It is an accepted truism within Pro Football that the way to be successful is not to rely on pricey free agents, but instead to “build through the draft”. This is easier said than done, with some teams showing a cross generational talent to continually miss on college prospect after prospect. From the time the Pittsburgh Steelers appointed Chuck Noll as head coach in 1969, the team went on a staggering run of draft success. Between 1969 and 1972, the team drafted five players who would end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. These were defensive tackle “Mean” Joe Greene, quarterback Terry Bradshaw, cornerback Mel Blount, linebacker Jack Ham and running back Franco Harris. But they trumped these gains in 1974, when in the course of a single draft class they selected no fewer than FOUR players forever enshrined in Canton.
LYNN SWANN, 1st round, 21st Overall Selection
In a sport noted for its dependence on tough physicality, the balletic Lynn Swann credited dance lessons he had taken as a youngster as being key to his skills as a wide receiver.
“I took several years of dance lessons that included ballet, tap and jazz. They helped a great deal with body control, balance, a sense of rhythm, and timing.”
While some saw this as a sign of softness on his part, Swann was content to let his feet, and his hands, do the talking during his time in the NFL with the Steelers. After just 11 receptions in his rookie season, Swann led the NFL with 11 touchdown receptions in 1975, a season that ended with the Steelers retaining their Super Bowl title. Swann was awarded the Most Valuable Player award after a four catch, 161 yard outing. All the more impressive was the fact that Swann had been suffering from a serious concussion received in the AFC Championship Game against the Steelers bitter rivals the Oakland Raiders, spending two days in hospital. The Steelers would win four Super Bowls during Swann’s career, games in which he contributed 16 catches for 364 yards at an average of 22.8 yards per reception, the third best mark of any player. Swann retired from the NFL after the 1982 season with 336 regular season receptions, 5462 yards and 51 touchdowns, and was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001.
JACK LAMBERT, 2nd round, 46th Overall Selection
Thought by many draft experts at the time to be too small to play middle linebacker, Jack Lambert excelled in the first iteration of the defense that would become known as “The Tampa Two“. His size and speed, far from hindering him, made him perfect for this new type of defensive scheme. One of the most imposing looking players in NFL history, Lambert lost four teeth during high school, and while he had a false plate, he never wore it during his pro football career. He was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1976 after the Steelers defense almost carried the team to another Super Bowl title. After starting the season 1-4, the team finished with a nine game winning streak in which opposition offenses were almost not invited to play. The Steelers and Lambert gave up just two touchdowns, and posted five shut outs in the final nine games. Lambert led the league with eight fumble recoveries that season. In his 146 career games, Lambert recorded 28 interceptions along with 17 fumble recoveries. The Steelers have only officially retired two jersey numbers, with Lambert’s number 58 not among them. This is through no fault of his, however. He allegedly told the Steelers equipment manager following his retirement that he was not to reissue the 58 to any other player (interestingly, since Lambert retired after the 1984 season, the number has not been worn). The Hall of Fame opened its doors to Lambert in 1990, in the same year that teammate Franco Harris was enshrined.
JOHN STALLWORTH, 4th round, 82nd Overall Selection
Not exactly lucky with injuries, John Stallworth only started 144 of the 165 regular season games in which he played, and missed at least one game in eight of his fourteen NFL seasons. Despite these setbacks, he still posted the sixth most receiving yards (8723) between 1974 and 1987. He recorded a 73 yard touchdown reception in Super Bowl XIII, adding to the 28 yard score he registered to open the scoring earlier in that, while the year later his 75 yard touchdown grab gave the Steelers a lead over the Los Angeles Rams that they would not relinquish on their way to a fourth world championship. Only Jerry Rice with 8 has more touchdown receptions in Super Bowl history than Stallworth’s three, and no player averaged more yards per reception in the big game than Stallworth’s 24.4. At the time of his retirement, he held the Steelers career record for receptions (537), receiving yards (8723) and touchdown receptions (63). Hines Ward now owns these records, although a couple more seasons at his current pace will see Antonio Brown shatter them all. Stallworth’s time to enter the Hall of Fame came in 2002, a single year after his partner in crime Lynn Swann was admitted.
MIKE WEBSTER, 5th round, 125th Overall Selection
Despite not becoming the regular starter until 1976, “Iron” Mike Webster would become one of the greatest centers in football history. He started an astonishing 150 consecutive games between 1976 and 1986, all the more remarkable given the even more physical nature of the game in those days. Between 1974 and 1990, with Webster finishing his career with the Kansas City Chiefs, no one played more games than the 245 Webster managed. Like all the players mentioned above, Webster’s jersey number (52) has never been officially retired, and like Lambert it has never been worn by another Steeler. Webster was named to seven 1st team All Pro teams, and made nine Pro Bowls as a player. Sadly, Webster has become even more well known after his playing career ended. When Webster died in 2002 of a heart attack, after years of suffering from amnesia, depression and dementia like illnesses, during the course of an autopsy he became the first NFL player to be diagnosed as suffering from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). During his playing career, Webster suffered numerous concussions, few if any being officially diagnosed. Since his passing, 90 of 94 former NFL players have been diagnosed as suffering with this disease after their death, including greats of the game like Junior Seau, Frank Gifford, Ken Stabler and Bubba Smith.
In his Hall of Fame acceptance speech in 1997, Webster said
“You only fail if you don’t finish the game. If you finish the game, you won.”
Sadly, Webster’s game finished a lot earlier than anyone deserved, not least someone as legendary as Iron Mike.