John Stallworth steps out under the sun in Huntsville, Ala., where the verdant foothills of the Appalachians loom around him. "I love the open," he says quietly. "I always have." When he has a need to move, Stallworth will go one of two ways. One is to take a four-mile run up a trail in the hills, a way few know about, a path so narrow it begins to close in behind him as he follows its course. He stutter-steps to get past a thorn thicket. He evades arms of brier. It's move or be bloodied.
The other way Stallworth might go is along a weed-infested track that circles a forgotten field with rusted goalposts and stone bleachers. The track is behind Alabama A & M University in nearby Normal. He chooses this route today. He runs five 440-yard dashes, loping over the cinders and gravel, unmindful of time. He has the upper torso of nobody special, of any 34-year-old man. His hairline is receding. But even under warmup pants, his legs appear massive.
His mind wanders back, to the years before Pittsburgh and the four Super Bowl rings; before Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann and, lately, Louis Lipps; before all the big catches and the All-Pro recognition. "I was skinny when I was a boy," says Stallworth, whose listed playing weight is 202 pounds. "I was always outside, diving for footballs." In those days he lived in Tuscaloosa, 125 miles southwest of Huntsville. He wasn't the most graceful child. His mother, Mary Stallworth, says he "forever ran into things." When he tripped over curbs or banged into doors, he cried so angrily his mother called him Meany.
One summer night when he was eight years old, after a day of hard play, he became feverish. He shivered so violently his teeth chattered for hours. When the shivering stopped, he couldn't move. "I was paralyzed on the left side," says Stallworth. A day passed. He was taken to a local hospital, Druid City, where the doctors said he might have polio.
"I remember the look on my mother's face," he says. "Her face told me everything. Never to see the sun. Never to be able to move. Never to be able to catch. And all I knew I could do was catch a football. I clung to that thought."
After a few more days, he moved. It was not polio but a viral infection. Nevertheless, it was enough to panic an eight-year-old, and today he says it is the memory of that time that keeps him moving, keeps him playing.
Stallworth is approaching his 13th season with the Steelers. Along with center Mike Webster and safety Donnie Shell, he is the last of a great breed from those championship teams. And Stallworth does not simply endure—he is the finest NFL receiver of the last decade, one who always feels a fifth Super Bowl ring "is just one catch away."
He is the Steelers' alltime leader among pass receivers in receptions (462), yards (7,736) and touchdowns (60), and the leading playoff receiver in NFL history with 12 touchdown catches—three in Super Bowls. His Super Bowl average per catch is 24.4 yards. His average Super Bowl touchdown catch is 58.7 yards.
And on a team with a reputation staked on physical defensive play, Stallworth twice has been elected the Steelers' MVP. "I always thought John should've been the MVP of not one but two Super Bowls," says Swann, Stall-worth's old teammate and rival. "I can't tell you how many quarterbacks have told me, 'I wish I had just one receiver like you or like John Stallworth.' "
Even after the Steelers began slipping, Stallworth kept moving. He has caught passes in 105 of his last 106 games, his last 37 games in a row. He caught 80 passes two years ago, the most in team history, and 75 last season, second most.