But it is not always smooth for Swann. In the NFL, it has been the prize macho black toughs who have gone out of their way to bust up and bring down the fashionable kid who moves so effortlessly in the white world. And before that, at Southern Cal, where Swann says he "made a conscious effort to get some black racial identity back," he was castigated by many black students for his speech and for choosing to room with a white, Tom McBreen. A childhood friend, McBreen, now a doctor, was an Olympic swimmer who subsequently was Swann's best man. Swann also shares, in common with Bradshaw, Pete Rozelle, Donnie Osmond, Catfish Hunter and Senator John Warner, that most typical of all things American: a white mother-in-law. His father-in-law is Paul Robi, arranger and lead singer with the Platters.
"What am I supposed to do?" Swann says. "I just happen to feel comfortable wherever I go in the world. But it's hard to win. The American dream is to succeed, to move on to higher economic levels, but if you're black and you succeed, then you can be sure that some blacks will claim that you are turning your back on your black roots."
And worse yet, some whites.... On the night of Jan. 31, 1974, when Swann was celebrating his selection as the top Steeler draft choice, he was arrested and jailed by the San Francisco Police Department—largely, he feels, for committing the crime of being black. Charged with resisting arrest and battery, Swann was acquitted by a jury in July 1974. Swann—and his two brothers and a cousin, who were likewise charged—sued the city for $2 million for false arrest; the four policemen involved filed a countersuit against the Swanns and their cousin for $200,000 in damages. The case finally reached the courts last summer, and the three Swanns and their cousin ultimately received a total of $143,090. The policemen were awarded a total of $15,000.
Just as Swann cannot understand why the arresting officers, as Swann reportedly claimed in court, destroyed a college All-Star wristwatch and rapped him repeatedly about the knees with nightsticks when they learned he was a football player, so he is genuinely baffled by the casual brutality in his sport. When in 1976 he publicly protested against what he characterizes as "intentional acts of violence," many in football came down on him not only for being a sissy but also for breaking the unwritten code that gentlemen of the gridiron should always settle up like jungle animals. Defensive Back George Atkinson of the Raiders, who twice gave Swann concussions, derided him as "gutless."
The second Atkinson hit, the one that led Steeler Coach Chuck Noll to refer to Atkinson as part of a "criminal element" in football, very nearly drove Swann from the NFL after only two seasons. "It was bad enough earlier in that game," he says. "At one point Jack Tatum came up behind me in the end zone. The officials didn't see it because I wasn't anywhere near the ball, but Tatum left his feet so he could hit me full force in the back of the head. I was still dazed from that in the second half when I caught a pass over the middle, and Atkinson tackled me around the head.
"That put me in the hospital, but what was really frightening was that this time what Atkinson did to me was a quote-unquote legal hit. After that, I thought to myself, 'Whoa, this is not what I came here for.' "
Swann came out of the hospital to be named MVP in the '76 Super Bowl, in which the Steelers beat the Cowboys, but the euphoria of that triumph did not erase the harsh memory of the Oakland ferocity. In the months that followed, Swann all but made up his mind to retire. In explaining why he finally decided to come back, he employs one of his Norman Vincent Peale sermonettes:
"That thing about Atkinson and my thinking about retiring was the biggest thing I've had to overcome in my life. For once, things just didn't go right for me. But I was traveling in Europe, and I ended up skiing in Innsbruck. I wasn't doing very well at it and I decided to go home. But then, all of a sudden, I said no. I bought some new equipment and I decided to stay until I beat that mountain. And it took me four or five more days, but I did, and that's when I decided to meet football head on, too, so I came back to play." He pauses. "But the mountain is still there. For someone else. And there's no mountain in life that someone else hasn't climbed."
He talks that way. He really does. It's the gorilla in him. Around his neck he wears a gold pendant with a swan etched on one side, and on the other, his words: MY FRIENDS ARE MY LIFE, SHARE MY LOVE. He gave duplicates of it to his family and closest friends. At his wedding in June, before 500 guests, he interrupted the traditional service to read love vows he had composed himself to his bride, culminating: "My soul is your soul, and time is our instrument to build life upon love." Even his signature is lyrical, almost carved with painstaking care.
One girl friend broke up with him because, in this unlettered, narcissistic age, she could not deal with a man who poured out mushy love paeans to her. Bernadette and Lynn drink seldom, but when they do, it must be champagne. "With Lynn, it's roses and champagne, all the time," she says. And donuts, with love. He will latch on to any excuse to wear tails; last year he gave a Halloween party and came as Dracula. He would not live with Bernadette before they were married, fearful that it would spoil his vision: "Marriage is something you should do just once, and you ought to do it right."