Well, it certainly is a Barnum & Bailey world, and wouldn't you just know it, it turns out that the last romantic left on the face of the earth is working for a living in Pittsburgh, P-A. Or, the punch line for the movie version: Hey, I've got a great idea—Lynn Swann. That's something of an in joke you'll understand better as we go along. But for the present: Lynn Swann wears his own poetry inscribed in gold about his neck; he sends six dozen yellow roses when he falls in love and buys donuts for his teammates; he prefers white tie and tails if you are dressing, and champagne if you are drinking; he tap-dances his way into your heart, honeymoons in Paris and firmly subscribes to the old adage that it is the inalienable right of every American boy to grow up and play Robin Hood in the movies.
Usually we live in our own times and dream of others. How strange that Swann is a child of olden days whose dreams focus on the savage reality all about him. He has, in fact, one recurring nightmare. When it begins, he is standing in the Bank of America branch on B Street in San Mateo, Calif., where he grew up. He glances up and sees that a menacing robot has just entered the bank. Everybody, Swann included, runs like hell out the back door. But the robot follows Swann and chases him into a store. There the robot turns into a gorilla. The robot-gorilla keeps changing back and forth and chasing after him as he weaves in and out of stores. He has this nightmare often.
An authority on dreams told Swann that the robot represents logic, the gorilla emotions, and that the two are competing with each other for control of his being. Sometimes, if Swann is with a person who knows about his nightmare and does something reflexively and naturally, Swann will smile and say, "That's the gorilla in me," which sounds very confusing. because we are hardly accustomed to gorillas standing for blithe images. Shouldn't the gorilla in the nightmare be the defensive backs and linebackers who pummel Swann, who supply him with concussions, who drove him to the brink of retirement when he was only 25?
You would think so. But Swann was never a sports fan, and perhaps his subconscious refuses to acknowledge that he has become an athlete, a pro football player, the very best at what he does, catching passes. It is mostly a fluke that he has become what he is. Swann is listed officially at 6 feet, 180 pounds, which is small enough, but, in fact, he is no more than 5'11" and weighs only 173. He wears high school-model shoulder pads. He has suffered three concussions, and he is known in the trade by the ugly cretins who play it brutally as a "paperhead." Which simply means that his skull crushes with ease—fair game.
Yet, in his sixth NFL season, age 27, there are almost no marks upon his ginger skin, and he appears nearly—if the word is fair—dainty. Encountering stylishness where you least expect it will give you that impression. Swann's face has the aspect of a cute Disney animal—a chipmunk, perhaps—with tiny ears, a coiffure carefully shaped so that every hair is in place, gleaming brown eyes, teeth so flawless that Swann cannot deny, though he's loath to admit it, that they must be largely a testament to the talent of some dental artist. His cheekbones are high, affirming the Cherokee blood that courses through him from both sides of his family, and directly below are, naturally, a pair of dimples, apt quotation marks for his happy, regularly employed mouth.
Even in Pittsburgh, where Swann is a demigod, his face as well recognized as his number 88, fans meeting him for the first time are invariably amazed at how petite he is. Of all the most popular Steelers—Bradshaw, the rugged bellwether; Harris, sturdy and reliable; Greene, Mean Joe; Ham and Lambert, the hard-nosed Jacks from next door; Bleier, the doughty veteran—little Swann is the one most esteemed for his courage. He goes over the middle. Those burghers who run into him about town will offer up the obligatory "nice game," but an inordinate number of them also feel a need to cite his bravery to his face: "I just want to shake your hand, sir"; "God bless you, Lynn"; "I admire you so"; "You're one helluva man, is all I have to say."
Although Swann is a black man in a city with a small black population, the citizenry identifies as much or more with him as with any of its heftier and lighter-skinned heroes. "Well, it's a workingman's town, the shot and a beer, all that," Swann says. "That's not me, but maybe they see me as one of them anyway, because I'm the little guy who goes over the middle."
Ah, once again: over the middle. There are certain itineraries we expect football players to follow. The quarterback, as every mother's son knows, drops back; the fullback bulls ahead; the defensive backs, we are advised, rotate, while linebackers are crablike beings, ever displaying the vaunted lateral speed. And the wide receiver is, of course, the creature of the down-and-out. We never visualize him as anything but his archtype, Raymond Berry: playing footsie with the boundaries, tapping toes down in sideline Morse code as he reaches out for the pigskin, high, wide and handsome. A wide receiver is down-and-out. The middle is left for stalwart tight ends—those gridiron half-breeds—and wandering blocking backs who moonlight at catching afterthought passes that are "dumped off."
But Swann works the middle. And despite being as insubstantial as he is and having only average-sized hands, he works it with rare proficiency. "There is no such thing as Lynn Swann dropping a pass," says Bum Phillips, the Houston coach. Many receivers, like Swann, may regularly be double-teamed, but such coverage is only something to be eluded; going over the middle means that it is all but impossible to catch passes and not be double-tackled. "The licks Lynn takes," says Sam Davis, Steeler guard, "sometimes he looks like a baton being twirled out there." Tom Moore, the Pittsburgh receiver coach, says, "I'm sure when Lynn goes over the middle that he doesn't let himself see any of the people there. Nobody has an edge on his heart."
Swann himself says, "I just can't ever think about being hurt. In the first game this season, I got hit low while I was jumping for a pass and I came down on my neck and shoulder, and just a little different...." He shrugs; he meant he could have been busted up, maybe paralyzed. "I probably get away with it because of all the little things I've done in my life besides football—ballet, tap, gymnastics, basketball, long-jumping. I'm able somehow to keep my body loose but my hands tight. I'm like the race cars at Indy that aren't built with solid frames anymore, so when they hit the wall, just a portion of the car crumbles. In one of the old rigid cars there would've been a shock through the whole machine. Me, I get my leg hit, I just let the leg fly. I remain limber, and somehow the impact seems to flow out of that leg. Now maybe somebody who knows the laws of physics will say that's all crazy, but it's my body and it works for me."