When Will Lewis arrived in Cheney in the summer of 1980 he was just a face in the crowd.
Not only was the rookie free agent cornerback/returner from Millersville State just one of 125 players Jack Patera welcomed to his fifth training camp as coach of the Seahawks, Lewis also was one of 77 rookies and first-year players and one of 26 defensive backs on the parched practice fields at Eastern Washington University.
“We’d be doing a 7-on-7 drill and they’d say, ‘OK, give me that seventh group of defensive backs,’ ” Lewis, now the team’s vice president of football operations, said of his summer in that seventh group. “There were that many guys in camp.”
Lewis was so green around the shoulder pads that he didn’t even realize just how important his talents as a kickoff and punt returner would be in him making the final roster.
“I actually came in thinking I could be like a nickel or a dime cornerback, maybe be in the second group of defensive backs,” Lewis said, able to laugh about the situation after all these years. “But every day, we had the special teams period and that started eliminating people, too."
“One day, I muffed a punt. At the end of practice, (scout) Ralph Goldston came up to me, put his arm around my neck and said, ‘Hey Millersville, if you want to make this team you’d better catch all those balls.’ ”
That’s when Lewis realized everything counted in the final tally.
“The only reason I had returned punts in college is because I was out there for the fun of it,” Lewis said. “If you dropped one, so what. But after Ralph talked to me, that’s when I realized if I wanted the opportunity to stay here I would have to field everything. That’s when I started focusing more on being the return guy.”
Despite all the bodies in camp, one stood between Lewis and a roster spot: Fellow rookie cornerback Presnell Gilbert, a former basketball player from USIU and a 12th-round draft choice. “Early on, I didn’t think much of it because it seemed like there were 28 defensive backs,” Lewis said. “But as things started winding down, it was like Presnell and I were competing to make the roster.
“Every day, you would walk up to the facility in Cheney and somebody next to you in the locker room would be gone. Their locker would just be cleaned out. No sign that he was ever even there.”
Lewis shook his head and smiled before adding, “Every day, you’d be like, ‘Where’s so-and-so.’ Someone would say, ‘He’s gone.’ And that was it. It wasn’t like you even had a feeling for who was being cut. It was like somebody had come and snatched them in the middle of the night.”
Lewis made it through all those nights – and days – at training camp and also the preseason. Before his rookie season was over, he had finished second in the AFC with a 23.4-yard average returning kickoffs and eighth in the conference with an 8.5-yard average returning punts, including a 75-yarder for a touchdown.
Actually, Cornell Webster was expected to be the returner that season, but he was more interested in getting time at left cornerback – opposite Dave Brown. In the preseason opener, Webster returned an early kickoff 98 yards for a TD.
“So they stopped kicking to him, and they started kicking to me,” Lewis said. “That helped me feel more comfortable and confident. That’s kind of how it all began.”
Things didn’t turn out as well for the team. After winning four of their first seven games, the Seahawks lost their final nine to finish 4-12. This after posting back-to-back 9-7 records in 1978 and 1979. They lost close games – 31-30 to the Kansas City Chiefs and 27-21 to the New York Giants. They lost not-so-close games – 51-7 to the Cowboys in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day, when their only score was Jim Zorn’s 2-yard TD pass in the fourth quarter to rookie tackle Ron Essink, who had lined up as a tight end in the goal-line formation and 33-14 to the Raiders in Oakland. The season also included the second shutout in franchise history – 14-0 over the Redskins in Washington – and a one-point victory over the Chiefs in Kansas City, where the Seahawks would not win again until 1990. But the memories of that nine-game losing streak were difficult to shake, as was going 0-8 at the Kingdome – still the only time the Seahawks have lost all their home games. “We didn’t win a game at home,” Lewis said, still finding that fact difficult to fathom. “That’s bizarre. And it’s funny, that’s one of the few things I really remember about that season.” There were other memorable moments, despite the nine-game losing streak that remains the longest in the club’s 35-year history.
Steve Largent (66 for 1,064 yards and six TDs) and Sam McCullum (62 for 874 and five) combined to catch 128 passes for 1,938 yards and 11 TDs, while Zorn passed for 3,346 yards and 17 TDs. But the running game averaged 111.4 yards to rank 23rd in the league. Jim Jodat’s 632 yards led the team because Sherman Smith, who was the leading rusher from 1976-79, injured a knee in the third game and missed the rest of the season.
The defense, however, ranked 13th in the NFL and was led by linebacker Michael Jackson, who had 136 tackles to lead the team for what would be the first of three consecutive seasons free safety John Harris, who shared the team lead with six interceptions and was second with 119 tackles strong safety Keith Simpson (110), defensive tackle Robert “Heartburn” Hardy (103) and middle linebacker Terry Beeson (101), who also had 100-tackle seasons and rookie defensive end Jacob Green, who registered 6½ sacks.
The Seahawks had traded up to the 10th spot in the first round of the NFL Draft to select Green, a pass-rushing phenom from Texas A&M. His rookie season was the first of nine times Green would lead the Seahawks in sacks en route to compiling a franchise-record 116. “Jacob was one of the fastest guys off the ball I’ve ever seen,” former free safety Eugene Robinson said recently. “He wasn’t that big (252 pounds). But he had a desire to get to the ball and get to the ball. He put pressure on the quarterback like few guys who have ever played this game.”
In addition to Lewis, the Rusty Tillman-coached special teams featured kicker Efren Herrera (93 points) and Don Dufek (13 coverage tackles).
Even as a rookie, Lewis felt part of the team, because his teammates made him feel that way – especially after his kickoff return for a TD gave the Seahawks a 10-7 lead in a game they would end up losing 36-20 to the Broncos at Mile High Stadium.
“Every time during the course of a game that you got a good return and the offense got good field position, somebody would come by and say, ‘Hey, you started that, man. You got us going,’ ” Lewis said. “That made you feel, especially as a rookie free agent, that you were part of the team.”