In the 1984 playoffs, the Raiders' Lester Hayes and Mike Haynes shut down Steve Largent of Seattle and Art Monk and Charlie Brown of Washington. No one could get behind Haynes and Hayes as the Raiders won the Super Bowl. In those same playoffs, Stallworth beat Haynes for a 58-yard touchdown in the Steelers' opening-round loss. Said Haynes, "Covering John is like trying to dam a river with your feet."
The Miami Dolphins went to the Super Bowl in 1985, but Stallworth had touchdown catches of 65 and 19 yards in the AFC championship game against them. Mark Duper, Mark Clayton and Dan Marino were too much that day, and the Dolphins won 45-28. Two weeks later, San Francisco's secondary shut down Miami's passing game in the Super Bowl and the 49ers finished 18-1. The lone loss had come against Pittsburgh. Stallworth scored the tying touchdown, catching a six-yard pass over Ronnie Lott, who later said, "It's inevitable. Sooner or later, Stallworth beats everybody."
"There's an art to it," Stallworth says. "You just don't see many guys making catches anymore. It's all speed now. But the key to receiving isn't speed. It's pace. That's why I have survived." Stallworth's pace is a leisurely 50 as he tools along highway 72 in Huntsville in his Chevy Blazer. It is spring, but already a bone-bleaching drought grips the area. "The rain will come," he says, "whether we're patient or not."
He drives by the two apartment complexes his real estate and development company has built. People wave and call out to him warmly. Now Stallworth wheels the Blazer to his three-story Tudor house in the town of Brownsboro, outside Huntsville. His wife, Flo, and his two children, John Jr., 10, and Natasha, 7, have arrived just seconds earlier.
The Stallworths maintained two homes for a while, one in Huntsville, one in Pittsburgh. Stallworth enjoyed the flexibility, but John Jr.'s school performance suffered. "We'd come home and John would be behind in reading," says Stallworth. "Not from lack of ability, from lack of concentration. We couldn't have that. Before breakfast, we'd study. On the way to school. After dinner. And he caught up. I told him that while he was catching up, others were going on. We kept studying. Then one night John put his book down and started laughing. I got upset. I said, 'Why are you laughing? This is serious, Son.' He said, 'Dad, I'm laughing to keep from crying.' "
Soon after, the Stallworths built the comfortably appointed home in Brownsboro. "What John said had a great impact," says Stallworth. "I had forgotten what he was. He's just a kid. You have to let him be a kid sometimes."
A good life is balanced on choices and chance. Stallworth just happened to grow up near the University of Alabama. He watched Ray Perkins and Dennis Homan catch footballs thrown by Joe Namath and Ken Stabler. This is what Stallworth wanted to do. "I would defy any boy to grow up in Tuscaloosa and not want to play for Alabama," he says.
Football was the great natural resource of the state, outlasting the steel mills of Birmingham and bigger even than tourism on the Gulf Coast. Stallworth was thrilled when, in 1970, a member of the Alabama staff asked his high school coach for game films.
At Tuscaloosa High, Stallworth had resigned himself to playing running back on a team that won one game in his junior and senior years. He wanted to catch the ball but was told there was nobody to get it to him. So running back it was. Bear Bryant didn't like what he saw on film of this lean lad who hit holes standing too upright.
Stallworth swallowed his disappointment and went to Alabama A & M, the Division II state school near the northern border. He would not gain national exposure there, but he would have Flo nearby.