By: Steve Balestrieri
Even after nearly 40 years away from there, Steve King sounds like he could walk back onto a Quinton, Oklahoma cattle ranch where he grew up before going on to play college football and then nine years with the New England Patriots.
King, to those Patriots fans who don’t know much about the teams from the ‘70s was a 6’4, 232 lb. OLB for the team for nine years from 1973 -1981 and played in 124 games with 40 starts, most of which came in the first half of his career.
|Former Patriot LB Steve King, played from 1973-1981|
The friendly and easy-going King is quick with a smile, “I’m always happy when someone can remember me,” he said with a laugh.
I had the pleasure of meeting King at Patriot Place on Friday, as a mutual friend Doug MacPherson, VP of HMEA introduced us and we sat down for a two hour lunch at CBS Scene to talk about his life and his days as a member of the Patriots.
College Red-Shirt Issues Deny Draft Status
The still very fit looking 61 year old played for a tiny high school but was scouted by then Oklahoma coach Chuck Fairbanks. “He sent one of his assistant coaches down to see me, but they ended up passing on me, probably because my school was so small and I went to Tulsa,” King explained.
“I played more than you would normally be allowed to red-shirt me as an underclassman at Tulsa because of injuries,” King said. “But our coach told me that he was going to petition the NCAA for a hardship red-shirt exception.” Except that the coach never did, but Tulsa still listed King as a red-shirt sophomore when in reality he was a junior.
“I never questioned it….I found out later he never submitted any paperwork at all and because of it, I was declared ineligible for the NFL Draft which in those days was held in January,” King explained.
He was set to enter the supplemental NFL Draft where the New Orleans Saints were poised to grab him. But Chuck Fairbanks had taken over in New England by then and remembered King from his high school days. Fairbanks petitioned then Commissioner Pete Rozelle to allow King to become a free-agent.
King was declared a free agent by the league and the Patriots quickly scooped him up. But little did King know but the Dallas Cowboys were waiting in the wings. “I found out later that Gil Brandt wanted me on the Cowboys and was prepared to work a trade with New Orleans. I wanted no part of the ‘aints’ but Dallas would have been a different story,” King said.
“It all worked out for me, I spent nine years as a member of the Patriots but the one thing that always had me wondering, was where I would have gone in the draft. A couple of years after I was on the team in 1976 we played an exhibition game against the Chargers in Oklahoma,” King said. A local tv reporter was asking Coach Fairbanks about King (being an Oklahoma native) and Fairbanks said, that he had King as a solid 3rd round draft pick.
“I appreciated Chuck (Fairbanks) saying I would have been a 3rd round pick,” King said of the coach’s legendary personnel skills. “Which probably means I would have been drafted in the 4th round,” he said with a laugh. “But you never know, that’s the only what if I do about my career.”
King’s Patriots career started with a tough training camp that began in June and would back then consist of six pre-season games.
“Coach Fairbanks was a no-nonsense kind of guy and he wanted to see who had a passion for football and who liked to play,” King said.King landed on the taxi-squad his first season (today’s practice squad) and would be moved to the active roster after the fourth game. He saw action in the final seven games of the season and it set the tone for things to come.In 1974, Fairbanks drafted ILBs Steve Nelson and Sam Hunt and the Patriots switched to the Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4 Defense. King started all 14 games as the Patriots turned the corner from doormat to potential Super Bowl contender.
King reaches out to tackle former teammate Jim Plunkett
Under Fairbanks, the Patriots rolled through a tough schedule in 1976 to finish 11-3 and face the Oakland Raiders in the playoffs. The Raiders only loss in that season was a blowout 48-17 against the Patriots in New England. But as everyone remembers, the phantom roughing the passer call against Ray Hamilton sealed their fate. King remembers that game well.
1976 Heartbreak Playoff Loss
“We were so pumped for that game, because the winner would play Pittsburgh to go to the Super Bowl. We had already beaten the Steelers in Pittsburgh that season,” King recalls.“And they were really beat up at the end of the season, they had no Rocky (Bleier) or Franco (Harris) for that game. It turned out the Raiders ran the ball right down their throats. And we were a much better running team than they were that season.”
But in the Raider game, the Patriots led late in the game but the handwriting was already on the wall. “There were so many ridiculous calls in that game,” King remembers. “Banazak, (Raiders RB Pete) got tackled and after he was on the ground, stretched out his arm and placed the ball a good yard ahead of where he was tackled at.
Prentice McCray (Patriots SS) moved the ball back to where it rightfully should have been,” King added.“But then the referee (Ben Dreith) picks up the ball and places it right where Banazak had placed it, way beyond the spot he was tackled. Prentice was livid, and moved the ball back again. That’s when the ref throws the flag on him and we got penalized 15 yards.
But a few more plays would haunt the Patriots in their final possession with a chance to run out the clock. On a second down play, Patriots QB Steve Grogan tried a pass over the middle to TE Russ Francis which would have essentially ended the game with a first down. Francis was flagrantly interfered with by Raiders LB Phil Villipiano but no flag was thrown.
“Did he interfere with Russ?” King asked. “Heck he had Russ in a full Nelson with his arms pinned at his side,” he added. “If they call that interference we either run out the clock or are in John Smith’s range for a FG that ices the game.”On third down and about six, Sam Cunningham ran to the outside, “Sam was nursing a bad shoulder then and had it wrapped,” King said. “Maybe he’d have tried to stay in bounds otherwise, but he headed for the sideline. The guys holding the sticks had dropped them when he neared and he thought he went past them for a first down. But when they picked them out we were six inches short and we turned the ball over,” he added.
Asked about Ray Hamilton’s roughing the passer call, King smiled and said, “it may not even be a penalty today.” King spoke briefly about some of the other teams of that era notably the 1978 team but none matched that ’76 team for coming so close.
Moving On and Up
King would then become more of a role-player in the sub-packages or as a spot starter later in his career but remained a standout special teams player, being elected as a captain and not missing a game in 1981, his final season even playing with a broken wrist.
“Then it was time to start over,” he said speaking of life after football. For the past nearly thirty years, he’s been involved in the insurance business and is now the VP of Cleary Insurance in Quincy, Mass.
King relayed some very funny stories about some of the players he played with, too many to recount here but include some of the players he’s remained close with, like Steve Nelson, Steve Zabel and Tim Fox.
Recalling his rookie season, he said, “the team had me rooming with NT/DT Dave Rowe at the old Red Fox Inn,” he said shaking his head. He recalled during a pre-season game in San Diego during his rookie season he snuck out after bed check to have a drink. “It was definitely a case of being young and not-so-smart,” he said. “Fairbanks had he found out would have cut me on the spot, which he did to another player.”
Rowe was sworn to secrecy but at breakfast the next morning, Rowe had told all the other players and they ribbed the then rookie into buying the beers the next night for payment into not telling the coaches. “They were saying, ‘great job rook, now you’re buying,’ King said.
He relayed a few funny stories about Russ Francis the Pats uber-talented tight end but recalls, “I became a better player from just practicing against him every day in practice.” Francis though didn’t care for working out with weights but was so genetically gifted he didn’t need to.
“Russ and Julius Adams could go for a walk around the block and come back looking more pumped and in shape than the rest of us who were busting our butts in the gym,” King said. “The linebackers in practice would needle him all the time but he was a great talent.”
King remains active in the Patriots Alumni Association and helps promote some of the events that the association puts on every year, including the fishing tournament as well as the “Game with the Greats” at Foxboro Stadium. “We do quite a bit of fundraising, and the events are always a lot of fun, I think every Patriots fan would really enjoy those.”