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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The Steelers took Lambert.

Noll, according to Art Jr., told the scouts, "You guys blew it. He [Stall-worth] will be gone." They had a two-hour wait before their next pick. When their choice finally arrived, Stallworth was still on the board. Nunn stopped sweating. "We got lucky," he says.

On its second pick of the fourth round, Pittsburgh chose UCLA defensive back Jim Allen, who became a special-teams contributor for four years. Then, in the fifth round, the Steelers selected Wisconsin center Mike Webster, who weighed all of 225. He ran a 5.3 40. "He was what you'd call a computer reject," Art Jr. says. There were bigger and faster centers in Pittsburgh high schools. But the scouts had seen films of Webster from a postseason all-star game in which he had manhandled a top defensive line prospect. The Steelers gambled again. Webster eventually gained 30 pounds and anchored Pittsburgh's offensive line for 14 years.

Five rounds: Swann, Lambert, Stallworth, Webster. Twenty-four Pro Bowl appearances. Sixteen Super Bowl rings. Four potential Hall of Famers (Lambert and Swann are finalists for election this year). "Maybe the best draft ever," says Bill Walsh, former coach of the 49ers.

A postscript: One of Nunn's best friends was Willie Jeffries, the coach at South Carolina State, a predominantly black school. One of Jeffries's players was an undersized linebacker, Donnie Shell, who Nunn thought would be a safety in the pros. When Shell wasn't picked in the draft, Nunn phoned Jeffries, extolling the virtues of Pittsburgh's defense and the opportunity it could provide Shell. The Denver Broncos and Houston Oilers also invited Shell to training camp. Shell asked Jeffries what he should do. Jeffries advised him. to go to Pittsburgh. Shell went.

Make that 29 Pro Bowls.

Chapter 2: Being There

When Dan Radakovich was hired to coach the offensive line of the Steelers in 1974, he inherited the smallest group of offensive linemen (by unofficial reckoning) in the NFL. The two guards, Gerry Mullins and Jim Clack, started each season weighing about 240 but would be worn down to the mid-220-pound range by December. The average weight of the seven offensive linemen who got significant playing time that year was 247 before the season. Their average by season's end was closer to 237.

Amazing. It's been only 15 years since the Super Bowl champion had offensive linemen weighing 240. A typical NFL line today averages around 270. "We must have had the only team ever with a running back [Harris] bigger than his blockers," says Mullins, exaggerating only slightly.

Late in the 1974 season Radakovich watched Clack and Mullins weigh in. One weighed 222, the other 218. Radakovich looked ashen. "This is awful," he told them. "You guys have got to start eating more."

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