(special thanks to 99-percent-sure for their help with this essay)
It was a routine pass that won the game. No last-second miracle, no blind heave to the end zone.
The pass sailed about ten yards and somehow turned into a 32-yard touchdown. It led the Seahawks to a victory over the Raiders. With that throw, Seattle took the lead and would not give it up, as both teams sleepwalked through a scoreless fourth quarter.
It was December of 1996. And it was the last game of yet another lost season. But this one, in particular, was especially devastating for fans. It was during this season that the fans learned that the owner of the Seahawks didn't want to stay in Seattle.
Earlier in the year, Seahawks owner Ken Behring had decided to move the team to California. The NFL threatened to fine Behring a half a million dollars for every day the team spent in California. Behring returned to Seattle, but his dislike for the city's prospects turned from understated to megaphone levels, and his coolly simmering animosity with fans and city leaders rolled to a full boil.
Perhaps mentally affected by the tumult, the team opened with three straight divisional losses. In other words, the franchise was almost eliminated from the playoffs by the end of the fourth week. It was all but assured by week eight, when the team fell to 2-5. Ironically, the Seahawks won three straight games to pull to .500, but then hit another skid of three losses.
Inconsistency was the watchword for the 1996 Seahawks.
In the final game of the season, they travelled to face Oakland. It was a game, essentially, that would determine which team would end the season in last place in the AFC West.
In other words, it was a game that was meaningless to all involved.
Except for maybe Gino Torretta.
Mired by ineffective quarterback play for five straight seasons, coach Dennis Erickson brought in Gino Torretta on a whim. Torretta, however, couldn't crack into the starting role.
At the start of the season, Torretta had three quarterbacks entrenched in In front of him on the depth chart. Rick Mirer, John Friesz, and Stan Gelbaugh. The Seahawks had soured on their most recent franchise quarterback Rick Mirer, who, despite a surprisingly decent rookie season and multiple pre-draft comparisons to Joe Montana, seemed to regress further every season.
Rick Mirer started 9 games in 1996. He went 2-7 and put together a ghastly stat line of 5 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. This was the year that Mirer, drafted in 1993, was supposed to mature, was supposed to be able to read basic defensive alignments. He never made that leap.
John Friesz went 4-2 and fans were enamored with him. He was a welcome and competent respite from the mediocrity at times, but was also frustratingly inconsistent and inaccurate.
Stan Gelbaugh had been a starting quarterback for Seattle in 1992 and hung on for a few seasons, mostly because he knew the system in place. In 1992, he started eight games and lost all of them. He threw 6 touchdowns and 11 interceptions and a dismal 47.5% completion average.
Gelbaugh started against Oakland. It was his only start of the year; he threw two incompletions and was sacked for a loss of 11 yards. On that sack, he tore a groin muscle.
In that moment, Torretta completed his ascent from perpetual roster bubble to de facto leader of an NFL franchise.
Torretta had entered the NFL almost in spite of his Heisman pedigree. He was drafted in the final rounds by the Vikings and then sent to the Lions one season later. His moribund career nearly ended there, but after a brief stint in NFL Europe, he came back to the 49ers and again to the Lions.
The 1996 Seahawks were the perfect team to try to restart a quarterback's career. Torretta, hanging by a thread onto his job as a professional football player, caught in the doldrums of the almost-have-beens of the league, would enter the game against Oakland.
Thus, on the sidelines that day were three highly-touted quarterbacks coming out of college: Rick Mirer, David Klingler, and Gino Torretta. In some ways, falling all the way to pick 192 saved Torretta. Mirer and Klingler had the expectations of their franchises on their shoulders. This expectation would weigh heavily on them. They both are still known as draft busts. Torretta escaped that, if only by accident, by being a Heisman trophy winning quarterback who scouts already knew couldn't compete in the NFL. He was, at best, a perpetual backup, a body for practice. No expectations, no pressure.
Toretta's first completion came to tight end Carlester Crumpler.
He threw his only interception as an NFL quarterback to Raiders' linebacker Mike Morton.
And his first NFL touchdown throw was also his only NFL touchdown throw. That 32-yard pass to Joey Galloway.
I would like to say that the pass was somehow befitting of his status as an all-but-crumpled NFL quarterback, that it flopped end-over-end in the air like a wounded animal. That it was saved only by a miracle, an improbably grab by the receiver, or maybe a tip that brushed the ball, altering its trajectory, catching everyone unawares, except for the receiver, who, surprised, but alert, caught it before anyone else could decipher what was happening.
But that wasn't the case. Torretta stood tall in the pocket. He pulled back his arm, technically flawless in his movement. And then, in the clichéd and confusing lingo shared between numerous fans and scouts, Toretta hung the ball on a rope. It was a rocket that sailed downfield about twelve yards and completely on target. For a brief moment, and every time that video plays, Torretta is a Heisman Trophy winner, a devastating and indefensible quarterback who racked up yardage and touchdowns with no consideration for his opponent's feelings.
Only for that moment. Torretta's sole NFL highlight came in a Seahawks uniform, for a franchise that was, at best, uncertain in its future.
For his part, Galloway did what he did very often: he snatched the ball out of the air on an in route, stopped on a dime, shook the safety out of their shoes, and then sped into the end zone. For Galloway, he ran around 60 or 70 yards in order to get into the end zone. It was a typical Galloway maneuver, and one he had done a few weeks before against Kansas City.
When the game was over, Torretta finished with a stat line that would show the Seahawks that they were still looking for their franchise quarterback: 5 completions on 16 attempts for 41 yards and an interception and a touchdown. These statistics would become Torretta's NFL career totals as well.
There are two ways to view this touchdown pass, then.
A meaningless statistic at the end of a failed NFL prospect's career.
Or the beginning of a new era.
Or perhaps the third option: both.
This was the end of 1996. The Seahawks season was over. It had been eight seasons since their last playoff appearance. Among those eight seasons were several ignominious losing records, including a 2-14 season.
Ken Behring then sold the franchise to Paul Allen.
The 1997 season welcomed several new faces that would become the cornerstone of a rebuilding and competitive franchise. Walter Jones. Shawn Springs. The Seahawks were cleaning house and had finally become a destination for quality free agents again. Chad Brown. Warren Moon.
Gelbaugh and Mirer would be gone.
Mirer would be traded to the Bears for a first-round draft pick. He would lose all three games he started, throwing no touchdowns. He threw six interceptions. That first-round draft pick turned into Shawn Springs.
They would be replaced by Moon, Jon Kitna, and John Friesz.
Dennis Erickson would stay for a few more seasons. The team would keep missing the playoffs.
Gino Torretta lasted one more year in the NFL. First, briefly with the Seahawks, and then with the Colts. He would never see the playing field again. He officially retired in 1997.
Still, in the highlights for the woebegone and tumultuous season for an NFL franchise, there is a moment where one quarterback looked and acted the part. Torretta, framed in the highlights in slow motion, became, for one pass, an NFL-caliber starting quarterback. On a star-crossed and frustrating journey through the lower tiers of the NFL, Torretta, once, exceeded all expectations.