Meet Neil Graff, the Original Seahawks Starting Quarterback
There is a man in South Dakota who, on occasion, will stump people with a trivia question: Can you name the original starting quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks?
Most believe that the answer is Jim Zorn.
The unexpected answer is the name of the questioner: Neil Graff, a 65-year-old who has been a financial adviser in Sioux Falls for more than 35 years. He has a unique tie to the Seahawks and the New England Patriots, the teams that played in Super Bowl XLIX.
Graff was drafted in the 16th round of the NFL draft in 1972. He spent six years with five teams, including the Minnesota Vikings, and he played quarterback behind such greats as Fran Tarkenton in Minnesota, Terry Bradshaw in Pittsburgh and Jim Plunkett in New England.
“I really see my lot in life as the guy who has pushed the former great quarterbacks into the Hall of Fame,” he jokes.
Graff started the first two games for New England in 1975, filling in for an injured Plunkett. He expected to compete with Steve Grogan for the starting job in 1976. But the Patriots left Graff unprotected in the 1976 expansion draft that stocked the Seahawks and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the league’s two start-up franchises.
Grogan, not Graff, took over the Patriots, and he went on to start 135 games for New England over 16 seasons.
Across the country, Graff started the first preseason game for the Seahawks, against the San Francisco 49ers at the Kingdome. But when the regular season began in September, Zorn was the No. 1 quarterback. Zorn started 100 games for Seattle over nine seasons and would later be inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor.
Graff was left behind as a footnote to both franchises. His two starts with the Patriots were the only ones he made. By 1978, he was out of the NFL.
“A lot of making it in the NFL is being in the right place at the right time,” Graff said. “As I look back on my career, I think I was cursed, so to speak. I was never in the right place at the right time. But what a great experience.”
Besides his time in New England and Seattle, Graff can brag about being a backup to two Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterbacks: Fran Tarkenton in Minnesota and Terry Bradshaw in Pittsburgh.
“I tell people, ‘If I wouldn’t have pushed them to great heights, they wouldn’t have made it to the Hall of Fame,’” Graff said.
The main reason Graff was a quarterback at all was that a coach in seventh grade lined up the boys and had them hold out their hands. Graff had the biggest. That was enough to make him the quarterback. At Lincoln High School in Sioux Falls, Graff made all-state teams in football and basketball. One newspaper named him the high school football player of the decade in the 1960s. He is a member of the South Dakota Sports Hall of Fame, and in 1999, he made Sports Illustrated’s list of the century’s top 50 athletes from each of the 50 states — No. 50 in South Dakota. (The Olympian Billy Mills was No. 1.)
Graff went to Wisconsin, where he was a three-year starter, and was drafted by the Vikings in the 14th round of the 1972 NFL Draft. But Tarkenton was in his prime, and Graff never played.
He landed with the Patriots in 1974 as a backup to Plunkett, the 1970 Heisman Trophy winner, who went on to win two Super Bowls with the Raiders. It was Plunkett’s shoulder injury in 1975 that gave Graff a chance to start the season’s first two games. The Patriots lost both. Plunkett and Grogan, a rookie, took turns starting for the rest of a 3-11 season.
Come spring, Plunkett was traded to the 49ers, and Graff, while vacationing in Europe, was plucked by the Seahawks.
“I knew nothing about them,” Graff said. “I had never been to Seattle or to the Northwest at all. So on the one hand I was kind of nervous, but I was also kind of excited. I viewed it as an opportunity to win a starting job.”
Coach Jack Patera knew Graff from Minnesota, where Patera had been a defensive assistant for the Vikings and Graff ran the opposing team’s offense in practice. Patera made Graff the starter for the first game, against the 49ers (and Plunkett). Graff and the Seahawks trailed, 24-0, when Zorn entered in the second half. His first pass was a 48-yard completion. A stirring comeback fell short, and Seattle lost, 27-20.
Patera handed the starting job to the left-handed Zorn, whose scrambling ability was reminiscent of Tarkenton’s.
“In the end, I think Jack Patera realized that with the offensive line Seattle had, protecting the quarterback was going to be a challenge in those early years,” Graff said.
Graff was waived in late September, as the veteran Bill Munson became Zorn’s backup, but the sting did not last. The Steelers, the two-time defending Super Bowl champions, signed him immediately because of an injury to Bradshaw. Graff backed up Mike Kruczek but did not play.
Graff was re-signed by the Steelers early in the 1977 season, when Kruczek was hurt and Bradshaw was nursing a sore wrist. With Bradshaw listed as questionable to play, Coach Chuck Noll said Graff might start a Monday night game against the rival Cincinnati Bengals.
“It’s really a great chance for me, if I get in and play,” Graff said at the time, when he was 27. “It’s a big game — not only because it’s a Monday night television game, but because it’s against the Bengals. It’s a good opportunity to show what I can do, to show what kind of talents I have.”
Bradshaw played, and Graff never started another game. He spent part of 1978 as a backup in Green Bay and ended his career back in Wisconsin.
Graff played in 29 games in his career, starting twice, and completed 25 of 48 passes, with two touchdowns and three interceptions.
There was no bitterness at the end, and there does not seem to be any now. Graff had a business degree from Wisconsin, and spent his NFL off-seasons completing an MBA. He glided into a long financial career that has continued in Sioux Falls. He and his wife, Debbie, have three children: two daughters, Bergen, 23, and Elizabeth, 14, and a son, Ben, 20.
And he also received tickets to Super Bowl XLIX, courtesy of the Seahawks.
A few years ago, a Seattle fan who archived much of the team’s early history named an award for Graff — the Graffy — to be given to each season’s most underappreciated player.
“He represents to us the cruelty of being overlooked,” the site reads.
According to Becky Selm, who runs the site, this year’s award will go to Garry Gilliam, the undrafted rookie offensive lineman who caught a touchdown pass on a fake field-goal attempt to help fuel Seattle’s comeback win over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game.
Graff, Seattle’s original quarterback, never made a memorable play for the Seahawks.
“I guess I made an impression on some people, anyway,” he said.
(By John Branchjan – The New York Times)