Chuck Knox Takes His Place in the Ring of Honor
Maybe, Chuck Knox decided, he wasn’t built for college. Maybe a college education wasn’t in his DNA. Maybe, after all, he was meant for the mills. After five weeks, he left Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa. He left the school, left the football team and went home to the western Pennsylvania town of Sewickley.
A part of Knox believed that once a mill worker, always a mill worker, because, you see, a mill worker was as tough as anthracite coal, but the young Knox was also as insecure as the 45th player on a 45-man roster. Knox knew he could survive the daily hardscrabble grind in the mill. He was less sure he wanted to deal with the uncertainty of four years in academia.
“I knew I could make a good living working in the mills,” Knox said yesterday from his home in Palm Springs. “I decided I didn’t want to fuss with the rest of it, so I hitch-hiked back home.”
This is how close Chuck Knox came to missing out on the good life that awaited him. This is how close he came to never coaching a football team, to never influencing so many accomplished men, to never getting inducted into the Seahawks’ Ring of Honor. It took the perseverance of another hardscrabble guy, Tommy Perricelli, a recruiter for Juniata coach Bill Smaltz, to convince Knox to return to school.
Because the Knox family didn’t have a telephone in its three-room apartment over a saloon, Perricelli had to make the 3 ½-hour drive from Juniata to Knox’s home to re-recruit him.
“My dad had come from Ireland and worked in the mills. My mom was Scottish and worked as a domestic,” Knox said. “I didn’t have any relations who had ever gone to college. I knew I could handle the academics, but the mills were working. People were making a lot of money.”
But Perricelli, who knew practically everybody associated with football in western Pennsylvania, came banging on Knox’s front door. “He’s a wonderful, wonderful guy,” Knox said of his friend, who now lives in an assisted living facility in Rochester, Pa. “And he made me realize what a college education would mean to me.”
It was Perricelli who had picked him up in front of Anderson’s Candy Store on Aug. 15, 1950, and drove Knox and fellow recruits Reds Orler and Dino Patricelli to Juniata. And it was Perricelli who drove Knox back to college, back to football, back to the best life, Knox believes, a man could have.
“Football’s been my life. I coached for 41 years, and I enjoyed every bit of it,” he said. This Sunday his name will be placed alongside Steve Largent, Jim Zorn, Dave Brown, Jacob Green, Dave Krieg, Pete Gross, Curt Warner and Kenny Easley on the Ring of Honor at Qwest Field.
“He should have been up there sooner,” former Hawks defensive tackle Joe Nash said. Knox is the football father to everyone on that ring. He raised them in the game. He made them better.
When Chuck Knox came to coach the Seahawks in 1983, the newness of NFL football was begging to wear off on Seattle. The city no longer was just happy to have a franchise. It was tired of losing. It was frustrated by three consecutive bad seasons. It wanted something more. And from the day he arrived from Buffalo, Knox gave this town what it wanted. He changed the psychology of the franchise. He brought in veteran players who never accepted losing – Reggie McKenzie, Charle Young, Blair Bush.
“When he came we were, I don’t want to say in disarray, but he brought a little more stability to the program,” said Nash, who is a banker in South Boston. “He was the kind of coach who didn’t take any guff. He brought a new feeling when he came in and brought with him a group of veterans who’d won before. He shook things up. By bringing in those guys he raised the bar for all of us.”
Knox made Seattle into a winner. He didn’t just get to the playoffs. He won playoff games, something no other Seahawks coach has done. In his first season, after trouncing Denver in the AFC wild-card game, his Hawks were 15-point underdogs the next week in Miami.
I remember writing they didn’t have a snowball’s chance in Miami of winning that game. “Hey, Kelley, where’s your snowball?” Mike Tice, a Hawks tight end, yelled at me after the Seahawks had beaten the Dolphins, 27-20.
“Our plane had been delayed for four hours in Seattle because they couldn’t find the black box,” Knox recalled. “We didn’t get to Miami until 5 a.m. on Saturday, but we decided to go ahead with our scheduled 9 a.m. practice. And then Sunday we beat ’em. And after the game [cornerback] Dave Brown gave me the game ball and the players started chanting, ‘Chuck, Chuck, Chuck, Chuck,’ and the tears came pouring out. I was so happy for the guys.”
The tears, as much as the wins, are what I remember most about Knox. Underneath the exterior that was hard as marble, Knox had a heart that was big enough to fit everyone he touched into it.
The first time I interviewed him, in the old Seahawks offices at Carillon Point, his eyes filled with tears as he told me about the losing fight against cancer one of his equipment managers had waged in Buffalo. And, on that sad Sunday night at the end of the 1991 season, after the Hawks had beaten the Rams 23-9, I sat with Knox in his tiny Kingdome office. He knew he had coached his last game here. Jacob Green had handed him the game ball. I watched as Knox walked down the row of lockers saying goodbye to Warren Wheat, Eugene Robinson, Robert Blackmon, Dwayne Harper. Football coaches are supposed to be unemotional men of steel, but Knox wasn’t about to hide his tears on this last day of his nine years with the Seahawks.
“That was a very, very difficult period for me,” Knox said. “We had really turned the program around and into a positive direction, but ownership [Ken Behring] changed and decided to go in a different direction. But I didn’t complain to anybody about it. I went out with my head high. There was no woe-is-me.”
There is no woe-is-me in Knox. “My father [Charlie Knox] told me that you have to take your lickings. Take your knocks,” Knox said. “Don’t bemoan your fate. Everybody’s not going to be dealt the same hand. Everybody’s going to go through tough times.”
Knox passed those messages and so many more to his players. He did it with a clenched jaw on Wednesday afternoons, and with a voice scratchy with emotion on Sundays. He talked to his players as if they were all his sons. He spoke to them with passion and dealt with them with compassion.
“Playing for Chuck Knox was one of the greatest experiences of my life,” said Hall of Fame receiver Largent, president and CEO of the wireless trade association CTIA. “I can honestly say that things that Chuck Knox taught me and, not just on the football field, have helped me to be a better husband, a better father, a better [Congressman] and a better man. I reflect on things he said time and time again. “He was one of the great influences on me, on what I am today and what I’ve done.”
Largent used to sit in the front row of Knox’s Wednesday team meetings and take what he calls “copious” notes as the coach broke down the game plan. He has kept all of the notebooks from those meetings and uses Knox’s philosophies in his daily life. In April, Largent suffered a slight stroke. He still experiences some short-term memory loss but is expected to make a full recovery. And during even this recovery he has used Knox’s teachings as motivation.
He uses the Knoxism on himself, just as Knox used them on the players. Sayings like: “A hard man comes hard, down a hard road.” Or, “Luck is the residue of design.”
“Chuck had a million sayings and he didn’t spare any on us. He was very much a motivator, but he was also a good thinker,” Largent said yesterday. “The Seahawks didn’t really have a specific plan until Chuck came there, but the first time he talked with us, he articulated his plan. It wasn’t complicated. It was pretty straightforward. We were going to practice hard and we were going to be prepared. “When he spoke to us, he was never off message. We all got the sense that we were playing for a coach who knew exactly what he was doing, knew exactly what he wanted and knew exactly how to get there. “I think there’s too much emphasis, both in the media and in the game, about how smart a coach is, or how cute his design is. But coaching is still about motivating and getting your players to play well. And Chuck was the epitome of that kind of coach. He was without a doubt, in my mind, one of the great coaches ever.”
Knox’s best coaching job, maybe one of the best one-season coaching efforts in this history of the league, came in 1984 when the Seahawks lost Pro Bowl running back Warner on opening day to a torn ACL. Warner had been the star of Knox’s running game, nicknamed “Ground Chuck.” And I still remember the hush that fell inside the Kingdome that afternoon when Warner left the field. “I told our players we would never let the absence of Curt Warner be an excuse for us to lose,” Knox said. “I told them Curt Warner doesn’t play defense, so the defense can get better. I told them Curt Warner didn’t play special teams, so the special teams could get better. “And I told them that Curt Warner wasn’t the only running back we had. We were going to have running-back-by-committee. Randall ‘Too Hard To Handle’ Morris, Dan Doornink and Eric Lane.”
The Seahawks won 12 games that season before losing in the second round of the AFC playoffs.
The Knox Years remain the most consistently successful in franchise history. “It’s not like we’re happy that they haven’t had that kind of success, or that we’re glad they haven’t always done well,” Nash said. “But it does give you a sense of pride to see what we did there with Chuck.”
And it is with a sense of pride that Knox, still as tough as Sewickley, will gather his family around him on Sunday and watch his name get placed where it belongs – alongside Largent and Zorn, Easley and Krieg, Green and Warner, Brown and Gross.
The Seahawks’ greatest generation.