Meet the three men who graduated high school together, then did something that might never be done again
Steve Largent remembers the high expectations that came with being a Putnam City Pirate.
When he started there in the late 1960s, it was the only high school in the suburban Oklahoma City district and among the largest in the state. There were acclaimed academics. There were accomplished athletics.
But then came the Class of ’72.
“I don’t think we started a tradition,” said Largent, now a Pro Football Hall of Famer, “but we continued a tradition.”
“Maybe amped it up a little bit.”
No “maybe” about it.
Friday night, Putnam City Schools will induct its inaugural class into the Putnam City Athletic Hall of Fame. The event is sold out, no doubt a result of a group of successful coaches and beloved athletes. But the inaugural inductees wouldn’t be complete without three members from that Class of ’72.
Largent, Alvan Adams and Bob Shirley are a triumvirate without equal locally — and perhaps beyond.
All three of those Putnam City grads went on to pro sports careers, Largent in the NFL, Adams in the NBA and Shirley in Major League Baseball. That alone would make them a rarity coming from one graduating class and playing in three different pro sports.
But they didn’t just make it to the pros. Each played for more than a decade, Largent for 14 seasons, Adams for 13 and Shirley for 11.
“It is pretty amazing,” Largent said.
None had visions of such grandeur back when they were wearing the orange and black of Putnam City, though all were supremely talented.
Adams was the biggest star among them.
“Since seventh grade,” Shirley said, “he was going to be a basketball player. He was always a head taller than everybody.”
Adams was smooth but skilled even then. He became known as a dominating rebounder, but the big man was a superb passer and a splendid scorer. That combination would make him the anchor of an undefeated state championship team at Putnam City, a two-time All-American at Oklahoma, then 1976 NBA Rookie of the Year with Phoenix, where he spent his entire career.
“He’s the reason Lloyd Noble got built,” said Shirley, who was playing baseball at OU at the same time Adams was a Sooner. “They tried to play basketball at the fieldhouse on campus … and it was ridiculous. The reason Lloyd Noble got built was Alvan Adams.”
“They couldn’t say something like that about Steve Largent or Bob Shirley.”
Maybe not, but Largent and Shirley were a dominant duo for more than a decade. They started playing baseball together in third grade. They were part of a state championship team as seniors at Putnam City, Largent catching (no surprise for one of the greatest receivers in NFL history) and Shirley pitching.
Shirley was the ace.
He didn’t overpower hitters, though. Wasn’t a flamethrower either. Even after the 5-foot-11 lefty landed a scholarship to OU, he wasn’t thinking all that much about a career in baseball.
A couple college summers playing in Alaska changed that. He teamed with several other major-college guys who went on to get drafted.
“Well, (crap),” he thought, “I could do that.”
San Diego drafted him before his senior season at OU, and after a year in the minors, he opened the 1977 season in the Padres’ starting rotation. Over the next decade, he would change teams and pitching roles several times; almost two-thirds of his career appearances were in relief. Still, he went more than a decade before being sent to the minors.
He attributes it to being a lefty — “Thank goodness my mom was left-handed,” he said — and being relentless.
“I had to work hard for everything I got,” Shirley said. “Steve was the same way. And I think that came from Putnam City.”
From coaches. From teachers. But also from each other.
Largent was undersized, even in high school, but whether playing football or baseball, he was never outworked. For example, he caught 300 footballs a day during the offseason. He wanted to be great for Putnam City, but he wanted more than anything to impress recruiters.
Because of his family’s lacking finances and his inadequate grades, he wasn’t getting to college without a scholarship.
“Not very many people, if any, in my family were ever able to complete college,” Largent said. “For me, that’s what I wanted to try to do.”
He did that and more at Tulsa. He got a biology degree with a 3.2 grade point average while also becoming a hard-nosed, indomitable receiver for the Golden Hurricane.
That grit made him one of the most productive receivers in NFL history. He retired after a career spent entirely in Seattle with six major records, including most receptions (819), most receiving yards (13,089) and most touchdown catches (100).
Even though their careers sent them all over the country, Largent, Shirley and Adams kept tabs on each other. They checked the newspapers for boxscores. They went to each other's games when they could. And in the decades since their retirements, there have been occasional phone calls and emails. Largent and Shirley, both of whom live in the Tulsa area, even play golf a couple times a year.
But not since 1972 have the three of them been in the same place.
That changes Friday night.
“Are you going to this deal?” Adams said the other day when he called Largent. “I just want to make sure you’re going to be there.”
“Yeah, I’m goin’!” Largent replied. “I’m really looking forward to it.”
It’s not every day three musketeers like this get together. They are proud to be Pirates. Proud, too, to represent the Class of '72.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.
A look at the inaugural class of the Putnam City Schools Athletic Hall of Fame:
Alvan Adams, Putnam City: All-American at OU. Played 13 seasons for Phoenix Suns.
Cory Baze, Putnam North: Wrestled at OSU. Helped U.S. win 1990 Goodwill Games gold.
Sam Bradford, Putnam North: 2008 Heisman Trophy winner at OU. Nine-year NFL pro.
A.D. Burtschi: Putnam City boys basketball coach more than 30 years. Four state titles.
Mike Cutter, Putnam West: Running back led football to only state title in 1981.
David Diefenderfer, Putnam City: Coached wrestling, tennis, football for nearly 40 years.
Steve Largent, Putnam City: Pro Football Hall of Famer. Seven-time Pro Bowler in Seattle.
Mike Little: Built football powers at Putnam West, Putnam North. Won two state titles.
Mike Maddox, Putnam North: Second-most career points in state boys' basketball history.
Jan Ross, Putnam West: OU women's basketball coach Sherri Coale's longtime assistant.
Bob Shirley, Putnam City: Pitcher spent 11 years in majors, including five with Yankees.
Brian Tallet, Putnam West: Led LSU to 2000 national title. Pitched nine years in majors.