Paul Skansi: The Big Catch

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September 9, 2011

By Scott M. Johnson

Paul Skansi hauled in a game-winning TD catch with no time left for a win at Kansas City.

Paul Skansi hauled in a game-winning TD catch with no time left for a win at Kansas City.

Skansi300_02_0909Having spent much of his adolescence on fishing boats, alongside his father and older brother, Paul Skansi grew up knowing what it’s like to dream of the big catch. The Gig Harbor native planned on carrying on the family tradition of becoming a commercial fisherman.

But even after Paul Skansi found another calling, his destiny was essentially the same. Skansi, a local football star who went on to play at the University of Washington and eventually for the nearby city’s NFL team, made one of the biggest catches in Seahawks history. Even more than 25 years later, the memory still lingered in the minds of longtime fans.

Paul Skansi, the most improbable of heroes, will always have a place in the hearts of Seahawks fans who remember the big catch.

Paul Skansi came from a family so modest that few of the Skansis bothered to dream of things like college degrees or national notoriety. Paul’s father, Nick Skansi Sr., was a fisherman by trade, earning his living by purse seining in Alaska with brother Tony.

Nick Sr. got into gill-netting after starting a family of his own and eventually included his two eldest sons, John and Paul, in the business. The Skansis would go on ventures on the West Pass, outside of Gig Harbor, where the father taught his two oldest sons — Nick Jr. was too young to join in — the trade.

That’s where Paul Skansi first developed a passion for fishing. By his teenage years, he was taking fishing trips to Alaska to go gill-netting or joining best friend Mike Galligan on purse-seining ventures to the San Juan Islands for extra cash.

Other than the occasional fishing trip, Paul Skansi rarely traveled, not even if it was the 45-minute drive from the waterfront community of Gig Harbor to the big city of Seattle. Unless the Skansis needed to go to Ballard to pick up equipment for their fishing boat, Paul wasn’t much interested in visiting the big city. The only other times he visited Seattle were when his Peninsula High School football team went to the Kingdome to play in the state playoffs in 1977 and ’78.

A natural athlete who loved basketball and soccer, Paul Skansi didn’t even start playing football until his junior year of high school – and that was only because older brother John was on the team. Paul Skansi joined the junior varsity football team as a starting safety but played just one game during that junior season.

“I didn’t have a clue as to what to do,” Skansi recalled years later. “It was the first organized football I’d ever played. I put my pads on wrong, had my helmet so loose that you could twist it around my neck. I didn’t have a clue.”

Apparently, Skansi was a quick learner. He had two interceptions and several tackles in his gridiron debut, earning a quick call-up to the varsity. Playing exclusively on defense, Paul Skansi helped lead Peninsula High to the state championship game. Peninsula’s Seahawks lost 57-30 to Burlington at the Kingdome, but Skansi came away from the season believing he might have found a new passion.

He switched sides of the football the following year, playing wide receiver while also returning kicks and punts as a senior. In a run-and-shoot system based on the offense that coach Mouse Davis was running at Portland State, Peninsula piled up plenty of passing yards. Senior quarterback Steve Hunt had a favorite target in classmate Skansi, who was beginning to gain attention from local colleges like the University of Puget Sound (UPS) and the University of Washington.

“At that time, none of my siblings or parents had graduated from college, so that wasn’t something that was stressed in my family,” Skansi recalled. “And my parents couldn’t afford to send me to college, so if not for the scholarship, I wouldn’t have gone.”

During that senior season, Skansi helped Peninsula go 12-0 on the way to another appearance at the Kingdome for the 1978 state championship game. Peninsula was playing a Pullman team that had plenty of offensive firepower of its own. The two teams found themselves in a shootout.

Early in the fourth quarter, Pullman drove down the field and scored a touchdown to take a 34-28 lead. The emotional tide seemed to favor Pullman’s Greyhounds. But Skansi took the ensuing kickoff at the Peninsula 11-yard line and scampered 89 yards for the longest return touchdown in Washington state championship history. The extra point gave the Seahawks a 35-34 lead, and that’s just how the game ended.

State title in hand, Skansi began pondering his next move. Part of him wanted to stay in Gig Harbor and work on the family boat. Another part of him wanted to follow Hunt, his high school quarterback, to UPS, an NCAA Division II school in nearby Tacoma.

And then there was the University of Washington, which played in the prestigious Pac-10 Conference and offered the remote possibility of an NFL future. But the UW was in Seattle, and Skansi was a small-town guy.

“I was pretty sheltered,” Skansi admitted years later.

In the end, Skansi decided to go to the big school in Seattle because he wanted to see how he stacked up against the best competition. While he fully expected to redshirt as a freshman, a myriad of injuries at the receiver position forced Skansi onto the field early in his college career. By the fifth game of his freshman season, he was in the starting lineup. In the 1979 Sun Bowl, Skansi caught the game-winning touchdown pass in a 14-7 victory over Texas and was named game MVP. By the end of his career at the UW, Skansi was a four-year starter and the school’s all-time leading receiver.

In 1983, the Pittsburgh Steelers made Skansi a fifth-round pick in the annual NFL draft. Playing on a team that included Jack Lambert, Donnie Shell and an aging Terry Bradshaw, Skansi saw some time returning kicks but never cracked the starting lineup as a rookie. Skansi caught just three passes, and he fumbled five times on returns. So at the end of the Steelers’ 1984 training camp, after just one full season in the NFL, Skansi was released.

He went back to Gig Harbor and worked out, hoping for another chance. Several teams brought him in for tryouts during the 1984 season, but mostly they were looking for players to come to camp the following summer.

“I wanted to wait and see if something broke,” he recalled, “and it did.”

In the ninth week of the 1984 season, the nearby Seahawks called and offered Skansi a tryout. Seattle return man Paul Johns had suffered a career-ending spinal injury, so the Seahawks were looking for someone who could return kicks and see a few snaps at receiver. Skansi tried out, and was signed the following day. He played in just seven games that season, but caught seven passes and didn’t fumble a single punt. The Seahawks liked him so much that they brought him back in 1985.

Skansi350_01_0909Skansi eventually played eight seasons with the Seahawks, catching 163 passes along the way. There is no debate about which of those catches was the most memorable. On a list of the most exciting plays in Seahawks history, Skansi’s game-winner against Kansas City in 1990 ranks near the top.

The Seahawks overcame an NFL-record seven sacks from Kansas City linebacker Derrick Thomas and ended a 10-year winless streak at Arrowhead Stadium on a last-second touchdown. While quarterback Dave Krieg did most of the work by escaping Thomas’s eighth sack and heaving the ball into the end zone, it was Skansi who made the winning catch.

The big catch, no gill net required.

Seahawks vs. Kansas City Chiefs
Nov. 11, 1990
As told by Paul Skansi

Heading into Sunday, it was just a game we felt we needed to win. We hadn’t won in Kansas City for a long time – since 1980. My whole career, we hadn’t won in Kansas City. So we were like: Let’s just get a win here because it’s a tough place to play.

Obviously, we weren’t doing very well as an offense early in the game. Derrick Thomas was having a field day. We’d move the ball, get into their territory, then he would end momentum with another sack. He had seven sacks, an NFL record, and most of them came from the right side where tackle Ron Mattes lined up. Our linemen and backs were trying to figure out a way to help Mattes. We tried to help out with a second blocker on Thomas, with a running back or an extra tight end, but it didn’t help. The guy was just on fire that day.

We just kept trying to get something going. Our defense played great to keep us in the game. That helped us keep believing. When your defense is playing well, you can always come into the huddle and say: ‘We’re one score away.’ And we were the whole game. We were always in striking distance, and it came down to that final drive. Dave Krieg, he was one of those never-say-die, never-quit players, and he got us in position to win in the end.

We were within six points, at 16-10, when we drove into Chiefs territory late in the game. With four seconds left, we had the ball at the 25-yard line and one more shot. Dave had just completed back-to-back passes to John L. Williams and Tommy Kane to put us in position for one last, desperation throw. He had spiked the ball to stop the clock, and we knew this was our last chance.

I remember the play vividly. We were in a four-receiver package. I was in the slot, inside, on the left side of center. Steve Largent was in the same position on the right side. That’s how we always lined up in that formation. All four receivers ran vertical routes, and it was one of those plays, the last play of the game, so you just throw it up and hope for the best. We spread the field, and they played a zone coverage. Their free safety was inching toward Steve’s side. Derrick Thomas broke through again, and it looked like he had another sack. But somehow, Dave ducked him and threw it. He ducked under, rolled out, and threw it up. The safety was so sure that Steve would get the ball that he left the middle of the field open.

There really wasn’t any first option on the play in terms of who to throw the ball. The first option was to get it into the end zone; that was it. We had to get the ball into the end zone if we wanted a chance to win the game. Dave didn’t have much of a read because of Derrick Thomas getting there so fast. He did a great job of getting rid of the ball. Dave, he made the whole play. He ducked, avoided Derrick Thomas and made the throw. All I had to do was catch it. That was the easy part.

Because he had to scramble around a little bit, it took longer than it usually would. I had enough time to stop, turn and see the ball coming. I also had time to jump for the ball, which helped me shield off the defensive player. It seems like it’s in the air forever when you see it like that. When a defense is playing zone, you really feel like they’re going to converge as soon as the ball arrives, so you just hope the ball gets there quickly – before they do.

When the ball is coming at you in that situation, you don’t really have time to think about anything. You don’t think about dropping it. You just try to do what you normally would and concentrate on catching the ball.

It was so loud in there, and then when I caught the ball, it went totally silent. That was pretty cool. The whole scene was amazing. The whole magnitude of it: we hadn’t won in Kansas City in 10 years, and the way we won the game. I hadn’t scored a whole lot of touchdowns in my pro career, but I know that was the only time I ever spiked the ball. I’m not the kind of guy who’s normally very emotional. I’m pretty even-keel, not one to show emotion. But I did that day.

It was the first time in my career where, with no time on the clock and the game on the line, I caught the winning touchdown. I had one while playing college football at Washington, just before halftime. And I had one earlier in my Seattle career where I scored late in a game that we went on to win. But nothing of that magnitude. It’s a moment that everyone remembers – still to this day. Every once in awhile, especially with older Seahawks fans, we’ll get to talking and it always comes back to that play. I’ll never forget it.

Skansi300_01_0909Despite being on the receiving end of one of the most talked-about plays in franchise history, Skansi didn’t stick around long enough to make many more memories for his hometown team. The following year, in 1991, he was released — five weeks into the regular season.

The Seahawks were on a road trip for a game against the Cincinnati Bengals when coach Chuck Knox pulled Skansi aside after a Saturday walk-through practice. Knox told Skansi that he was not going to play in the game so that the team could add depth at another position. Skansi would be released, Knox said, but the plan was to re-sign him a day or two later.

“It didn’t really sink in until I got back to the hotel and I talked about it with my roommate, Jeff Kemp,” Skansi recalled in 2008. “I said: ‘You think they’ll let me ride back (to Seattle) on the plane?’

“They did. But they wouldn’t let me watch the game from the sideline. I had to watch it from the press box. It was weird.”

Skansi showed up for a team meeting later that week and was told he had not been re-signed. His career with the hometown Seahawks had come to an unceremonious end.

Without any opportunities to continue playing in the NFL, Skansi went north of the border and joined the Canadian Football League in the summer of 1992. He hurt his hamstring at training camp but was cleared to continue playing. The injury never fully healed, and midway through the season, Skansi’s hamstring finally tore. Doctors found the tendon raveled up inside the leg and performed an operation to repair it. Rather than sit out six weeks and try to come back, Skansi retired at the age of 32.

“I had a good, long career and decided to hang it up,” he recalled in 2008, 16 years after playing in his final game.

After a short stint as a mortgage banker, Skansi went back to the UW to finish his degree. He also worked as a volunteer assistant with the Huskies football team, paving the way for a stint in the coaching profession. When UW assistant Chris Tormey took over as head coach at the University of Idaho in 1995, he took Skansi with him. Skansi followed Tormey to the University of Nevada five years later but lasted only one year before deciding to get out of the coaching business.

With two young daughters, Skansi decided he wasn’t cut out for the vagabond coaching life that often forces families to move every few years. When the San Diego Chargers offered a job in their scouting department in 2000, Skansi jumped at the opportunity.

Eleven years later, Skansi is still working for the Chargers but living back in his home state. With wife Stephanie and daughters Taylor and Madison, Skansi has a home in Poulsbo, Wash., with a busy travel schedule that requires him to watch college prospects throughout the country. He is part of a scouting staff that has helped build one of the best teams in the entire NFL.

In Skansi’s spare time, he occasionally goes back to his roots. Fishing has remained a part of his life, even if it’s no longer a way to make money. Skansi often goes crabbing or shrimping near his in-laws’ cabin in Hood Canal. When he goes up to the San Juan Islands for an annual golf tournament, he’ll reminisce with old friend Mike Galligan about their fishing days. But they never pick up a pole.

While the other Skansi men spent their lives trying to make the big catch on a fishing boat, Paul Skansi made his on the gridiron.

“You never know where I would be if I took a different path,” he said in 2008. “Nothing happens by chance; I really believe that.

“God has a plan. It’s neat to think about it: if I didn’t get a scholarship, where would I be now? If I had gone to UPS, would I have gotten drafted? If I stayed in Pittsburgh, would my career have gone differently?

“I believe nothing happens by chance. It’s dictated by the opportunities you have and what you do with that opportunity. It’s worked out great.”