We both love sports. Now, we’re going to the same high school together and you connected really well with a lot of my friends, which then obviously became your friends. It started something really wonderful. One of the things that I would come to learn more and more is just how difficult your childhood was for you. I’ll probably reiterate this a few times during the pod, which is just having that inner strength to keep going because so many people would have quit along the journey and you never did. You kept going and you overcame. For you, what was that like growing up? By the way, this is a new fact for me. I didn’t know you were born in Iowa.
That just happened to be my mom and my dad were really young and they were 21 when they had me. My dad was going to Michigan and they had a brief little interlude. It was right around the time of Thanksgiving. I was actually born on the actual day and year that John Kennedy was assassinated. I was born about three hours before. Around Thanksgiving time, mom was spending some time with a friend down in Des Moines and that was early, so no connections to Iowa in that regard. It’s funny, I have gotten contact from some Iowans sending a football card or something like, “I’m trying to collect all the cards from everybody from Iowa.” I’m thinking, “I don’t really feel like I’m Iowan.” Mark, before we get into that, I do want to preface. If you’re looking for an interview of Steve Young or some Hall of Famer or something, this is not that interview. I was a guy who’s very fortunate to bounce around the league. I played with 93 Pro Bowl players and I was around some great coaches that had a total of eight Super Bowls. I was able to see that and I’m grateful for the career I had. I think in that respect, I acknowledge that if there’s anything to be taken it would be, “I’m just an ordinary Joe.” I had an ordinary career in the NFL. Nonetheless, blessed to accomplish some things and be on a really good college football team and be on a Super Bowl champion. I just wanted to get that out of the way.
I appreciate that but truth be told, this podcast is about overcoming adversity and finding your success. There are only about a billion little boys out there who would dream one day to play in the NFL and you actually did it. I had my fifteen minutes of fame too, but I still had it and I experienced that. I got to play with a bunch of Pro Bowl guys too and their friends and great locker room camaraderie. I was never a great NFL player. But those memories are forever and you can’t take those away. The coaches and all the influences and the positive things from the players like John Elway and Marino and all these guys that you got to play behind, to anybody, it’s a dream life. When you’re the super duper, duper, duper of the lucky that got up there, you do make the Pro Bowl and you do become great, but that was not my destiny and that wasn’t your destiny, but what was your destiny is to keep going.
I think that we can all take snippets from people’s lives and try and gain wisdom. That’s the best source of wisdom is to not just experience things and maybe learn from our own lessons, but learn from the lessons and the lives and the experience of others. I think in that regard that maybe we can share something that can be helpful. You’re talking about guys that aspire to make the NFL. First of all, we know it’s getting in line with ten million other kids. Everybody wants to be in the NFL when you’re playing. You don’t have that dream, “I’m going to be a backup most of my career and play for five teams. When I do finally get to start within a couple of years, they’re going to just blow me out of there.”
In that regard, do you remember the movie Amadeus from ’84? Best Picture, I believe it was. It depicts a composer at the time, a contemporary of Mozart, a guy named Salieri, who was almost driving himself mad because he had this jealousy for Mozart, that Mozart had all this talent. There’s a line in there that says, “Lord, why do you implant in me the desire to be this great composer and then deny me the talent?” In some ways, you and I lived that. You would have loved to have a Steve Largent career and be wearing a yellow jacket. I backed up Troy Aikman and John Elway and Dan Marino. All three of those guys have yellow jackets because they’re in the Hall of Fame. I would have loved to have had that. That’s the dream I had. In that sense, I have that kinship with Salieri. Salieri was a fairly accomplished composer at his time but nothing of any real significance. He was a contemporary of Mozart who was brilliant. When I’m sitting there and I’m practicing and John Elway is doing things that I could only dream of, it’s like, “God, you’re knocking on the door but we didn’t go all the way with the talent.”
The way I look at that too is what you’re given, what I was given is an opportunity. Once you get that opportunity, then you’re thinking about it as possibility. What you’re talking about really is hindsight. As you were going into those different teams, the Broncos, the Dolphins, some of these other places, they already had great quarterbacks, but you never know when injury is going to strike like Joe Theismann where he breaks his ankle in half. In fact, in most of these teams, you got an opportunity to go in and play because they got hurt.
When I got the opportunity, I did just enough to keep a job but not to make a real mark on the league. I don’t want to blame that, “God didn’t give me enough talent.” I’m just saying that I think if you’re talking about reality versus theory. In theory, we should all be grateful for the blessings we have and I think we all are. There are times where we’re contemplative about those blessings, which I’m so blessed. Even for us to have played, even a down is a great blessing because most people don’t experience that. It’s like money. You always think that the next guy who has a little bit more money than you, “He’s rich.” There’s a certain fallible nature to our human existence where we wrestle with we know we need to be grateful and that’s a cognitive thought, that’s an intellectual conclusion. Be grateful. The fallible part of our emotions is we have to wrestle with not being envious of others. That’s one of the seven deadly sins. Or not taking accountability for our own failings. “If I didn’t do the job, if John Elway got hurt, I start a game. If I don’t win that game or I don’t play well, I had the opportunity. The time for me to shine was then and I didn’t do it.” Guys did it. Kurt Warner did it from a lot worse circumstances than me, coming off of stocking shelves. It can be done. Kurt Warner proved it. When you prove that like Kurt Warner did, then he’s wearing that yellow jacket.
It’s not all about wearing the yellow jacket. It’s about being the best that you can be. That’s one of the reasons why I love football versus maybe a sport like tennis where it’s individual in that it truly is about being a team. Our mutual great buddy, Jim Mora, who’s now the head football coach at the UCLA Bruins, played with us at the University of Washington. He was never a starter but he was a key role player for that backup position.
In the biggest game of the year against Michigan, he goes in there and he gets the game ball because he has double-digit tackles because he’s ready to play.
You don’t go like, “My goal in life is being number two.” We all want to be number one but sometimes your talent only takes you so far and it is what it is. You have to be grateful for those moments, especially when you look back and just know how blessed we were to be able to play with a lot of great players and be in that arena. What I want to do right now, because we jumped over just a little bit, but I want to get into how you meandered your way. You’re two days old and you were in Iowa and now you’re fifteen and that’s where I connected with you. You’re in Seattle. I know you grew up in the north end part of Seattle.
We bounced around a lot. We lived in the central part of Seattle. We had only been in Iowa for a couple of weeks and then we’re in Ann Arbor because my dad was finishing up at the University of Michigan. He was 21 when he had me. Then we moved out when I was two to Seattle, so I consider myself a Seattleite because that’s my first memory.
Why did you bounce around a lot?
My mom, I want to honor her in her passing. She passed in 2007 but the facts are the facts that she had a number of broken marriages, seven to be precise. As you might imagine, when you’re a child of that, the first divorce to my dad was age four, so now I have a new stepdad. From there, just the nature of the relationships and how she was in and out of relationships led to a nomadic existence there for a while.
That would be difficult for anybody. I went through a split with my longtime now ex. The hardest part of that whole thing is what it does on the kids. It’s awful. To have to repeat that multiple times for any kid, it’s an unstable situation. I know what kids like more than anything is stability. When there’s not stability and that consistency with the same school, the same friends, the same house that you’re in, that just creates a lot. I think for me where we connected first in high school, I didn’t know all the reasons why, but you were spending a lot of time at my house with my parents. I grew up in the Opie, Leave it to Beaver type of environment which was great. My parents were wonderful and awesome and they brought you in. There were really no questions asked. It was just like, “Here’s my buddy and he needs to stay here tonight,” and they said, “Great.” That was a wonderful thing for you to be able to do that. We’re talking about you’re four years old and now you’re displaced. Do you remember that time when you were going through it? Were you too young or was that just the beginning of many things to come?
It was a difficult time. I’m not the first kid obviously to be in the midst of a divorce, but now I’ve got a stepdad. He was a heavyweight boxer. He fought George Foreman. He fought Ken Norton. In fact, he went ten rounds with Ken Norton. The last fight Ken Norton had before he broke Muhammad Ali’s jaw, he fought my stepdad three months before. My stepdad was able to go ten rounds with him. He lost to a unanimous decision but he had at least three rounds by every judge. You can imagine a heavyweight boxer, very intimidating, very abusive in the house to my mother, abusive to my brother and me; a lot of abuse on a pretty continual basis from age four to seven or eight. We’re living in a part of town where we were the only white kids going to school in central Seattle. That was okay for me. I connected with the kids. I don’t remember having problems with the kids. I was an athlete so I was connected on some levels. My brother maybe had a little bit more time.
At the house, it’s tough when you’re getting the crap beat out of you by a heavyweight boxer. You’re fearful when the guy walks up the stairs everyday when he comes home. I share that because at age 53, I always knew when we were getting whacked around, when my mom would cower, he’d raise his hand and she’d go to protect herself and blame things that she had done on my brother and me and try and turn the physicality back on my brother and me. I knew all that stuff was wrong. Even at six, I knew that it wasn’t right. I had times where if I would have just lifted the back of my shirt and shown my teacher that you could touch your finger and blood would come out because you got beat so bad with a belt, that he’d go to prison, and certainly now. It was a different day and age back then. When you get beat like that, obviously it’s frightening. I felt like during that time, I was always knowing right and wrong. I said, “This isn’t right.”
I think that’s an important part for me. I’m not trying to project my philosophies on anybody else. For me, I always felt like, “I know right from wrong and I’m accountable for my own actions. I cannot blame anything that I have experienced because I can always find somebody who experienced worse than me, much worse,” but it wasn’t an ideal situation. We ended up moving down to East LA. Now, I’m just about the only white kid in that school. There’s some heavy, heavy racial tension. In elementary school, they had a rule: there was no talking in the lunchroom. If you spoke anything, you would have to go up by the window and put your elbows on the window. Can you imagine walking into an elementary school lunchroom, kids all pent-up with their energy and it’s stone-silent and they got monitors at every couple of tables because there had been so much tension. I can connect with some of the emotions of minorities in this sense. I can remember saying, “I’ve got the perfect solution, mom. Just paint me black,” because it seemed like that was the world. Nonetheless, we got through it and then you forge on.
There are two things that strike me with that. One, you’re talking about such a young formative age and that you had the maturity to know between right and wrong. The second part of that is I think a lot of times, that behavior is mimicked back on other people. You turned into a bully or whatever that is of getting into fights, picking on people. I know your brother, Jim, too. He’s just a good guy. You guys have kind hearts. From the standpoint of growing up in a harsh environment like that and then bouncing around and it’s not stable, to not carry that anger or maybe you did have anger, but it didn’t come out in the way that you treat others, you always treated others with respect and humility, it’s really amazing to me.
A fish doesn’t have a concept of water. I don’t know how my life would have been different. I try to live a life that God would want me to live. I also know the impurity of my thoughts, the impurity of my actions and my words. I think we can all look and say, “We fall short of where we need to be.” I think the purpose here is if somebody can relate to some of the stings of life. I can remember one time, there was a little landing on the stairway and this guy has got the belt out and he’s just going and going and going, just flailing the belt. We had extension cords and all that stuff but the belt to the point where basically you were just about to bleed. Right around the corner of the sofa, my mom was just sitting on the sofa and it would be over her shoulder, she had her legs crossed on the couch in a really casual way. It’s really hard when you’re six or seven at the time, but the belt is just coming and coming and coming and you’re looking around the corner and your mom is just sitting there with her legs crossed. She was gripped by fear. There was nothing she was going to do because she was scared for her own safety. Maybe somebody can remember a point in their life where they said, “That stung. It’s just something happened with my parents that just rips your heart out. You just have to be strong.” I’m talking about my philosophy to myself.
You’re a parent. You’ve got two awesome boys and I’ve got two awesome girls. At the end of the day, kids look to their parents for protection. We’re supposed to protect them from all bad things that are out there and not be the people that are out there creating havoc. I just can’t even imagine what that would be like. You have to gravitate towards something. You’re going through something awful like this and you’re enduring this pain and it’s consistent. Even when he just even starts to unloosen his belt, even if he’s just taking his pants off, you were like, “Am I going to get this?” Do you think your love of sports came from that was your refuge?
It’s a great question because I don’t know how I might have gravitated to sports had I not gone through some of those experience. I think for me, I can recall this. I can recall loving Mondays. Being a first, second grader, I remember being on the back of the bus and I loved Mondays and I hated Fridays. I hated Fridays because that meant I had to be at home. I actually became a good student. I think I developed an affinity to school because I just would much rather be at school than be at home. Fridays were a terrorizing day and Mondays were a relief. “Thank God it’s Monday,” whoever says that? For me, Mondays were not blue. Mondays were bright and sunny just because you knew that you weren’t going to get terrorized at school.
As far as sports, I think that I was a guy that most sports came pretty good to me. I’d describe myself as a good athlete. There are great athletes, the kind of guys that people talk about like, “This guy can do everything. He can water ski and he can pole vault and he can throw a ball over a mountain.” Everybody knows that athlete. You were more that guy than me. I was six foot five and I had really large hands and I had a skill to throw a football. I’m not the last guy you’re going to pick on a basketball court, but I’m nothing special. I think athleticism did help in some of those ways relating to some of the kids in the inner city. There’s no doubt about that. I think I would have been driven to play that out had I had a more conventional upbringing or not.
I know one thing as we now move into high school that when you and I got connected, I was a sophomore and you were a freshman, I hung out with all these great guys from the Brian Careys to Rick Andersons and a bunch of guys like that, Dave Mater, and everybody just liked you. It’s always nice in a big high school like that, especially when you’ve had some chaos in your background, to come in and have your friends now be your best buddies. Everybody accepts you and they bring you in and now you’re starting to become part of that team. Not just on the field but off the field. From my perspective at least, I think a lot of that happened to you. It was just a great way to be, to have a guy who nobody knew, to come into the group and be accepted.
You were a leader of that group and it was a great group. You were a year ahead in school but I was in school early, so really calendar-wise it’s two years. I had done so much moving around that I didn’t have those deep roots with friends like you did in the area. We’re in high school and it was really profound for me to be accepted into that group because I just felt like a young guy that I had an acceptance. Sports was a great vehicle in that road and I think a lot of people have experienced that. It was a pivotal time in life. Obviously, those high school years are hard on everybody but the social part of it can be really tough. It was a great group of guys you were hanging with. I’m still friends with those guys to this day and my life is the better for it.
Where did you play your freshman football?
I was involved in the youth football, both freshman and sophomore year outside of Roosevelt. I had lived up in the north part of Seattle, the shoreline area. I was playing youth football up there. When it came to freshman and sophomore football, my thought was, “I can play ten or eleven games and have an opportunity to win a championship in youth football or if I’m on a freshman team, they might play four or five games and you’re just as scout team fodder for the varsity.” The experience I thought would be more rewarding and enriching, but that didn’t help me in high school because I’m playing football not only away from the high school but geographically several miles away. By the time I actually played high school football, I was a junior. We’re talking about that period of time when now I’m transitioning from, “Who’s this guy that was playing Little League Football ten miles away, and now who is he and what does he mean to our team?”
The irony of all this and the reason why I’m bringing it up is because when I was a senior and you were now a junior, you were going to be our quarterback. I had been a receiver two years before that as a sophomore and junior. We had an All-State quarterback. You were a kid that had grown to 6’3, 6’4 or 6’2, 6’3?
My junior year, I was barely over six feet and about 160. I was fifteen years old.
You were fifteen but you had fifteen size feet. By the time you said hike at that time and you dropped five steps back, and based on our line and the people that we had upfront, it was just a challenge to get the ball out in the passing game to me. They brought me in. I played quarterback my senior year, it would be your junior year. The following year, I went on to the University of Washington as a receiver and then it was your time to shine, you and Dean Baker. You guys went out there and you had a pretty good senior year. I think you were All-Metro, right?
Yeah, I was. Your rendition of this is a little different than my rendition. There’s some humility that you’ve interjected that we can all appreciate. Your junior year, you were Player of the Year in the conference as a receiver. That was my sophomore year. Nobody had seen me. When the coach was planning for the team, my memory is that they had already planned to move you to quarterback and take advantage of your athleticism with a thinking that I just wasn’t ready, which I can readily admit right now I wasn’t ready. You become Player of the Year in the conference as a quarterback in your senior year. You’re back-to-back player of the year in the conference, one, as a receiver and as a quarterback. You had the size and the stature and the athleticism and you were a pretty darn good quarterback. I don’t know that the opportunity was initially there. There’s no question that they flirted around with it, but I wasn’t ready. The times I had to play, I didn’t know anything about reading defenses. I didn’t know anything about anything. You were the deserving star of that year.
There’s a long list of guys that have gone through and have gotten disappointed because things didn’t go quite right and because they didn’t have the family stability and maybe the dad-father figure to say, “No, you’re going to stick in there,” and the mom hardcore going, “You’re not going to quit.” You didn’t. Whether it was your refuge or you just felt like that’s where you want to be or you understood your role. The bottom line is you didn’t quit and you kept your eye on the ball that, “I was going to graduate and be on,” and you were going to have your turn, which you did. When you did, you did well enough to gain a little bit of interest around. You ended up going down to Santa Rosa. It probably wasn’t the exact way you may have drawn it up, but everybody’s got different paths. At the end of the day, it all led to the right world.
You described the picture exactly right there. You played your senior year. This was the Metro League. It wasn’t well-funded with seven regular season games. I’m a senior. I get a concussion in the first series of the first game. I’m down to six games. I made All-League and all, but I was getting some token interest from different schools but no scholarship offers came. The coach just said, “You’ve played six games of high school. You’ve got to play.” Every game I played as a senior, I was a sixteen-year-old. I was slated, I guess my DNA had to grow another two inches. I grew two inches after my seventeenth birthday but I played every game as a sixteen-year-old. I think where there may be a story is sometimes when we don’t have the success we want, because at that point you had gotten the scholarship offer, you were at Washington and I think all kids are saying, “I want to play in the Pac-10.” It was Pac-10 at the time but now it’s a Pac-12.
That idea, “I didn’t meet my goal. Why? Is there another way? The front door is closed. Is there a sidedoor? Is there a backdoor? Is there another route I can take? Is there a circuitous route?” I had resolved it. I was going to let the game tell me that I could no longer play. This is not WSU, Washington State University Pac-10. This is Eastern Washington, has a scout, comes in and looks at my tape. He was there for a long time with a bunch of the game tapes. This was my senior year in high school. I talked to him after he had watched all this tape and he seemed to take a little delight in looking me in the eye and saying, “I looked at a lot of tape. My conclusion is that you’re not the caliber of player that we’re looking for at Eastern Washington.” I was like, “That’s a big dagger.” There are people that are going to tell you stuff. I’m not saying it was a flawed analysis. At the time, it was probably the right analysis. I think on a personal level, he probably took a little too much glee. Maybe he was frustrated in his own job but he seemed to really enjoy telling me that I wasn’t a caliber of player at Eastern Washington.
I did go to the University of Washington in my freshman year and I was really lost in the program. I hadn’t dedicated myself. I wasn’t strong enough. I wasn’t fast enough. I wasn’t emotionally, physically, mentally, all that stuff. I can remember it like it was yesterday. We were sitting here and having this conversation and there was this very well-known booster. He was about ten yards behind us. I was on the sideline. I had come out on the play. I can remember him turning to one of his other buddies and talking about me and I could overhear it saying, “That was one big waste of a scholarship.” That stung just like it stung for you. What it did too is make me just grind my teeth and clench my fist and like, “I’m going to show that guy.” I did. That’s part of the story. You’ve got choices. You can take door number one or door number two. Far too many people quit and give up and don’t go the full mile. I think as it relates to just this story, you had to take the road less traveled. Rather than go to the four-year school like I’ve got to go to, you said, “I’m not going to quit. I’m not going to have the guy from Eastern Washington in a low D-I conference telling me what I can and cannot do, but I do need to go and get more playing time.” You and Dean Baker ended up going down to Santa Rosa Junior College, right?
Yeah. At that time, the receiver, a really good friend of ours to this day, Dean, a wonderful presence in my life. We went to Santa Rosa Junior College. It was exactly what I needed to do. That had been recommended by our high school football coach, Art Wiper. He had a connection there and he said, “You need to play. You need to see where you’re at.” It made a lot of sense both from a football standpoint. My dad was thrilled because at that time, you could go to gain residency in the State of California. He had told me, “I will help you pay for a state school.” I could have gone to the University of Washington, I could have gone and not played or walked on or something if they would have taken me. Now I’m going to California and I’m going to establish residency. Now, I can go to UCLA or anyplace, UC Irvine or whatever and I can pay in-state residence. That made a lot of sense both on the football front and on the academic front.
You’re down there for two years and you start and you’re playing. You’re doing the things that you needed to do, which is just get out there and develop physically, mentally, emotionally, all those things, but the bottom line is you’re playing football. Your position now where you’re down in California, you’re having some success on the field, you’re throwing the ball, you’re making some yards and now you want to continue that path. You’re looking at going to a four-year school. My version of the story is I get a call on the phone. Back in those days there were no cell phones. That was the old house number. You pick it up and there was you. You were calling me from a payphone or something. You were inquiring about potentially walking on the University of Washington, what I thought your prospects might be. That’s how I recall it. I didn’t know how you developed, I really hadn’t followed your career, but I did know that there was a guy named Steve Pelluer that was going to be there for another year and he was going to start, but there was an opportunity that you could come on, assess your talent during the spring and then you could either leave or stay or whatever you wanted to do. Why not UCLA? Why not CALP or Stanford? You’re down there, right?
The short version is after playing two years at the JC, the head coach at the junior college said, “Where do you want to go? Where do you have your eye on?” For a few reasons, whether it was the degree or the level of play, I said, “San Diego State.” I mentioned to him San Diego State. He said, “Okay.” He sends out some film and next scene is San Diego State’s recruiting me really hard. Really hard is relative. John Elway gets recruited really hard. I was not being recruited really hard. For me having not experienced much in Eastern Washington, I was the pied piper. I go down there. They’d fly me down, recruiting visit. Doug Scovil was the head coach, a quarterback guru. He appeared to be really enthusiastic, “We’re going to do this, this and this. These are the plans.” The head coach said, “He’s going to go to San Diego State no matter what.” I always wonder if they would have given me a scholarship had he not said that. In the end, they just assumed that I was going to walk on anyways. They sure talked a lot about the plans they had. I’m like, “I’m going to San Diego State.” This is after my second year. I’m going to go to San Diego State but it was strange because we had already divulged we’re going there no matter what. Who knows? Maybe if I’d had said, “I’m not going here unless I get a scholarship,” who knows how they would have played?
This is an interesting story I think we can all relate to there’s probably a point in your life where your course was balanced on a blade of a knife and you didn’t even know it. What I tell my kids is, “You’re seventeen. I want you to imagine your 37-year-old self and your 57-year-old self, your 77-year-old self talking to you now because the decisions you’re making are affecting your 57-year-old self.” This was one of those times. I come back to Seattle after two years of playing junior college. It’s the winter, it’s Christmas vacation. I come up. I remember walking on the university ave down in Seattle right by the University of Washington campus. It was cold and I’m thinking to myself, “I’m a California dude now. I’m going back to California. I’m going to San Diego State.” I was dead certain of how my life was going to go at that point.
My youth football coach that I talked about that I felt compelled to go play for instead of high school football, he was having a party. It happened to be in the Roosevelt area just coincidently at Hawthorne Hills. He invites me to a Christmas party. I can remember not even knowing if I was going to go to that party. I didn’t have anything going on, so I go to this Christmas party. It was probably a week before Christmas. It’s at his parents’ house. There weren’t a lot for me to talk to and I was about to leave. The coach was in conversation but he finds a time to break away and he says to me, “What’s going on with football?” I tell him all about the experiences. He’s looking at me and he goes, “You should go to the University of Washington. Steve Pelluer is going to be leaving and there’s going to be an opening.” I remember the first thought, “Are you crazy? I’m going to San Diego State.” He says, “I don’t know, I guess you should go to U-Dub.” He was very definitive. I walked out of that party and it didn’t even register. Somehow it was like he planted a seed. The seed wasn’t there in that conversation. It wasn’t there the next morning.
I get back down to Santa Rosa and somehow that seed was growing. I did a lot of thinking. I go cross and shoot baskets and I kept thinking, “If I’m going to play college football, I’d way rather do it at the Pac-10 and have a chance to play in Rose Bowls and Big Bowls.” I started thinking about this. The next scene is Ray Dorr, the quarterback coach, calls me. The only word I can think of is perfunctory. Perfunctory, meaning just as out of a sense of obligation but no passion. Ray Dorr calls me and he goes, “Hugh, there’s a coach named John Fahnestock.” I had known Ray Dorr from our camps. He says, “He made me promise that I would call you, so here’s the call. If you want to come up and walk on to the University of Washington, the invitation is there. All good? All good.” Click. There was no sales in it, whatsoever. Yet I still day after day, I’m going and shooting these baskets and thinking and somehow the tide turned, the worm turned. All of a sudden I just somehow locked into, “If I’m going to do this, I want to do it in the Pac-10. I want to do it in the big time.” Despite the fact that they weren’t really warm and fuzzy about inviting me up, that conversation that I had had at that Christmas party that I almost didn’t even go to, I absolutely would have never gone to Washington. I think we all probably have those times where looking back life could have taken a vastly different turn. I probably wouldn’t be sitting here. I probably wouldn’t have taken a course where I met my wife and wouldn’t have had my kids.
That’s just life and that’s everything you’re talking about. I would still go back to there are always actions and then become reactions. Your action was to listen to your inner voice and your heart in where you want to go. You did grow up here, so you had a lot of friends. I was on the team, so I could give you my bias about what was going on. It pretty much matched what coach Ray Dorr, the quarterback coach, was saying too, about if you want to come on. I was a little bit more candid about what I thought your choices might be after Steve had gone on.
My old coach was really excited for me to come up here and Ray Dorr, the quarterback coach at Washington, was not excited. When I then called you, you having that excitement about what you described like, “This is the reality. There can be an opportunity if you work hard and you can perform. There is a potential opportunity,” but you saying, “Here’s the living situation, here’s the social situation.” Now I could start to envision my life in Seattle again, which really was going to center around my friendship with you and your parents’ willingness to take me in. That part was a huge catalyst for me in the decision.
I tell my kids this all the time, “You make decisions and decisions don’t have to be permanent.” You can always change those things. My daughter started off at Arizona and now she’s at USC after two years. Those things can happen. You come to the University of Washington. You’re out there during spring ball, you’re assessing it. It went well for you. That’s what I remember. You’re getting more comfortable. You’re living with me, with my parents in the basement. You have a lot of really good, positive momentum going for you and now you’re getting bigger and stronger. I think that next year, you’re committed to the University of Washington and you and I are out there every day lifting and throwing with the rest of the guys. Didn’t you redshirt that next year?
I redshirted the first year. You’re a redshirt junior. Steve Pelluer is the Pac-10 Player of the Year.
He has a big year and things are going well for me and the rest of the team. We end up in Hawaii. I think we missed out on the very last game of the year, get beat by Washington State; otherwise we would have gone back to the Rose Bowl. That would have been so sweet. There are these constant moments of truth where you could have quit, but you didn’t, you could have quit but you didn’t because of other people’s circumstances and everything else. There’s a quarterback who ended up playing seventeen years in the NFL, Chris Chandler, who also was on the team. Everybody just assumed that Chris Chandler, the scholarship player, was going to be the quarterback going in, but you guys battled that next spring. As you came out of it, you’re in the scholarship. You ended up the walk-on, ends up beating out the highly celebrated, highly recruited, Chris Chandler who would go on to play on the Super Bowl and some Pro Bowls in the NFL. That just took a lot of inner strength to pull that off and you have the talent. There’s no question.
The numbers didn’t lie so they didn’t give that to you. I always looked at that any walk-on that actually ended up playing had to almost double up to catch up. They had to be twice as good as a scholarship guy. They got the worst shoes, their hand-me-down shoes and the shirts and everything else in the walk-on locker room back on those days. They didn’t make you feel exactly you’re top notched at the U. What a great achievement to go from this crazy background, this living situation, bouncing all over, not knowing where you’re going to be, ended up knocking the scholarship like I did at the University of Washington. You ended up walking-on going to a junior college down in California and then you have some different choices. You’re still not getting the full on scholly to the next level going up whether it be San Diego State or the University of Washington. You rolled the dice again, you come on up, actions create, reactions. You do the things that you needed to do which is get bigger, stronger, faster, understand the game and you did all those things. Then you were rewarded something that you earned, to go out there and be our starting quarterback in my senior year. This would be your junior year.
That’s the sequence and there’s the legendary basketball coach Al McGuire of Marquette. He tells the story that his son was playing for him at Marquette, point guard of the team. Another kid comes into his office and says, “Coach McGuire, I’m working hard. I’m doing all this stuff. I think I’m just as good as a point guard as your son.” McGuire turned to him and says, “I love my son and for you to be the point guard, you’re going to have to be better than my son.” In that regard, I think the scholarship guys are going to win all ties. They’re going to win ties. Chris Chandler deservedly so had been a Parade All-American at high school in Everett, three-sport All-State, baseball, basketball, football. If you’re a Parade All-American, you’re a five-star recruit that’s what Stanford offers Michigan; a very, very highly talented guy.
For me when I got to Washington, knowing that I was going to have to compete against him, I gave a real thorough examination of what they call a SWOT analysis. I was looking, “Can I beat this guy out?” For me, what I realized when I got to Washington that I had never been taught how to play quarterback. I didn’t know the first thing about reading cover 2, cover 3, cover 4, cover 1 because back in high school, I just go back and look for you or Dean and I’ll have no clue on a plan, and then the same thing at the junior college. Within two or three weeks, I had a functional foundation. It only took two to three weeks to have a functional foundation to read defense. I’m like, “That’s it?” At that point, I got momentarily a little bit bitter, “How come I never learned this? Why didn’t I take it upon myself to try and figure this stuff out?” Maybe a lesson there is that sometimes when things are going, maybe there’s a certain skill set or something or some aspect of what you’re aspiring to do that you’ve got to do it. You’ve got to educate yourself. That maybe you’ve got the potential but you just haven’t gained the expertise in it. You haven’t given yourself a chance because you haven’t given yourself a toolbox which is the knowledge to be able to do the job. At any rate, that was the challenge for me to try and beat out Chris in practice to gain the favor and the ultimate decision that Don James would say, “We’re going to go to with this walk-on as opposed to the five-star.”
We’re going to our senior year. We played Northwestern at home the year before we played them back in Chicago.
At that time, what I realized was that when you’re trying to climb a ladder, there are some people that want to grab your ankles and pull you down. They don’t want you to be successful. They have a lid on themselves. I have a good friend, a mutual good friend of ours, look me right in the eye and said, “If you think you’re going to be that Chris Chandler, you are absolutely high.” He didn’t say it with malice. He was just trying to help me.
I had the same thing people look at me right in the eye and say, “You will never play down the NFL.” They’re friends of mine. I look at them, “Really?”
I think that the takeaway for me there was some people are going to put limitations on themselves. They’re going to put the ceiling on for themselves and don’t let them put the ceiling on you. That was my way of processing that. “I’m going to try and soar like an eagle. I may crash and burn, but I’m not going to let other people grab my ankles and hold me down and believe what they are telling me when I have a chance to push through.”
Which you did, so that’s about the human potential. The other part of that too and you did a great job at this because I was that for you and you were that for me and we had a lot of other guys that were that for us, which is surround yourself with positive voices. We also had a head coach that created this pyramid of success of what is really a model of John Wooden in terms of the foundational building blocks that you need to build on to get to that pinnacle. You didn’t come in from Santa Rosa at the top of the pinnacle, which is the National Championship in starting quarterback. You had to learn the system. You had to get bigger, you had to get faster, you had to get more accurate. You had to learn the quarterback position. You had to learn every position on the team. You had to become a leader. Those are all parts of those blocks that John Wooden that was later adapted by our coach, Don James, would give you some of those tools in your toolbox.
You have to come in and you have to have the emotional strength to push through and not doubt yourself. Recognize that not every day is going to be a winning day. You don’t have to win every day. What you have to do is if you have a bad day, a bad day in practice, don’t get down and then let that carry over and create two bad practices or maybe it’s just a throw. Maybe it’s just one throw. You’ve got to rerack it and be ready to be emotionally strong for the next one. There are a ton of lessons learned through that period of time and I’m also grateful that Don James had enough stature at that time that he didn’t have the pressure to play Chris Chandler. That he could say, “If we think that this guy has won the job, then he’s got the job.”
The other thing I think that was really incredible about that period of time too was that because there were two or three star scholarship quarterbacks, that didn’t sit great with them either. For all the positivity that was going on, there is the negativity within the meeting room, within the structure of just that small quarterback group just because you had done the impossible.
I don’t want to portray that as typical because in my career thereafter, at least professionally, I always got along with all the quarterbacks and whether they were ahead of me or below me, whether I was a starter which didn’t happen often, I was usually the backup. I got along with the starter or if there’s a third screen guy, I got along with the third screen guy and I think that’s the norm. Most guys are supportive. It is tough at the quarterback position because there’s only one guy. Any of that that may have happened at Washington, I don’t think that that’s necessarily typical.
I don’t think so either but in a lot of guys’ cases, when you’re always the star from day one and you’re the star, you’re the star, you’re the star all the way up to the chain. Then all of a sudden when everybody thinks you’re going to be the star, and now you’re in a very high-profile position in a high-profile college under a high-profile coach and that doesn’t go your way and this is the first time you’ve dealt with that adversity, it’s tough.
That could happen in the business world. Somebody is the all-star sales guy and he’s got a certain position and then somebody else may come along and if he out duels him in a sale now all of a sudden, how does he handle that adversity, that guy? Does he take it out on other people? Everybody has different wiring and different value system and different maturity levels and that compels them to respond to things differently. I think for the most part at the professional level they handle it professionally, but there’s no question that from time-to-time, those issues do arise. It just have to be a quarterback meeting room. I think it happens in all walks of life. Envy being one of the real blights on humanity. The Bible talks about that, the seven deadly sins. We all at some point, not necessarily gripped, but we are challenged by envy. Anybody who says they haven’t been is lying. You confront those situations and I think we have to try and make the emphasis our personal integrity, just be really dying to do the right thing. We all fail in that regard but that’s what we should be trying to do.
At the end of the day, anybody who doesn’t get exactly what they deserve has to look internally in what they do because it’s really individual. At the end of the day, it’s usually the best guy wins out. If you don’t win out, then you’ve got to look at yourself on what you can do to improve yourself, improve your game. That’s the way I look at it. The first game that we talked about was Northwestern, you come out, we win the game. I can’t remember all the numbers or the scores. It really doesn’t matter. What I did want to mention though is just honestly I can’t remember the story what the tie in was for you, but the next weekend, we were getting on a plane flying back to Ann Arbor, Michigan. They were the highly-ranked team. They had a famous quarterback, Jim Harbaugh. We were going to go into the big house and go play those guys. They were ranked number two. They had just beaten the National Champion, University of Miami, the week before.
We’re talking about 105,000 people or something like that and going in a hostile territory to say the least. What was the tie for you? I know there was a special tie about Michigan. You’re born in Iowa, so how would that be tied to Michigan? What was that?
The Iowa thing was just part of a very temporary visit my mom was making to see a friend around Thanksgiving time. We were living in Ann Arbor because of my father who was finishing up his degree at the University of Michigan. He was only 21 years old. I grew up having lived as an infant in Ann Arbor, but my dad’s degree in Michigan, you have that affinity with your father and we had that connection. I had become a massive Michigan fan in the early ‘70s, when Michigan frankly was a lot better than the University of Washington. I had adorned my whole room. I was little bit of an artist. I had all these posters I had drawn. I took a Ram football helmet and peeled the Ram sticker off of the blue helmet and then painted with my own oil paints the Michigan logo, the famous Michigan helmet. I hung it by a fishing line from the light shade in the middle of the ceiling so I had a Michigan helmet dangling from my room. The opportunity to go back to play Michigan at number two, it was really one of my life thrills. That schedule would come out about five years before. I remember being in high school and seeing that and in the oddest way of analysis I remember thinking, “I want to be a player in that game and I don’t care on which team.” I would have thought, “If I could somehow navigate to the University of Michigan or Washington would be great.” I remember looking at that five years in advance saying, “I want to play in that game.”
Here we go, we jumped on a plane, we go back to Ann Arbor and we’ve got all these odd stats against us and what nobody knew is really how good our team was. We were loaded with talent across offense and defense, especially our defense which would later be known as the Purple Reign. We go back there and we hold our own. I think where things really broke out and it’s fun to be connected to these types of plays in the history in lore of the University of Washington, but you launched a 73 yard pass to me over the top and we scored, you and I. That propels us out in front and we go on to win the game. The enormity of what we pulled off was amazing. I still remember going you run out the tunnel, you hit the blue and you run off the field. It was college football at its best.
It’s great pageantry and you are right on all of that. That’s a good synopsis. It was a great day for the Huskies. A couple of thoughts, first of all, anecdotes since we’re going in the wayback time machine. That summer in ’84, my father now was a computer programmer in the army and lived in Germany. The only time I got to see him was in the summer. I went and visit him and we took a trip. We were rubbing pennies together but we went to some nice places. We were down on the Mediterranean. There was a street vendor, a flea market type thing where I somehow in my twenty-year-old wisdom thought that there was this pants that looked like something that Willy Wonka ought to be wearing. They were stripes with these funky colors, vertical stripes. Think of the Indiana basketball warm-ups but now picture teal and peach and orange. It was hideous but as a twenty-year-old, I thought they were pretty cool and I bought them from a flea market in Europe.
Fast forward to the Michigan trip, that was the first time I’d ever been on an airplane for a football game. To me, these were party pants and you and I had specific plans about where we were going to party. We were going to go to FX McRory’s after that thing and celebrate our win. I had these pants that I wanted to wear. When I rolled them up and stuck them in my duffel bag, I put those pants in. Those were the party pants. I rolled the normal khakis up for the flight back in case we lost. I got my bag, everything. I’m walking out of the front door for the morning of the flight and I get about halfway to the car. I pull a 180 and I go back and I unzipped my duffel bag and I take the khakis out. I was like, “We’re burning the boats. I’m going here. I’m not bringing the lost pants. I’m taking the party pants and I’m not thinking about what I’m going to do if we lose this game. I’m taking the party pants.”
It was fun to go back and win that game for a lot of different reasons. The pageantry of Michigan, they had always looked darker blue to me on television. These were 1970s televisions. They’re almost like dark navy but they are this royal cobalt blue. They’re just vivid colors. I think everybody hopefully has one of those moments where they have this dream of what it could be like and then for the most part, the dream comes true. It was a good day for Washington.
That was another one of those but just like you, I dreamt of that moment where you’re the guy that hauls in the long pass or the go-ahead touchdown and all those things would come true in my career, but not before I practiced them 10 billion times. That was just one moment but I had actually done those in my sleep, in my dreams. We go through the rest of the season. I want to keep tying this back into for you, it was a lifetime of start and stops and start and stops. Relatively speaking, your childhood was rough, but then you got into some sports and you started having some success in that and then you get to high school. Then rather than you be the quarterback, physical maturity and things didn’t land you towards being so you had to sit a year. Then you go and then you end up going down to Santa Rosa. Now, you come to the University of Washington, things are going well for you and the rest of that season that year, we go on a roll. Once again, late in the season in about game eight or so, we’re playing Arizona at home and it wasn’t your best game and they ended up benching you. After all the stuff you’d overcome and you beating all these odds and all the great stuff that you’re doing and now you find yourself back on the bench.
I think life has the setbacks, they have the triumphs and then around the corner, it’s like waves on a beach. If it’s calm for now, just stay on the beach because the wave is coming. Sometimes that can be how it seems. Not that I felt like I was just waiting, “When is this going to turn?” A few facts, these are undisputed, we are undefeated. We ranked number one in the country in both polls. We were leading the conference in scoring. I will be the first to admit, that was because we had a great defense with field position and all the turnovers they created. We weren’t particularly dynamic on offense. In fact, Coach James a few years later was going to bring in Keith Gilbertson and totally overhaul and go shotgun and spread formation. Gary Pinkel, our offensive coordinator at the time in 1984, just said, “I wish you guys could have a chance playing this offense.” We had at that time a more conservative offense but somehow we were leading the conference scoring. Actually on that morning, I still have the football program. I was second in that conference in passer rating, one point away from the lead.
We weren’t amassing a lot of yards but somehow we were doing some things in a conservative way to be at that point. Then against Arizona, I just unraveled. I had three interceptions, I had two fumbles, a couple more important tip and then I try to throw it into the wind. I was basically just falling all over myself and throwing up and just awful; terrible, terrible performance, brutally terrible performance. Five turnovers in one half. You don’t have to be a football expert to understand the significance of that. I get benched and I should have been benched. I stood there and it was some of the worst pain I’ve ever had. I think I mentioned taking that belt to the point of bleeding as a youngster. I think that losing the job at Washington was more painful. Even though we won, that’s the challenge too because you have to honor the game, you have to honor your teammates. In the midst of the joy of winning, I was experiencing this pain. I remember driving home to our house that you and I shared and I pulled over into the parking lot of a supermarket. I just killed the engine and I grabbed my stomach with both hands as if I was suffering from flu or food poisoning. I bent over and I was wrenching. I was physically sick from how I played and the fact that I had been benched. Every cell in my body was in anguish.
We’ve all been there and I have been there so I understand that and you’re embarrassed and you’re disappointed and there are a lot of emotions going through but most of all, just not playing well, you now get benched. We end up having a loss against USC and we finished out with a win against Washington State. We ended up going not to the Rose Bowl, USC went, but we ended up getting chosen to go to the Orange Bowl and played in Miami against Oklahoma. Back in those days, it was with Brian Bosworth and that whole crazy crew. We were breaking ground because ten teams back in those days didn’t play in the Orange Bowl. The fun thing was that we made the road trip. We were down to Miami for a couple of weeks. They had just crazy activities.
You remember all the different cruise to nowhere and all these different parties and things that we would go to after practice at night. You and I were hanging out down the beach a lot windsurfing and having a ton of fun. I just remembered during that week of practice that you just had such a calm. Like you had had to process all these negativity and disappointment and anguish and embarrassment and whatever other emotion that you had gone through from that benching, from that performance that day against Arizona and you had processed it. Now, we are all down in Miami practicing at the University of Miami and you just had a calm about yourself in terms of the way you’re throwing, the confidence was back, and you’re just in a very peaceful place. It was really cool to see.
Let’s get into the game. Now, we’re playing against Oklahoma. I just want to fast forward through the story. You don’t start, we get into I think late in the fourth quarter and we’re losing the game. We don’t have the momentum and so our head coach, Don James, decides to make a quarterback switch. Do you remember how much time was left in the game?
I think it was about ten minutes. It could have been eight, somewhere in there. I don’t think it was late, late in the fourth quarter. Somewhere around mid or slightly more than half a quarter left.
For any Washington Huskies that remembers that game, they all know that there was a lot of crazy stuff going on from the Sooner Schooner. Then you end up getting reinserted back into the game and that was a triumph but we still were losing and they had momentum and we go down, Rick Fenney scores a touchdown.
I had gone in. The first series, I was nervous. I just was uptight. I hadn’t been in the game for a few months and the enormity of the situation, I was not handling it well. I knew I wasn’t ready to perform and function on a level that you need to. Having been in Michigan, the mindset I was in, “I was ready to perform.” Here now I’m in the Orange Bowl first series, I’m not ready to perform. We call a screen pass and quarterbacks are taught that if a screen pass is cluttered up, then just throw it away. We called a screen pass, it’s cluttered and I threw it over the top of a halfback intentionally and yet, our center had gone out to go hike and he thought that he got tipped. Now, he is catching the ball. The center goes to catch the ball. Now, it looks like I’m throwing the ball to the center. That’s illegal. We get the penalty. The first series is just a mess. We punt. What I did at that point, Mark, just from my own part in the game, I had to take a little walk, say a little prayer, get myself squared. I was way at the other end of the bench area and what I thought was, “Why am I uptight? I’m uptight because everybody I know on planet Earth is watching this game. It’s a really a big magnitude for the Huskies.” At that time, the Orange Bowl was the premier ballgame and I was thinking of the magnitude.
I had this image of a gigantic curtain, a 100-feet tall. This gigantic canvas curtain that was just around the painted area of the field. I thought, “What if we were practicing against Oklahoma?” Whether I was right or whether I was wrong, I was convicted in this thought. “They’re from the Big Eight, they don’t see passing teams. If we played them in a scrimmage, we’d rip their ass.” You’ve got to throw on the West Coast and I just thought, “If that curtain was drawn, we would rip them.” That was the image I took onto the field. I just ignored everything, everybody, all the cute girls that I was hoping would be impressed if I could play well. All that stuff I just forgot about it and I just said, “We’re practicing against Oklahoma behind a gigantic curtain and I know we’re going rip them.”
All of a sudden, I had this unbelievable calm out there. I just literally felt like it was a May practice in springball. Totally, I could see now. I think you need to have a little bit of adrenaline to perform because that makes your feet quicker. That makes the ball jump off your hand more. You got lighter arm. You need to be an athlete. You’ve got to have some adrenaline. Here I am as if I’m some legendary athlete. You can’t have too much at a quarterback position. Defense alignment, if he has a ton of adrenaline, that’s probably going to help him because he shed block and sprints the ball and he is not going to get tired. A ton of adrenaline is going to help a defense alignment. A ton of adrenaline is not going to help a quarterback. I was somehow able to affix that picture, that metaphor in my mind of playing behind the curtain.
We ended up going down and scoring a touchdown and fortunately, my first catch at the University of Washington, my first touchdown was against Michigan and leaped over guy for the last second winning a touchdown. My last touchdown at the University of Washington was thrown by you, the back corner of the end zone same type of deal on the other side and we ended up winning the game. That really kicked off a whole controversy on who should be number one on the BCS. BYU ended up number one of the country, we ended up at number two. It was a bummer but it was what it was. You and I rode off in the sunset. I went on to play for the Raiders, get drafted. I was a senior that year. You would come back and play again the next year. What a wonderful journey in terms of the way that particular team, the whole team was just inducted in the Hall of Fame. How often does that happen at the University of Washington?
Tying this back into this not giving up and going forward and having the presence of mind and remember the tools and going back. We talked about the tools in your tool shed, about really trying to hone your skills and when things aren’t going right, what can you do about it to overcome and go forward? You just never know the way things are going to spin out. If you quit, you’ll never know. I want to go through and I’ve got a bottom line question. In NFL, you played for ten years. Is that right?
Ten plus years.
Within those ten years, you were with five different teams. You’re drafted by the Rams and then you go down there. I remember that first year, we were all excited for you and then you break your ankle. The next year, you had some back problems or something.
That was one of those wink-wink keep your eye on deals. It was like a redshirt.
It’s also not helping because now they’re drafting Jim Everett who is now coming in.
When I was drafted, I was the only quarterback under 30. I was really thrilled to be with the Rams. They had been to the NFC title game the year before against that legendary Chicago Bears team. They had Eric Dickerson as prime, they needed a quarterback. They drafted me and I was in perfect situation. That’s where I wanted to be drafted. In a scrimmage prior to the first pre-season game, I shattered; just absolutely powdered my ankle. Surgery, broken bones, torn ligaments, everything. I’m in a cast. What was the dream situation is no longer the dream. At this juncture, the Houston Oilers had drafted Jim Everett, the number three overall pick in the draft that year. Warren Moon was there and I don’t really know why they drafted him, but Everett was holding out. Now, in addition to my injury, Steve Bartkowski hurts his knee and Dieter Brock, another quarterback, hurts his back. Now, they’re down to Steve Dils. The Rams needed a quarterback, Jim Everett is holding out. He and I are drafted the same year.
I’ll never forget coming to the office and Duval Love, a former guard for UCLA said, “You heard about our trade?” I said, “What trade?” He said, “We traded for Everett.” Me on my crutches with my cast on my leg, I just had this flush over me almost like a state of panic. I had to go into the men’s room at the Rams facility, maybe the only time in my life I went into the toilet and I sat there with all my clothes on the toilet seat and just trying to absorb, “You’ve got to be kidding me. We just traded for Jim Everett.” He had been the number one pick. You think of what resource you have to give up. By the time I am out of my cast and practicing, Jim Everett as you might imagine is already inserted as the starting quarterback of the Los Angeles Rams.
From there, then you go on to the Falcons and from the Falcons?
I’m playing behind the number one draft pick there, Chris Miller, Pac-10 Player of the Year. He was the top twelve or thirteenth pick from Oregon. He is a year younger than me. He was going to be a Pro Bowler within a few years, but I backed up him. At this juncture now, I’ve played for two teams but I played alongside two number one draft picks that are essentially my age.
Then you end up going to New England after the Falcons. That seems like, “This now is the perfect fit.” You’ve got this great coach that we were talking about and the team was 1-15 the year before. Now, you go 6-10 or 6-9. You have some amazing comeback victories where you led the team to last-second touchdown. You think it’s going to be a great situation and then you’re there and you guys seem like you have some momentum. You seem like now you have some security and then what happened?
I signed in a free agency to New England and they had been 1-15 the year before in 1990. In fact, the NFL network named the 1990 New England Patriots as the 8th Worst Team of All Time. This is like the Canton Bombers from 1928, you name it. I voluntarily joined there because I had the best opportunity to play. At the time, the Chargers were a little bit interested and Dick MacPherson, the head coach at that time when he was trying to get me to play for the Patriots, he said, “You tell me why the Chargers are a better situation for you than the Patriots and don’t say the beach.” In fact, the Patriots were wanting me the most. I think in life sometimes you have to recognize that. I had an opportunity to start there and despite the fact they have been 1-15, you just go in there and you try and hammer down. We were 6-10 which is a horrible record I get it but in a lot of circles back there because they had been 1-15 the year before and totally uncompetitive. The fact that we were 6-10 and many of our losses were right down to the end. We made absolutely no distinction in history, I get all this. That applies to so much of what we’ve been talking about.
What I said early on about average Joes having ups and downs and the approach that happens to all of us I think is applicable. In this case, we were 6-10 and now, they come to me at the end of the year and I ended up signing the highest contract in the history of going on Patriots franchise. They had been around 30 years, which was about eleven years after the Eastern Washington coach looked at me and said, “You’re not the caliber of player who can play in Eastern Washington.” It’s backed up right and good. We think we’re going to be expanding on the 6-10 record and try and make a push for the playoffs and do this in stages so we’d go into the next year in ’92.
I separate my shoulder in the seventh play of the season. I try to play a little bit with that and it becomes a third degree which is the worst kind of separation. We go 2-14 and the new broom sweeps wide. I was going to be off to Dallas, traded to the Cowboys. They’re the defending Super Bowl Champions with Troy Aikman. They bring in Bill Parcells and I know that they’re going to go to another direction. They have a chance to draft Drew Bledsoe, which I get it. They should have done. I get traded to the Cowboys. That’s one of those situations where now you’re confronting, “If you’re going to Dallas, you’re not a starter.” I tried to move small mountains to get myself into a situation, to extricate myself from Atlanta and get to be a free agent and then now I’m going to Dallas. I’m going to be a backup.
You are there and there are lessons in every place we go and all these different coaches that you played for and the players that you played with like Troy.
Michael Irvin and Emmitt were on that team.
I’ve heard of those guys many times in terms of their work ethic and all the things that you can glean from that. From there then your last stop was in Denver.
I get word that Jerry Jones wants to see me after I get traded. Jerry Jones, the Dallas Cowboys. I come into this meeting with Jerry Jones, and it’s just him and me. He pulls up from the side of his desk and we go sit by the sofa and a chair where he is making small talk and then he turns the subject. He said, “I’d walk across Texas to make a buck. I got secretaries here who haven’t got any raise in five years.” I’m just listening. He goes, “We’ve got a little problem. You are making more than Troy.” I looked at him and I said, “I don’t have a problem if Troy gets a raise.” He liked that one. That’s a true story. He was bringing me in there because he had to whack my salary down. I had that starter salary and Troy despite being the number one overall pick was still working on his rookie contract. He was a Super Bowl Champion and it wasn’t going to make a lot of sense for us to have that structure.
Nonetheless, you’re in there dealing with these high-profile guys and being around Troy and I know you are friends with him and some of the other guys in the Cowboys still, and what an amazing experience. From there, you go to Denver.
Tommy Maddox had been drafted in the first round from UCLA and he was there, the presumptive backup. Obviously, John Elway was the entrenched starter. There was no debate in that. For me, it was a competition with Tommy Maddox. I ended up winning that job and now I’m the backup to John Elway. It’s really in many ways a blessing to be around legends of the game. These guys are real true bona fide John Wayne hero of the game. John Elway, I’ve always maintained and I’ve never had anybody refute my contention. John Elway is the number one of number ones. What I mean by that is he was the first overall pick in the 1983 draft. If you took a time machine and you could pop him in any year, go put him in the ’68 draft with OJ Simpson, Elway is the number one. Put him in the Bubba Smith draft, Elway is number one. Put him in the Peyton Manning draft, Elway is number one. Put him in the Troy Aikman draft, Elway is number one. Elway is the number one of number ones. That’s how highly regarded he was as a collegian entering into the NFL.
I played against him at Washington. He played at Stanford and I saw him pull up some unbelievable magic. I’ve never seen a guy with that arm throw from the right to left side of the field or from the left going back to the right too. It’s just amazing to witness his power and strength and ingenuity and his athleticism. It’s just truly amazing. We’ve been talking a long time about your life and how it’s unfolded. At the end of the day, literally people ask, “Did you retire?” and really what the truth of the matter is I got kicked out. I like to sell it like something great happened. I’m the last one who can catch the Super Bowl to win and go on the Hall of Fame career but I didn’t, nor did you. At the same time, you got to have all these amazing relationships and you’re really defined by that. Even today, you’re a quarterback. You’re a tremendous student of the game. I think because you’re able to be around all these great players, you could see their work ethic. You had that work ethic. You had to do that in order to get to where you got. It led you into this amazing broadcasting career. If anybody out there is wondering why Hugh sounds a lot better than me, one of the reasons why, he has been with KJR, an analyst for that station here in Seattle, a lot for the Seahawks and for the Huskies for the last nineteen years. I think you guys are the original guys who are still together of the Husky Honks, which is a whole pre and post-game before a Huskies game.
Pre and post-game before Husky games and Dick Baird and Dave Mahler, dear friends that have vastly different personalities, but we have that commonality with our affinity and our affection to the University of Washington and the football program. It keeps me close to the game. It was something that I didn’t reach out to try and pursue this avocation because I’m not trying to make a career out of it. I do take it seriously and I try and prepare. For me, Mark, if you go to an opera, they give you what’s called a libretto. It helps you understand. I don’t think you have to have a libretto to enjoy opera but it helps. I wasn’t far from a great player or even a good player, but I played with a lot of great players and I was around some of the best coaches. If you just pay attention, you’d pick up a little bit about football. To me, I know there are football fans out there that want to know more about the game. A libretto is really just an Italian translation and you don’t have to be a genius to know Italian. There are five-year-olds that are fluent in Italian all through Italy, but you have to be exposed there. You have to be exposed to football to understand some of the nuances and some of the strategies of the game. For me, I just look at it as a challenge to try and communicate that. It keeps me close to the game and it’s a nice diversion and connection that keeps me close to a game that has been really good to me.
It’s part of your DNA. It makes sense and I’m glad that’s worked out that way. We’ve kept talking about you have had these start and stops, start and stops throughout and at the end of the day, you keep going. You keep marching up that mountain. For you, for anybody that’s have gone through any kind of adversity, is there any one like golden nugget that you walk away with saying, “My one advice is blank.”
I’ve had to think about this because one of the other blessings of my life has been able to be a youth football coach for both of my sons. I did that for nine years but if you count the seasons with both kids, it was more like fifteen years because of fifteen seasons. You have to crystallize your thoughts in these areas. What I tell them and it’s a message dedicated to middle school kids, but I think it applies to everybody and I try and employ it, “Toughness in a person is not about who hits the hardest on the football field. It’s not about the bully on the playground, the biggest kid who intimidates and acts like a jerk and steals the lunch money or something from the kids. In my thought, toughness is what happens when life gives you a kick and sits you down. How do we respond? Do we feel sorry for ourselves or do we battle? Do we just get some grit, have some grit and somehow find it within ourselves to battle and not feel sorry for ourselves?” I think that God in his wisdom has laid out the plan that we’re all going to have those setbacks. That’s supposed to be the enriching part of it. That we have hurdles and we try and conquer them with grit and battle.
I actually did a podcast with a Dallas Cowboy that climbed down in Tanzania, Cory Procter. He was offensive lineman, a big guy, a great guy and actually from Gig Harbor, Washington. He went to the University of Montana. Majority of our talk was all about grit. We went into a lot of depth in that word and how you get that and how you maintain it and he’s gone through some adversity himself. He has very wise words. I appreciate you coming on and we’ve been long-time buddies, but rarely do we sit down and have a conversation like this. There are a lot of things I learned. It’s cool to travel in time and talk about old things. At the end of the day, I’ve had my shots and you’ve had your shots, but you’ve got to keep standing up and going after those dreams that you want to aspire to and not let anybody turn you back. It’s never over until it’s over and to keep going and you’ve been a great example of that.
You’ve been a really instrumental part of my life, Mark, and in some of those areas the direction is balancing on a blade of a knife. You were there to direct me in ways that ultimately true to be really immensely positive and constructive to me. I’m honored and humbled that you’d ask me to do this and that people would take the time to listen to somebody who made no mark on the game. I’m just like everybody else in terms of trying to manage these setbacks. It’s great to spend this time with you, Mark.
Remember, it always takes a village. You’re part of that village. Thank you.