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Swann has been timed in 4.5 for 40 yards. In high school, at 5'10", he could dunk a basketball, and he was the California long-jump champion, doing 25'2", before he relinquished Olympic aspirations to concentrate on football. He is able, then, to get to the ball and to climb in the air to take it high, away from taller men. He also has great powers of concentration. A gregarious, even voluble man, Swann never chitchats with the opposition, and only on the rarest of occasions will he approach Terry Bradshaw with a play suggestion. Out there he keeps to himself.
A wide receiver faces a dichotomy in his work, and for Swann, who adores—even milks—the spotlight, it's a painful one. On the one hand, the wide receiver is a dashing individualist, an athletic facsimile of all those Robin Hoods, buccaneers and gun-slingers that young Lynn saw himself as. The wide receiver's presence in the huddle is almost pro forma. Swann drops in, gets the play, and then ducks out to near the right sideline, where he sets up—stands up—by himself. To the other flank, the Steelers dispatch their other outstanding wide receiver, John Stallworth.
One defensive back aligns himself across from Stallworth, another from Swann. In the Senate, when a Senator of one mind feels it inconvenient to attend a vote, he will ask a colleague who disagrees with him to also skip it, thus "pairing" themselves—the yea vote of one in effect canceling out the nay of the other, though the official record will indicate neither Senator voted. Essentially, this is what happens in pro football, and most plays proceed nine vs. nine.
But while the wide receiver is this glamorous knight errant, he is, conversely, the most dependent figure in football, perhaps in all of sport. Independent? Why, the wide receiver is as independent as an orphan, fulfilled only when he becomes a ward of the quarterback—or the QB, as Swann always refers to his father figure.
Swann was himself a QB during his senior year in high school, and he was even offered a scholarship by Ara Parseghian, with the understanding that he would be given the opportunity to guide the Notre Dame offense. But Swann was not sure of his arm and felt that his fortune and fame lay more in catching passes. Through his junior year at Serra High in San Mateo, Swann had been the receiver for a QB named Jesse Freitas, who went on to nearby Stanford, though he would subsequently transfer to San Diego State. Now, a principal reason that Swann decided to attend Southern Cal was that he feared that if he went to Stanford and, as expected, Freitas was the QB, then no matter how many passes Swann caught, they would never be his; they would just be balls that Jesse Freitas threw for completions. Swann was a high school All-America as a receiver, but he had grave doubts about his ability. He never considered the pros until after his junior season at USC, when the Trojans won the 1972 national title.
For all Swann's success, all his All-Pro selections, his MVP in the '76 Super Bowl—and for all his good nature, too—it still gnaws at him that he plays a position in which he must always be cast as the back end of the horse. He is certainly not bashful. His manager, Marilyn O'Brien, calls him Ethel, after Ethel Merman, who has never been mistaken for a shrinking violet. "Lynn Swann loves to be onstage, believe me," says his wife, the former Bernadette Robi, who comes from an entertainment family and recognizes the type. So whatever his success between the sideline stripes, Swann is obsessed about making it off the field, visible as a single.
"As long as the QB is the star, I'll always be just another guy out there, and that hurts," Swann says. "Now this isn't whining. A wide receiver gets more attention than a lot of other positions. You take Mike Webster [the Steeler center]. He goes one-to-one against every noseguard and defensive tackle in the league, nobody gets past him, and most fans don't even know his name. And it isn't personal. Please. If anything, Bradshaw deserves even more credit, for all the abuse he's taken. But last year, when we won again, it wasn't just the Steelers. For the first time, it was Terry Bradshaw and the Steelers. And it jolted me back to reality. All of a sudden I realized that no matter how good a wide receiver you are, you're always going to be in the QB's shadow. It's just a fact."
And you don't like it?
"I never believe in settling for second best."
And you love the limelight?