Dave Krieg: The Man from Milton

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By Scott M. Johnson

Krieg245_0920With appropriate timing, the first chapter of one of the most legendary stories in NFL history was being written a few months after a similar tale had come to an end. In the fall of 1999, unknown quarterback and one-time grocery bagger Kurt Warner overcame stops at Division I-AA Northern Iowa University, the Arena League and NFL Europe to become the starting quarterback of the St. Louis Rams. Over the ensuing months, he would become as unlikely a Most Valuable Player as the NFL would ever anoint. Warner was the stuff of Disney movies, the kind of character F. Scott Fitzgerald might create on the pages of a book. His was the most inspirational story the NFL had seen in years. He was an inspiration to all.

All, that is, except Dave Krieg.

Krieg, a longtime NFL veteran who could not find work that fall and thus saw his 19-year career come to an end, had heard a similar tale before. It was, of course, his own.

Warner had to buck the odds after playing Division I-AA football at Northern Iowa? Try playing at an NAIA Division III school like Milton College.

Warner had to play in developmental leagues before getting a shot in the NFL? Those weren’t even around when Krieg was playing.

“He used to bag groceries?” Krieg added in 2007, 27 years after making the Seahawks’ roster as an undrafted rookie out of the Wisconsin school. “I worked in a paper mill and at Roto Rooter, and I worked on a farm. Not to take anything away from Kurt Warner, but I’d rather bag groceries than do some of that stuff.”

Before Kurt Warner, there was the Man from Milton.

Although he never made it to the Super Bowl, and was never named league MVP, Krieg might have had an even more remarkable career when considering where it all started, how far it took him, and how long it took for the dream to finally come to an end. Countless things had to fall into place for David Krieg to even dream of playing in an NFL game, much less starting one, and yet he took every opportunity and made the most of it. In the process, he put up some of the greatest passing statistics in NFL history.

Say the name Kurt Warner to any longtime Seahawks fan, and he or she might thing you’re talking about a former NFL running back with a slightly different spelling. Ask that same person to name the least likely longtime starter in NFL history, and it’s likely you’ll hear about the Man from Milton.

Born in tiny Iola, Wisc., and raised in nearby Rothschild, Krieg lived his young life so far removed from the NFL spotlight that even the moon seemed more within reach. His father, Myron, was a dairy farmer who gave his family a modest life but never had much time to chase any of his own athletic endeavors. Even when Myron’s son David became the starting quarterback at D.C. Everest High School in nearby Schofield, there was no hint that a prolonged football career might be in the cards. Everest High ran a Power-I formation that featured the running game, and so Dave Krieg became adept at handing the ball off but never got to show enough as a passer to bring any college scouts to Schofield.

And yet, thanks to a high school coach with connections, Dave Krieg would continue to play beyond the high school level. Everest coach Dick Ambrosino called his former high school coach, Rudy Gaddini of NAIA Division III school Milton College, and told him about a senior quarterback with a lot of potential.

“We don’t have much left,” Gaddini recalled telling Ambrosino at the time, referring to the lack of scholarships. “We gave out all the Cadillacs; all we’ve got left is a Volkswagen.”

Gaddini trusted Ambrosino enough to offer Krieg a partial scholarship — sight unseen. Ambrosino considered it more of a favor to an old friend than an effort to bring in a future starter. While the Wildcats had lost star quarterback Brian Bliese from their unbeaten team the previous year, Gaddini already had plenty of options at the position.

“That year, everybody and his brother wanted to be a quarterback,” Gaddini said. “Even the manager wanted to get under center. It was because of the success from the prior year.”

Krieg arrived in Milton and was promptly placed seventh on the depth chart. But he moved up quickly. Two of the quarterbacks ahead of Krieg eventually changed positions, another got hurt, and the others struggled. By the fourth game of Dave Krieg’s freshman year at Milton, he was in the offensive huddle for a game. He threw just four passes in that game, and yet three of them went for touchdowns. The man who would become the Man from Milton was thereby anointed. Krieg kept the starting job for the rest of that season, as well as the following three, and was named the Illini-Badger Conference’s player of the year as a senior.

“In sports, it’s a simple proposition,” Gaddini said. “Guys have talent, and you see them in practice, but you really don’t know how good they are until they get in the game. That was the deal with Dave.”

Krieg, who also played baseball for the Wildcats, finished his career as the most decorated quarterback in Milton College history. That and a quarter might buy a cup of coffee, and so Krieg was neither invited to the NFL scouting combine nor selected in the 12-round NFL draft. It took a letter from Gaddini to Seahawks personnel director Dick Mansperger for Krieg to get a tryout – another favor that wasn’t expected to lead to much — and soon the kid from the Wisconsin farmland was on his way to Seattle. It was the first time he’d ever been on an airplane.

The only thing familiar about Seattle was Krieg’s place in line. Once again, he was listed as seventh on the depth chart – behind Jim Zorn, Sam Adkins, Steve Myer and fellow rookies David Greenhalgh (of Southwest Oklahoma State), Matt Kupec (North Carolina) and Paul McGaffigan (Long Beach State).

“I should have worn No. 7,” Krieg would joke years later, pointing out that his choice in uniform number would have matched the spot where he began on the depth charts at both Milton and Seattle.

Krieg outplayed the other rookies during training camp, and eventually all three of those first-year players dropped out of the picture before the preseason games even began. When Myer suffered a season-ending back injury in the intrasquad scrimmage, yet another opportunity landed on Krieg’s doorstep.

“I thought: Oh my gosh, there are only two quarterbacks: Zorn and Sam Adkins,” Krieg recalled. “I knew I’d get more repetitions.”

Krieg250_02_0920Krieg didn’t always shine in the spotlight that summer. He remembers one particular play that called for him to drop back and throw to one of the receivers on his right side. Krieg instead threw to Sam McCullum on an underneath pattern to his left. McCullum was so surprised by the pass that he almost forgot to put his hands up.

“Later, while we were watching film, (offensive coordinator) Jerry Rhome asked me why I threw that pass,” Krieg later recalled. “I said: ‘Well, he was open, Coach.’

“I didn’t know the offensive plays. I didn’t know what to do. I just threw to the open guy.”

Krieg eventually got the hang of it. He completed 14 of 20 passes in the preseason and made enough of an impression that the Seahawks were ready to take a chance on the son of the Wisconsin farmer. On cutdown day, Rhome wandered through the locker room and delivered the bad news to the players who didn’t make the team. When Krieg saw Rhome walk by his locker without a word, he knew. Krieg immediately called his father, telling him: “Guess what! I’ve got great seats and a brand new uniform!”

Just to get that far in his football career, Krieg later admitted: “A lot of things had to fall into place.”

With a tiny salary and few West Coast connections, Krieg lived more like a grad student than an NFL player. He rented a room from fellow Milton grad Mike Casey, who had contacted Krieg and introduced himself shortly after hearing that the Seahawks had signed a kid from the 500-person school in Milton, Wisc. Krieg didn’t even have a car, so he borrowed rides from a couple other friends he met along the way, Jim Smith and Tom Bouch. Krieg didn’t live like most professional athletes, nor did he carry himself like some of the former big-college stars and high draft picks who filled the NFL rosters. Krieg knew that the only way he would have any success in the NFL was to be the ultimate team player who relied on others to help win games.

“That’s what being a teammate is about,” he said. “You just do it; you don’t need all the credit. Everybody pitches in and does their share. That’s how I was brought up and raised.”

Krieg’s NFL career started to take off late in the 1981 season, after Zorn got injured in a loss to Oakland. The Seahawks were set to face the New York Jets and a punishing defensive line that was known as the New York Sack Exchange because of a propensity to sack opposing quarterbacks. Because of Krieg’s lack of experience, the Seahawks coaches came up with a plan to keep their young, small-college quarterback from getting nervous. They didn’t tell him until a few minutes before kickoff that he’d be starting in that game.

“All through the week it was Sam Adkins and I taking (practice) snaps,” Krieg recalled. “Neither one of us knew who was going to start. I thought it was going to be Sam because he was the veteran guy. Then we went out for pregame warmups, and still neither one of us was sure. Then I come in the locker room, and Jerry Rhome says: ‘You know you’re starting, don’t you?’ I said, ‘I do now.'”

Like he had in his first action at Milton, Krieg proved to be up for the task. He led the way to a 27-23 victory over the favored Jets and cemented his place as an NFL quarterback. Krieg finished that season as the starter, but the good times didn’t last long. First came some bad news from back in his home state, where word came out that his college had closed its doors due to financial constraints. Dave Krieg would be the first and only man from Milton College to get a shot in the NFL.

While Krieg opened the 1982 season as the Seahawks’ starter, an NFL players strike interrupted that season after three games and took away more than just a few paychecks. When head coach Jack Patera was fired during the strike and replaced by interim coach Mike McCormack, Krieg lost his starting job. McCormack tabbed Zorn as the starter, and Krieg remained on the bench when Chuck Knox took over at the beginning of the 1983 season.

But that soon changed when Zorn struggled in the first half of a Week 8 game against Pittsburgh. Knox put Krieg in the game at the beginning of the third quarter, and the rest was history. Playing against the infamous Steel Curtain defense, Krieg almost rallied the Seahawks from a 24-0 halftime deficit, throwing two touchdown passes before Pittsburgh held on for a 27-21 victory. After that, the starting job was Krieg’s to keep.

“He lost the first one, and then he really got on a roll,” Knox recalled. “It was a great compliment to him, and to the rest of the guys, that we did it after losing (running back) Curt Warner to a knee injury in the first game. We won without him, and Dave Krieg was largely responsible for that.”

Krieg helped lead the Seahawks to the first playoff appearance in franchise history, then went on to beat Denver and heavily-favored Miami to advance to the AFC championship game.

There, Seattle lost to the AFC West rival Los Angeles Raiders, a team that would continue to be a thorn in the side of Krieg and his teammates. While the Seahawks got some revenge in a 1984 postseason meeting, the Raiders had generally dominated the rivalry over the years.

Krieg never made it a secret how much he loathed the Raiders, so when the teams renewed their rivalry in 1988 he was in no need of a pre-game pep talk. That turned out to be one of the most memorable games of the rivalry – and, perhaps, the game of Dave Krieg’s life.

Seahawks vs. Los Angeles Raiders
Dec. 18, 1988
As told by Dave Krieg

The final game of the 1988 season came against our long-time nemesis, the Los Angeles Raiders, at the L.A. Coliseum. The stakes were for division championship — the very, very first division championship for the Seattle Seahawks. So for us, it was huge. We were only 9-7, but we had some pretty good teams in the division that year: the Broncos, the Raiders and us.

When we got the Coliseum that day, it felt pretty good. I remember the grass was very green. It wasn’t cold; it wasn’t warm. It was just right for football. It felt like a championship-type game. I felt better because I had some championship experience, and our team had started to jell, and we felt really good about ourselves.

In 1983, when we were playing them for the AFC championship, we had lost there. So for me personally, I knew I had been there one other time for a big game and didn’t come out on top. That was during the height of the Seahawks-Raiders rivalries.

By 1988, the rivalry was getting near the end because they had changed over their personnel, and we were getting near the end of our little run. It was getting near the end, I suppose. But they still had plenty of familiar guys, especially on defense. There were the Howie Longs, the Vann McElroys, Michael Haynes. They had linebackers all over the place. Rod Martin – man, he was good. He had long arms; just a great, solid linebacker. They had Bill Pickel.

There was a time when they got the better of the rivalry, but we had started to change that a little bit. We had beaten them previously in a 1984 playoff game, and we had been out of everything in that game. We were out of linemen, we didn’t have Curt Warner, and we still beat them in the playoff game that year, in 1984.

I don’t remember what the deal was with Curt this time around, but I know that John L. Williams was back there. And we still had Eric Lane.

It was the mystique of the Raiders, which we had finally gotten over in the mid-’80s, around 1983 or ’84. We weren’t letting them bully us around anymore. We came out there, and it was totally different than they thought it was going to be. Head coach Chuck Knox came up with a game plan that was like: we’re going to go attack.

In a game for the division championship, usually you’ll get conservative. But I think Chuck just said: We’re gonna throw the ball around. He told offensive coordinator Steve Moore, ‘You call the plays the way you see fit.’

Things didn’t get off to a perfect start – I fumbled away the football after Pickel sacked me on our first possession – but eventually we got into a rhythm. I completed my first three passes, two of which went for touchdowns. We eventually led 23-17 at halftime.

Then the play-calling really got creative. Moore called for a flea-flicker, which involved me handing off to John L. before he turned and pitched the ball back to me. I hit a wide open Brian Blades for 21 yards. He was pretty open. I just had to make sure I got it there. One play later, I hit Blades again for a 30-yard touchdown and a 30-17 lead.

On the next drive, Moore called a misdirection screen pass that we had only used one other time. We had done it against the Bears toward the end of the 1987 season. John L. came up with the play by himself. We had run a similar play earlier in that Chicago game, where everybody went right and we threw it over there to the right side. Afterward, John L. came to the sideline and said, ‘Everybody run right, then I’ll slip out to the left.’ So Steve called the play, and it worked.

So then we did it again against the Raiders. I rolled out to the right, looked downfield, then turned back to my left. I think there was a big defensive lineman who had come through, with his hands up, so I had to get it over him. But I got it to John L., who was alone on the other side of the field. All there was in front of him were big offensive linemen and little defensive backs. So he ran it all the way for a 75-yard touchdown.

That was the game plan: cut it loose. Any quarterback likes that, where you just go out there and throw the ball around. It’s like a basketball player getting in rhythm. You start throwing the ball early, and have some success, and you feel like throwing it all day.

We completed them early and often. It kept working. The only time they stopped us was when we stopped ourselves. We got everybody involved: the running backs, the tight ends, the receivers. Everybody was catching the ball. Everyone was looking forward to getting into the huddle and hoping that the play was coming their way so they’d have a chance to catch the ball.

The whole offense felt in rhythm. It goes like that sometimes. Fortunately, in that particular game, it happened. We built up a 40-27 lead before the Raiders started to make a comeback. After a field goal, they were within six points in the final couple minutes. They got to within six, and we had to run out the clock.

We tried to run the clock out with three running plays, and then we punted and they still had time to get some plays off. There was 1:08 left on the clock, and they needed to go 67 yards for the game-winning touchdown. I was going, ‘Oh, no, don’t let this happen like this.’

They completed a long pass to midfield, then had three cracks at the end zone. Watching that is nerve-wracking because anything can happen. You see enough games, and you’re around long enough, you know that anything can happen. So it’s very nerve-wracking. You don’t have any control. You’re just watching and hoping.

Fortunately, the final Hail Mary pass fell incomplete. What we felt was relief. It was the fulfillment of the whole team getting it done. Everybody was ecstatic. Even at 9-7, we were able to go down there and win a division championship. I don’t care what your record is; when you win a division championship, that’s a big deal. Especially when it’s your first one.

So we were about as happy as we were when we beat Miami in that playoff game in 1983, and when we beat Kansas City with no time on the clock a few years later. It was just as exciting.

It was draining — emotionally and physically. It was kind of warm, 70 degrees, which is fairly warm for football weather. I remember I was just worn out emotionally, mentally and physically. It felt like you just had a really good workout, like you went out there and spent it all.

Now, 18 to 20 years later, I don’t dwell on the game that much. But when the season starts up, and you see the Raiders, that’s the game I think of. It was the first time the franchise ever won a division championship, so that’s something you never forget.

While the Seahawks didn’t win another division championship under Krieg, he had plenty more success in his final three seasons with the team. He held franchise records in 31 different categories before Matt Hasselbeck eclipsed several of them in recent years.

Krieg also engineered one of the most memorable comebacks in franchise history, during the same game that an opposing player set an NFL record for sacks.

The date was Nov. 11, 1990, and Krieg spent most of the afternoon on the wrong end of a league-record seven sacks by Kansas City’s Derrick Thomas. Along the way, the Chiefs built up a 16-10 lead into the final minute.

The Seahawks got the ball back at their own 34-yard line with 48 seconds left on the clock, needing a touchdown to win the game. Krieg completed two quick passes to the 50-yard line and spiked the ball with two seconds left.

On what would be the final play of the game, Thomas broke through the offensive line and got his left hand on Krieg, his sights set on Sack No. 8. But somehow Krieg escaped his grasp — “I think I’d already worn him out,” Krieg later joked. “He was just too tired to tackle me” – and threw a pass toward the end zone. Clutch receiver Paul Skansi came back to the ball and caught it after time expired, while the extra point gave Seattle an improbable, memorable 17-16 win.

Krieg250_01_0920But wins were less frequent as the Seahawks went through a period of transition. Players like Curt Warner, Steve Largent and Kenny Easley moved on, and their replacements weren’t as talented. The franchise was in a state of rebuilding, and Seattle’s thirty-something quarterback could see the writing on the wall. The Seahawks traded for Kelly Stouffer in 1988, then used a first-round draft pick on Dan McGwire in 1991.

After the 1991 season, the Seahawks left Krieg available in Plan B free agency, which was designed to give teams a chance to pluck veterans off other rosters. He was signed by the Chiefs, reuniting him with Thomas – only without the danger of getting sacked. He also got to play with another future Hall of Famer in Joe Montana, who came to Kansas City the following year and took Krieg’s starting job on his way to carrying the Chiefs to the AFC championship game.

Krieg played with Barry Sanders in Detroit, started one season each with the Phoenix Cardinals and Chicago Bears, then spent his final two seasons as the backup for the Tennessee Oilers/Titans.

By 1999, when Kurt Warner was just beginning to make a name for himself in St. Louis, Krieg was 42 years old and unable to find work. He officially announced his retirement at a small press conference at the Seahawks’ training camp facility in Cheney, Wash., on July 29, 2000. Hoping to go to a 20th NFL training camp, Krieg instead had to settle for an improbable 19-year career that saw him go to three Pro Bowls and rank among the top 10 in league history in four major categories – passing yards (38,147, 8th), completions (3,105, 8th), attempts (5,311, 10th) and touchdown passes (261, eighth) – at the time of his retirement.

Krieg300_0920On Sept. 26, 2004, Krieg became the eighth member of the Seahawks’ Ring of Honor, which recognizes all-time greats by putting their names along the upper deck of Qwest Field in downtown Seattle. Krieg joined former teammates Steve Largent, Jim Zorn, Dave Brown, Curt Warner, Jacob Green and Kenny Easley, along with broadcaster Pete Gross, in immortality.

Not bad for a Man from Milton.

“In high school, they didn’t put me in a ring of anything,” Krieg said in 2007. “And then in college, they didn’t have anyplace to put me.

“To come from Iola, Wisc., to D.C. Everest to Milton, and then to get your name on an NFL stadium for the rest of your life? C’mon. It gives me chills just thinking about it right now.”

Despite his meager beginnings, Dave Krieg gave the Seahawks plenty of chills throughout his career. No matter how many NFL stops he had after Seattle, the Seahawks will always have a place in his heart.

“It’s still one of my favorite places to go in the whole world,” Krieg said in 2007. “I’ve gotten to travel to Japan and Germany and Scotland and all these places, but still Seattle is one of my favorite places – for the opportunity they gave me and for the city itself.”

In the end, the Man from Milton found a way to make a big city fall in love with him.