"Look, I'm a ham." (Big, cute smile.) "If I could sing, I'd be dangerous." (Huge, cute smile.)
Footnote: Bradshaw is also a putative entertainer. He can sing, and not badly. And for something to do with his hands, he plays the guitar while he warbles. But if Swann cannot sing, he has been tap-dancing since the fourth grade, and he does it very well indeed.
Last March, Bradshaw and Swann went to Utah to tape a CBS special. The National Cheerleading Competition, which was co-hosted by an old QB named Joe Namath. The script called for Bradshaw and Namath to banter for a while, and then the two Steelers were to perform, Bradshaw strumming his guitar as backup to Swann's tapping. Swann was terrific. But when the show was telecast, Swann had been edited into a perfunctory role, and the bit was almost entirely Namath and Bradshaw joking, and Bradshaw playing the guitar, while his pal, the colored fellow, did a few steps in the background. Thus is it always with QBs and wide receivers.
Swann is not, of course, deprived, as we know it. For playing a second banana, he'll make about $170,000 this year, but because his subordinate position limits him so in football, his greater designs are on the world at large, coast-to-coast. He longs to become the first wide receiver to attain Namathiah, Simpsonian status, to become what he and Marilyn O'Brien always refer to as "a national spokesman." Lest conflict of interest endanger any lurking countrywide contract, Swann has already turned down a number of local endorsements for such varied merchandise as clothing, soft drinks, canned goods and tires.
It is a measure of Swann's equanimity, as well as of these more tolerant television times—not only of O.J., but of Reggie promoting candy bars and Bill Cosby spokesmanning for every product in Christendom not hawked by Ed McMahon—that he never even mentions the matter of his race being a deterrent to the household-wordness he desires. Still, the question is: Can a little black wide receiver from an old industrial city go where only backs have ever been?
In this campaign for fame, playing for the Steelers cuts two ways. On the one hand, the champions are so good that nobody, not even the QB, can attract all the attention. Swann himself is often employed more as an implied threat than one realized. His statistics last season—61 catches for 880 yards and 11 TDs—were outstanding and his best, but not the monster numbers that might accrue to a flanker of his talents on a lesser team that doesn't waste a lot of precious time laboring at trench warfare. Significantly, against playoff teams, when the Steelers can't be so bossy, they turn more to Swann. His playoff statistics are well above his regular-season figures, and his best game ever was the '76 Super Bowl.
The presence of the gifted Stallworth on the other wing specifically complicates the issue. They are friendly rivals, sure enough, but the emphasis is often on the latter word. On almost any other club, Stallworth would be the ballyhooed prime receiver. On the Steelers, he is to Swann what Swann is to Bradshaw. The two receivers arrived the same season, too—Swann the pussycat first-round draft choice from USC and the Rose Bowl, Stallworth a fourth-round pick from, uh, Alabama A&M. Swann always goes to the Pro Bowl, Stallworth goes home to Hunstsville. Yet this year, Swann has endured a freak injury—a bruised big left toe—and then a hamstring pull. He has missed a great deal of action, and he trails Stallworth in all receiving categories.
"How many did you catch yesterday?" Swann asked Stallworth after a game early this season. The correct answer was six, and had Stallworth wanted to be diplomatic, he would've feigned ignorance of such tacky minutiae. Instead, Stallworth took the opportunity to smile and reply, "Four more than you." And they both laughed, sort of.
Of course, the preeminence of the Steelers lends a luster to Swann's reputation that he could obtain nowhere else, even if he were setting individual records in a more chic metropolis. He has never wanted to play for any other team. Keep in mind that it takes a great deal to raise the ire of Lynn Curtis Swann. It is, then, especially revealing that the one thing that appears to have gotten stuck in Swann's craw is that the Dallas Cowboys, undisputed Super Bowl losers, have anointed themselves as "America's Team." Swann heard this on the P.A. when the Steelers played an exhibition in Dallas, and it irritated him so that he still brings it up regularly.
And certainly he is right to protest The Cowboys' supercilious claim. Even if Dallas were champion, the Cowboys are never perceived as a team, only as an organization. The Steelers, by contrast, are pretty much a collection of personalities who never enjoyed any real fame until they came to Pittsburgh. Swann is the rare Steeler to hail from a glamour campus. But his effervescent nature—"I'm actually envious of his personality," says Pittsburgh Safety Mike Wagner—has endeared him to his more unpretentious teammates. The hard-boiled veterans could not believe it when as a rookie Swann started bringing donuts for the whole damn team every Tuesday. Along with his toothy smile, Swann is also so brimming with quotations, slogans, lyrics, poetry (his own and otherwise) that more worldly observers suspect that he must be putting them on, that perhaps he has caught a touch of something from Steve Garvey. But Swann is so enthusiastic, gets so carried away, that he is literally incapable of recognizing his own exuberant self.