NOON, SATURDAY, a Tacoma exhibition hall swarming with Northwest coin collectors and souvenir hunters. Did the right-wing future governor of Oklahoma make a wrong left turn? "This is a campaign break," says ex-Seahawk and former congressman Steve Largent, heartthrob of sports fans and the Christian Coalition. He flexes his wrist and picks up another felt-tip pen, swirling his 200th autograph onto a 10-year-old box of Wheaties, the Steve Largent Commemorative Edition. A beaming gray-haired woman carefully covers the box with a clear-plastic protector and pats it like a baby. "Thank you, senator!" she gushes.
A bit premature. But the legendary wide receiver and Sooner-state gubernatorial candidate, doling out his autograph for up to $60 a pop, doesn't correct her. The next admirer in line at the Tacoma Dome coin and sports-card collector show has another notion. "Why don't you run for governor in this state?" the woman asks. "I think I've got a better chance in Oklahoma," Largent answers.
Then again, the local fan line did stretch the length of the hall, and everyone wanted to hear about the next juke in Largent's career of fancy footwork, from the Kingdome to the Hill to the governor's mansion to—the White House? The Tulsa-born, God-fearing, Republican Hall of Famer resigned his four-term House seat last month, instantly becoming the favorite to replace term-limited incumbent Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating. Anti-abortion, anti-flag burning, anti-gay rights, pro-death penalty, pro-school prayer, and pro- gun rights, Largent has caught every pass in Oklahoma's playbook (albeit, Largent once said of his House record: "I'm always voting for bills I haven't read"). Oklahoma political commentator Frosty Troy thinks Largent "is what Republicans sit around and dream of."
But shouldn't he be kissing babies in Stillwater? The August primary looms, and middle-of-the-road Republicans are dreaming of drafting Garth Brooks for governor. There's capital to be made here at the autograph-a-thon—Largent's commercial line of photos, footballs, jerseys, and helmets are also for sale from $4 to $195. But what's, say, $15,000 to a multimillionaire with old oil-money backing?
"Well, I'm unemployed now," quips Largent, 47. Neatly composed in jeans and a sweater, he adjusts his wire-rimmed glasses and marks an autograph on someone's tiny photo from his Seattle playing days (1976- 89). "No, it's just a getaway [from campaigning]," he insists, "and a chance for my wife and I to spend the weekend with Jim Zorn and his wife." At the next table over, Zorn, the Seahawks' popular first quarterback (1976-84) and now assistant coach, is also signing autographs—at a low-rent $12 each. Just five fans were waiting when he arrived. "Hey," Zorn yelled to Largent, "how come your line's bigger than mine!" A Largent fan piped: "Does 'Hall of Fame' ring a bell?"
"The last time Jim and I signed autographs years ago," says Largent, "someone called in a bomb threat." Democrat or Raiders fan? "I don't know who or why." This day is strictly a love-in for fans such as Kathi Taylor, 41, of Sumner. After Largent inked a bagful of her souvenirs, the attractive Taylor hugged him as her husband snapped a photo. "The thrill of a lifetime," she said. Why? "Because he's an outstanding young man. He has upstanding moral values. He is everything I would want my children to be. I think he is the future president of the United States."
It was Largent's classic past—elusive cuts, powerful catches, and quick bursts through a flat-footed secondary—that brought Darrin Hipner to the slow-moving line Saturday. "He's been my favorite player since I was a kid," says Hipner, 30. He shows Largent a picture of his wall at home in Lacey, papered with all things Steve—photos, programs, souvenirs. "I saw him inducted into the Hall of Fame," says a wide-eyed Hipner. The next fan up has a buddy waiting on a cell phone. "I can't take phone calls," Largent says. The line keeps coming, maybe 500 men, women, and children, some bearing $100 Largent lithographs and $135 Largent jerseys, the famous number 80. "Could you put 'GOP' next to your name?" someone asks. Largent shakes out his wrist and picks up another pen. "And when are you running for president?" asks a disabled woman, posing for a photo with her hero and her guide dog. "Oh, don't wish that on me," Largent responds. He never said never.