For Jim Zorn, Seattle Was Love at First Sight

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January 29, 2006

Jim Zorn, scrambling from a Colts defender in 1981, was known for his improvisational and escape skills.

Jim Zorn, scrambling from a Colts defender in 1981, was known for his improvisational and escape skills.

Everything he owned fit comfortably in a yellow Volkswagen, with just enough space left over for a few dreams. Jim Zorn hitched the VW to a friend’s truck and started for Seattle with odds longer than his drive. He knew nothing about his chances and even less about the city.

So he did the only thing that made sense – he stopped at an outdoor store near the interstate and purchased hiking boots and a down vest.

Zorn remembers the exact date – March 11, 1976 – like he remembers the birthdays of his four children. The day a virtual unknown from Cal Poly Pomona embarked on a journey that wouldn’t culminate for nearly 30 years, that won’t culminate until the original Seahawks quarterback coaches the current Seahawks quarterbacks in the Super Bowl.

Everything started when Zorn came over a hill and stole first glances of downtown and the skyline and the Kingdome. “There’s no better way to put it,” Zorn says. “Love at first sight.”

Original Seahawks fans felt the same way, in large part because their original quarterback kept them entertained. They loved the pageboy haircut, loved the improvisation, loved the way Zorn emerged like an escape artist from collapsed pockets and scrambled down the field – “Michael Vick qualities,” former teammate and best friend Steve Largent says.

Zorn and the Seahawks were synonymous. They weren’t going to dazzle anyone with pure talent, but they were going to be fun to watch. They ran trick plays – surprise onside kicks, fake punts and fake field goals among them. Like the time in the early days on “Monday Night Football” against the Atlanta Falcons, when the Seahawks faked a field goal and Zorn threw a pass to kicker Efren Herrera for a first down.

“What was amazing about our first year is we were 2-12,” Zorn says, “and you would have thought we were Super Bowl-bound. There was a genuine enthusiasm, a simple pleasure in being an NFL team.”

Zorn lost his starting job in 1983, the same year the Seahawks won their first playoff game. By then he had already carved his place in Seahawks history, which would be cemented later with induction into the Ring of Honor.

His road to the Super Bowl, though, was just beginning. It took him to Green Bay in 1985, Winnipeg in 1986 and Tampa Bay during the 1987 strike. No team showed interest when the strike ended, and Zorn retired and started coaching in college. First at Boise State, then at Utah State and Minnesota. But when the head coach at Minnesota resigned, Zorn lost his job and there were no offers on the table. So he returned where most men do when they have nowhere else to go. He came home, to Seattle and the Seahawks, and volunteered at training camp in 1997.

Now that was a strange sight. The original Seahawks quarterback tossing footballs to little kids after the Seahawks finished practice. But Zorn wanted any responsibility, and his work with the fans led to one season as a Seahawks offensive assistant and a gig as quarterbacks coach with the Detroit Lions in 1998.

“I had to come to grips with the whole concept,” Zorn says. “You don’t always get to coach in the place that you love coaching in. You just have to love coaching. That’s why this is so ideal. I love it here.” Coaching took Zorn all over the country, and only that odd succession of events – fate, maybe – could bring him back.

That’s what makes this week so special – the first quarterback in Seahawks history standing on the sideline for the first Super Bowl in Seahawks history. “Jim has seen this from its infancy to now,” says former Seahawks quarterback Trent Dilfer, “and there’s an extra appreciation because of that.”

Zorn is a coach now. The pageboy cut is long gone, but the core of the quarterback remains. It’s there, in the conviction Dilfer labels as Zorn’s greatest strength. And there, spelled out in the Seahawks’ playbook. Current quarterback Matt Hasselbeck says the Seahawks always give Zorn a hard time for the exotic plays that he comes up with. Many of the plays that elicited a chuckle are now staples of the offense. “Jim has a huge fingerprint on this offense,” Dilfer says. “Many of the concepts that you see work on Sundays, concepts that Mike Holmgren has fallen in love with, are Jim Zorn’s. Now, in the same breath, many that never made it are Jim Zorn’s. But you have to have the courage and conviction to make that possible.”

Dilfer says that conviction turns quarterbacks into believers. It comes from coaching in different systems, from studying the game, from 30 years spent immersed in all things quarterback. Dilfer admits he initially rejected some Zorn concepts, only to find out later that they worked. All the Seahawks quarterbacks have similar testimonials. But none are more poignant than the one from Hasselbeck.

“That first year was a tough year for me here,” he says. “All veteran quarterbacks go through a tough year or two. He was a perfect quarterback coach for me at that point. Had he not been my coach, who knows, I don’t know if I would have made it through.”

Zorn has made a home here. Fans still stop him in the supermarket to reminisce. He pitches for the Seahawks’ company softball team; some opponents are too in love to bat against him, and others shake his hand after he gets them out. He even steps in as a practice quarterback every once in a while. Dilfer says that’s when Zorn is the happiest, when “he’s out there being as competitive as the rest of us, talking smack, then watching film and breaking down his technique.”

Fellow coaches endorse Zorn as ready for his next coaching step, be that as an offensive coordinator or head-coaching gig. Zorn doesn’t disagree, although he knows he may have to leave again for that kind of opportunity. “That will happen sooner rather than later, too,” Largent says. “He’s the total package, and I wouldn’t have said that three or four years ago. He’s gained experience since then.”

Zorn has the hiking boots from his first trip to Seattle resting in his closet. He always looked at that trip as a new beginning. “I look up at my name in the Ring of Honor every once in a while,” Zorn says. “But what’s really great about having my name up there, it’s not me so much as it’s who I’m up there with. I’m a part of a whole, not just the guy.

“That’s what I feel like being here in Seattle. I’m a part of the history of the Seahawks, and I still get to enjoy what’s happening right now. Those kinds of things mean a lot to me.”

Never more than now.

Zorn, signing autographs for fans at Qwest Field, has been the Seahawks' quarterbacks coach since 2001.

Zorn, signing autographs for fans at Qwest Field, has been the Seahawks’ quarterbacks coach since 2001.

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