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Displayed in the Stallworth home with 13 Steeler game balls, three All-Pro citations, a Dapper Dan Man of the Year award and an NFL Comeback Player of the Year trophy is a framed photo of John in his A & M uniform, looking like a kid, albeit a rangy one at 6'3" and 185 pounds. On the picture is this inscription: TO FLO, YOU ARE MY EXISTENCE. MEANY.
"At bigger schools, being an athlete had become something to scorn," Stallworth says. "At a small school, being an athlete was something to be respected. People expected you to lead." Stallworth's father, David, a retired plumber, told John he was proud because he had gone away to school and made it without anyone giving him anything. "It couldn't have been any better at Alabama," says his mother. Stallworth says, "I had a chance to be John Stallworth first. Then on Saturdays I might be a hero."
A hero many times over by his graduation (B.S. in business) in 1974, Stallworth was picked by the Steelers in the fourth round of the draft. Pittsburgh had taken another collegiate receiver, Lynn Swann of USC, in the first round. "Those two came to me and told me they would start," says Lionel Taylor, the former Denver Bronco All-Pro, then the Steelers' receiver coach. "They told me."
In 1975, Swann and Stallworth wound up alternating with veterans Ron Shanklin and Frank Lewis as the Steelers won their first Super Bowl with 14 rookies, the Steel Curtain defense and a running game featuring trapping linemen and Franco Harris. The next season, after Shanklin was traded, Swann became a regular. "I can't imagine what went through John's mind—being from a small school," says Swann. "He had to wait, although we both knew we should both start." In 1978 the Steelers traded Lewis to Buffalo, where he made All-Pro. Yet in Pittsburgh there was little doubt that Stallworth would fill the role.
"John and I worked against double-teams every day [in practice]," says Swann. "We competed with each other. Then, only then, did we compete with the rest of the league."
Swann made two memorable catches in the second Super Bowl win, over Dallas in 1976. Then in 1978 the rules changed, and the five-yard bump zone rule giving receivers an edge was adjusted. The Steelers began to throw more. "But never a lot," Swann says. "We didn't use our passing attack to its full capability the whole time I was there."
Indeed, for all the big catches he has made, Stallworth ranks but eighth among active reception leaders. "We weren't catching for numbers," he says. "We were in search of the great catch. Swannie and I were...intense. I wanted to make the best catch, the prettiest catch, and so did he."
There had been famous receiving combinations before. Tom Fears and Elroy Hirsch. George Sauer and Don Maynard. Dante Lavelli and Mac Speedie. Charley Taylor and Bobby Mitchell. But never had there been two on one team quite like Swann and Stallworth. Covering one was an accomplishment. Covering both was a fantasy. The duo would score 111 regular-season and 21 playoff touchdowns from 1974 to '82.
"It's a funny thing," says Mitchell. "Even now, when I think of the two of them, I think of Swann. People knew him, so everybody watched him. But when it was over, Stallworth was the guy who killed you. And still does. Isn't that amazing?"
"They could do anything," says Charley Taylor. "They could run any pattern. They could run away from you. They caught balls I knew they couldn't catch. They made plays you can never forget."