NFL Hall of Famer John Stallworth defies the odds with luck, skill, and often times a combination of both. You can chalk his latest exploit to the latter.
The Steelers ownership restructuring became public in July of 2008, and the Rooneys promised that their new investors would include “one very recognizable name.” That person was of course Steelers Hall of Fame wide receiver John Stallworth who officially became a minority owner in 2009.
In doing so, John Stallworth took yet another step in his improbable journey. Click below to jump into one of the legs of that journey or scroll down to follow along for the full ride.
John Stallworth catches the go ahead touchdown in Super Bowl XIV. Photo via Newspress.com
From Alabama A&M to the Steelers 1974 Hall of Fame Draft
Stallworth played at Alabama A&M, one of the many historic black colleges (HBCs) that the Steelers scoured while many NFL teams, the demise of Jim Crow notwithstanding, still consciously overlooked.
According to Art Rooney, Jr.’s book Ruanaidh, the Steelers had rated him as one of the top collegiate receivers as early as 1973. When Chuck Noll first learned of Stallworth, he immediately pronounced him as first round pick and feared that Pittsburgh wouldn’t get a chance to pick Stallworth when the word got out on him.
- By both happenstance and design, the word on John Stallworth never got out
In his self titled autobiography, the late Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney recounts how a team of BLESTO scouts had the ill fortune to time John Stallworth on a wet track. Ever wise, Steelers scout Bill Nunn feigned illness and stayed an extra day in Alabama, ran Stallworth on a dry track, and he got the time he wanted.
Nunn, who had extensive connections with the HBC community, coaxed Alabama A&M into sending films of Stallworth to the Steelers. This was long before the days of Mel Kipper and the cottage industry that today envelops the NFL draft.
A single tape on John Stallworth existed, and it was so impressive that Bill Nunn conveniently “forgot” to return it, giving Pittsburgh an effective a monopoly on information about Stallworth. (Art Rooney, Jr. insists that he instructed Bill Nunn and Dick Haley return the tapes, but he’s also clear that he wasn’t overly upset that they didn’t.)
Tim Rooney and Dick Haley in Steelers 70’s Draft War Room
Nonetheless, Noll feared that the Senior Bowl would spill the secret on Stallworth, but the fates shined again on the Steelers, as Senior Bowl coaches kept moving him back and forth from receiver to defensive back.
The Steelers picked Swann first in the 1974 NFL Draft. The Steelers had no third round choice, so Noll wanted to pick Stallworth second. The scouts steered him towards Jack Lambert second, and then held their collective breath.
But Stallworth was there in the fourth round, and the Steelers picked him.
The Glory Years of the Super Steelers
Of the four Hall of Famers the Steelers picked in 1974, Stallworth was perhaps the most under appreciated.
- Ray Mansfield almost immediately pronounced Mike Webster as his successor, and Noll immediately worked Number 52 into the line up
- Lambert quickly made his impact felt both on and off the field
- Having dazzled at USC, Lynn Swann was a known commodity
Lynn Swann actually had fewer catches than Stallworth as a rookie, but Swann had more touches, returning 41 punts for an amazing 14.1 yard average.
In 1975 both men became starters, and but the spotlight remained on Swann. During the regular season he caught 49 passes, more than doubling Stallworth’s total, and his acrobatic catches made during his MVP performance in Super Bowl X set a new standard for wide receiving excellence.
As is well documented, the Steelers defense of the 70’s was so dominant that it prompted the NFL to change the rules to favor the passing game. As Bob Labriola of Steelers Digest wrote, while everyone worried about how these changes would affect the Steelers defense, Noll plotted to unleash his offense.
Stallworth Second Fiddle to Swan?
In the minds of many fans, Swann was the star of the tandem, while Stallworth was the “possession receiver.”
- But Swann and Stallworth were both stars
In 1978 Stallworth grabbed 20 fewer balls than Swann, but he averaged five more yards per catch. Together, the two men totaled 102 catches for nearly 1,600 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Stallworth caught 2 touchdowns to Swann’s one in Super Bowl XIII, including a 75 yard touchdown that Stallworth largely made happen after the catch. Unfortunately, leg cramps kept Stallworth out for most of the second half.
The following year, Stallworth lit it up. He led the team with 70 catches becoming the first Steeler ever to get break the 1000 yard receiving mark.
Super Bowl XIV – Hook and Go into History
John Stallworth’s performance in Super Bowl XIV was legendary.
The Steelers opened the second half trailing, but a downfield strike from Terry Bradshaw to Lynn Swann gave Pittsburgh the lead. But the Rams immediately struck back, and Pittsburgh opened the fourth quarter down 19-17.
They’d also lost Lynn Swann for the game. His back up, Theo Bell was also hurt, leaving Jimmy Smith to step in, a man who would play 7 years and total 113 receptions.
Already stifling the Steelers running game, the Rams defensive coordinator, Bud Carson, summed it up best, “All we needed to do was double cover John Stallworth.”
- Faced with third down on their own 27, Chuck Noll ordered Terry Bradshaw, “Go for the big one,” recounts Art Rooney Jr.
The name of the play was “60-Prevent-Slot-Hook-And-Go.”
The play hadn’t worked in practice. Bradshaw didn’t think he could do it. And Stallworth had doubts that it would work.
But it did.
Bradshaw rifled to Stallworth, who caught the ball at the Rams 32, never broke stride in route to a 73 yard touchdown. Stallworth put so much space between himself and the defender that the official signaled touchdown before number 82 even crossed the goal line. The NFL Super Bowl XIV highlight film does not confirm this (you can’t see any touchdown signal), but that is how I remember it.
L.C. Greenwood during the Steelers Super Bowl XIV win. Photo Credit: Bill Smith, NFL via NFL.com
Bradshaw and Stallworth would work their magic one more time that evening. After Jack Lambert had stopped a Rams drive cold at the Steelers 33, two runs to Franco Harris and Sidney Thornton yielded 3 yards, the Steelers were faced with third and 7 at their 33.
Again Chuck Noll ordered Bradshaw to go deep. He called Hook and Go again, hitting Stallworth again for 45 yards, bringing the Steelers to the Rams 22 and setting up the touchdown that cemented the Steelers fourth Super Bowl Championship.
John Stallworth in the 1980s – Resurgence Cements His Greatness
The 1980’s tested Steelers Nation. Sure, Pittsburgh would make the playoffs 4 times, win one division title and even appear in a conference championship game. But with each season, the team lost more Super Steelers to retirement, and the men stepping in were not their equals.
- Lynn Swann, victim of many concussions, retired after the 1982 season. Stallworth would be hurt for much of the 1983 season, limited to 8 catches for 100 yards.
But in 1984, Art Rooney Jr. and his once vaunted scouting department nabbed their final first round success, by picking Louis Lipps.
Steelers 1980’s wide receivers Louis Lipps and Weegie Thompson. Photo Credit: Getty Images, Pittsburgh Post Gazette
Opposing defenses couldn’t blanket Stallworth with Lipps playing opposite to him. With Lipps playing opposite of him, Stallworth made defenses pay.
- In 1984 Stallworth caught 80 balls for 1,395 yards and 11 touchdowns; this record stood for 11 years, until Yancey Thigpen broke it in 1995
- In 1985 he caught 75 passes for 927 yards
- In 1986 he numbers dipped to 34 passes for 366 yards
But in the strike-shortened ’87 season, with Louis Lipps hurt and only Weegie Thompson to take pressure off of him, John Stallworth still caught 41 passes for 521 yards.
To really appreciate Stallworth’s excellence in the 80’s , consider that he was no longer catching passes from Terry Bradshaw, but rather David Woodley and Mark Malone.
The NFL took notice, as John Stallworth won the following accolades during the ‘80’s:
- Pro Bowl, 1980, 1983, and 1985
- Second team All Pro, 1984
- Comeback player of the year, 1984
Stallworth a Success at “Life’s Work”
It would be unfair to label John Stallworth’s success in life after football as improbable. While the Steelers have had their share of players who’ve had difficulty with post-NFL life, far more of those Super Steelers have been just as successful at “life’s work.”
In 1986 John Stallworth founded Madison Research Corporation, which provided engineering and information technology services to both the public and private sector. He sold the company in 2006 and has since run Genius II.
During this time, despite his Hall of Fame resume, whenever NFL Hall of Fame selectors considered his name, John Stallworth confronted a tiresome chorus of “there are already too many Steelers in the Hall of Fame….” Year after year, selectors snubbed Swann and Stallworth.
- The situation grew so perilous that Myron Cope resigned from the selection committee, fearing his impassioned pleas were hurting Swann and Stallworth
Then, with lobbying from Chuck Noll and Dan Rooney, Swann got elected in 2001. Making his feelings clear to all about who should join him, Lynn Swann asked John Stallworth to be his presenter.
One year later the John Stallworth followed his teammate into enshrinement into Canton.
Stallworth’s Shot at Something Unique
Stallworth’s business endeavors have been quite lucrative, and that led the Dan and Art II to bring Stallworth into the group that bought out the rest of the Rooney brothers.
Now that he is officially an owner, Stallworth joins the handful of former players who’ve ascended to an NFL ownership suite.
In doing so, he has given himself a shot at doing something that no one else has ever done – John Stallworth can become the first man to win a Super Bowl as a player and as an owner.
- It has been an uphill battle. Ten years have passed and Lombardi Number Seven still eludes the Steelers.
But Stallworth is unlikely to be daunted. He’s made a career of beating the odds.
Thanks for visiting. Be sure to check out the rest of Steel Curtain Rising.