SI Vault
Peter King
January 22, 1990
Before the 49ers, there were the Steelers. Lambert (58), Bradshaw, Greene & Co. ruled the NFL for most of a decade—and changed it forever.
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January 22, 1990

The Steel Age

Before the 49ers, there were the Steelers. Lambert (58), Bradshaw, Greene & Co. ruled the NFL for most of a decade—and changed it forever.

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In 1972 Pittsburgh still needed a workhorse running back. Noll liked 5'10" Robert Newhouse from Houston; the scouts favored Penn State's Franco Harris, who was 6'2". As a senior, Harris had taken a secondary role to Lydell Mitchell in the Nittany Lions' offense, and he had been suspended briefly by coach Joe Paterno before the Cotton Bowl that year for being late to practice. An attitude problem, some scouts said. Art Jr. and Blesto, the scouting combine of which the Steelers were a member, were sold on Harris, but Noll wasn't convinced.

George Young, now the general manager of the Giants and then a scout for the Colts, saw Art Jr. the day before the draft. Rooney was depressed because of the unresolved Newhouse-or-Harris debate. "Noll thinks Newhouse is going to be better than Franco," said Rooney.

Young said, "You tell him for me that that question was settled over 2,000 years ago when Socrates said, 'A good big man is better than a good little man any day.' "

Pittsburgh took Harris.

In 1974, Noll entered the draft with a large crush on Stallworth, and he wouldn't have minded spending a first-round choice to get him. The scouts wanted to take USC wide receiver Lynn Swann, despite Swann's relatively poor speed; he'd been timed at 4.65 in the 40 by Blesto. Swann was like one of his big-play successors, Jerry Rice of the 49ers. He couldn't get up for races against a watch, but he seemed to find something extra when a corner back was chasing him. Finally, in Swann's last timing by the Steeler scouts, he ran a 4.58, and Noll was convinced he was fast enough.

Four teams tied for the 20th draft choice that year, according to won-lost record. Pittsburgh lost one coin flip but won a second, versus the Dallas Cowboys, to get the 21st pick. The Cowboys later said that they would have taken Swann if they had picked 21st.

In the second round the Steelers made one of their oddest choices: Jack Lambert, a middle linebacker at Kent State. He weighed only 195 pounds. (Many wide receivers weigh that much today.) Tim Rooney, another of Art Sr.'s five sons and then a Pittsburgh scout, recalls visiting Kent State in 1973 and listening to the coaches rave about Lambert. "When I got to see him, I was shocked," Tim says. "He was freakish for a linebacker. I was thinking how I could sell this guy as an NFL linebacker. But as I watched films, his productivity and determination kept coming through." Art Jr. went to scout Lambert himself. The Kent State team was working out in a gravel parking lot because of bad weather, and Lambert made a diving try at a tackle and came up bloody. "He's picking these cinders out, and he doesn't give a damn," Art Jr. says.

On draft day, two conflicts arose in the second round. Another prominent, and regular-sized, linebacker was available, All-America Matt Blair of Iowa State, and some of the Pittsburgh staff argued that the Steelers should take him instead of Lambert. Then there was Noll's regard for Stallworth. Pittsburgh had traded away its third-round pick, and 36 choices would be made before the Steelers would have another crack at Stallworth.

Noll turned to Nunn. "Will Stall-worth be there in the fourth?"

Nunn said, "He'll be there." He was sweating because he had seen scouts from two other teams at Stall-worth's last college game, in which he had caught 13 passes. Nunn sat in the draft room, thinking, "This is a huge gamble."

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