Steven Michael Largent was born on September 28, 1954 in Tulsa, Oklahoma to Jim and Sue (Stewart) Largent. The couple separated when their son was about six years old and Sue Largent subsequently remarried. Largent's step-father, John Cargill, was an abusive alcoholic who sometimes became physically violent against his stepson. As Largent later told the New York Times in an interview included in a Campaigns and Elections profile, "I can remember crying myself to sleep many times, saying, 'My family will never be like this.'"
Largent took refuge from his turbulent home life in sports, particularly baseball and football. He lettered in both sports at Oklahoma City's Putnam City High School, where he graduated in 1972. Later that year he entered the University of Tulsa on a football scholarship. Even though Largent was somewhat smaller than the other players, at five-feet, eleven inches tall and about 190 pounds, he overcame the handicap and emerged as one of the school's best-ever football players. As a wide receiver he held the national records in touchdown receptions at the end of the 1974 and 1975 seasons, and in a 1974 game against Drake University Largent scored five touchdowns, tying his school's record for most touchdowns in a single game. Despite these accomplishments, Largent was not selected in the 1976 NFL draft until the fourth round, when he was chosen by the Houston Oilers. In a major setback to his NFL dreams, the Oilers dropped Largent after he had played in just four preseason games.