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'You Have To Be A Fool At Times'
Ralph Wiley
August 25, 1986
John Stallworth, the Steelers' great clutch receiver, will be ignoring the footsteps again in season No. 13.
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August 25, 1986

'you Have To Be A Fool At Times'

John Stallworth, the Steelers' great clutch receiver, will be ignoring the footsteps again in season No. 13.

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Take one pattern from Stallworth's career. Just the 60 Prevent Slot Hook-and-Go. Make it Jan. 20, 1980, against the Rams in Pasadena, in the fourth quarter of the last of the Steelers' four Super Bowl wins. Bradshaw is called over by coach Chuck Noll. The Steelers are behind 19-17. "You're not going to pick your way down against the Rams," Noll says. "Go for the big play." The big play has to be to Stallworth; Swann is sidelined with a concussion after being upended by Pat Thomas.

In the '79 Super Bowl against Dallas, it had been Stallworth catching scoring passes of 75 and 28 yards in the first half before collapsing with leg cramps in the locker room at halftime. Joe Greene told Stallworth the Steelers needed him, so he got up, only to collapse again. He was unable to return. Swann caught the clinching touchdown—a quick post—in the 35-31 win.

Now, in the '80 game, it is Swann who has caught a 47-yard scoring pass before going out in the third quarter. Stallworth, slotted to the right, takes an inside release against Ron Perry. The safety is veteran Eddie Brown. Stallworth paces through the middle of the Ram defense, Perry on his right hip. Ten yards from the line of scrimmage, Stallworth feints a turn. He barely rounds off his lead right step and shifts his eyes inside. Brown begins to lean forward, and Stallworth plants his left foot, drives and is at full speed. He motors past Brown. Perry, meanwhile, is on the wrong hip and a step behind as Bradshaw's pass comes down. Perry soars to try to knock the ball down. He fails. Stallworth flows on with the ball—a classic winning touchdown.

"All your life people tell you, 'Consider all viewpoints, don't look at things one way,' " says Stallworth. "Then you're a receiver, the ball comes in and nothing else can enter your mind. You must catch it. You have to be a fool at times."

Stallworth missed half of the 1976 season and much of the 1980 and 1983 seasons with leg injuries. He broke his right wrist early in '79 and still caught 70 passes. "I was more physical than Lynn," he says.

In 1982 the Steelers played the Cowboys in Texas Stadium. Swann was injured. Early on, Dallas cornerback Dennis Thurman gave Stallworth a forearm to the head when the ball was away from them. Stallworth went to his knees. This was the kind of shot that made Swann, a reasonable sort, want to retire. From his knees, Stallworth pointed at Thurman and said, "You can't cover me." He caught two more passes. Thurman belted him again on a pass in the end zone. Stallworth had to leave the game. On the next series he came back and caught a 25-yard pass from Bradshaw. He pointed at Thurman again and said, "You still can't cover me." The Steelers won 36-28. Stallworth caught seven passes for 137 yards.

Swann retired after 1982. He says, "John was All-Pro then and he's All-Pro now. He drove me to great heights. I didn't want to be second best. Those were tough, emotional times for us. He wanted more. I wanted more. But together, we knew no one could stop us."

Two years ago Swann's old spot was taken by another superb athlete, Louis Lipps. Since then Stallworth and Lipps have combined for 279 receptions, 3,389 yards and 37 touchdowns. Says Stallworth, "Louis and I compete, but nothing like it was with Lynn. Lynn and I never stopped competing. I'm sorry for that."

Stallworth's new peers are compact types built for speed. They are wideouts, smurfs, impact players and, sometimes, superstars. Stallworth is what was once called an end. " Steve Largent and Wes Chandler are the best pattern runners today," he says. " Largent has the strongest ankles in football. Mike Quick is outstanding going deep. Charlie Joiner. Tony Hill when he's healthy. And Louis Lipps will be great. Outside of them? Well, you just don't see guys making catches anymore."

"When John says catches, he means impossible catches, game-winning catches," says Lionel Taylor, now head coach at Texas Southern University. "He plays for the chance to make that catch. The bigger the game, the better the catch. That's what separates him. I've seen 'em all, and I can't say I've seen better. I'll say this. If you find a tall guy with a small upper body, long arms, cotton hands, great legs, a John Stallworth type, do me a favor. Send him to me."

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