A few days before XIV, John Stallworth was weaving unobtrusively through a room crowded with media folk when he suddenly stumbled over a tripod supporting a television spotlight that was focused on Stallworth's fellow Steeler, and wide receiver, Lynn Swann. Among Pittsburgh's pass catchers, the spotlight is always on Swann. But as Stallworth proved once again on Sunday, he can work his way through a defense, if not a press conference, as well as any receiver in the game. In the fourth quarter at the Rose Bowl it was Stallworth's two catches for 118 yards and the game-winning touchdown that gave the Steelers their fourth Super Bowl win in four tries.
All those Super Bowl triumphs have come since Swann and Stallworth arrived in Pittsburgh via the 1974 draft. Swann was the Steelers' No. 1 pick that year, a consensus All-America with legendary leaping ability and skills honed to perfection on a USC team that had won the national championship his junior year. And he was as polished off the field as on. He quickly established himself as Pittsburgh's top receiver, winning the Super Bowl X MVP award in his second season. On the other hand, Stallworth had his training in the unsophisticated football world of Alabama A&M. He was a slow developer on the Steelers, hampered by a series of injuries, mostly hamstring pulls, in his first three seasons. He also was intensely shy. He welcomed the cover of Swann's shadow.
Stallworth didn't become Swann's full-time counterpart until 1977, but in the last three years he has come to be regarded as an equal in the NFL's best wide receiver tandem. Rival coaches talk about "Swann and Stallworth" as if they are one, their accomplishments inseparable, like, say, those of Lewis and Clark. It was no surprise that the Rams double-covered both of them Sunday. Los Angeles' coverage consisted of a defender inside and outside of each wide receiver, instead of one man fronting and one dropping in behind each of them. To counter this, Pittsburgh had added a play called "60 Prevent Slot Hook and Go" to its playbook. The wide receiver would fake a hook back toward the line of scrimmage, hoping to draw his defenders in, then turn and sprint deep. "When they double-cover you with a man in back, you can't do that," said Stallworth, "but with one on either side, sometimes you can split them and get deep." The Steelers had tried the play about eight times in practice during the week but had never completed the pass.
Bradshaw didn't call "60 Prevent Slot Hook and Go" for Stallworth until early in the fourth quarter. At that point Stallworth had one catch for three yards, Swann was on the sidelines with a head injury, the Rams had a 19-17 lead, and Bradshaw had thrown interceptions on the Steelers' two previous possessions. The second interception came when Bradshaw tried to force the ball to a double-covered Stallworth. Now, on third-and-eight from the Steeler 27, Ram Safety Dave Elmendorf and Cornerback Rod Perry once again swooped in on Stallworth as he hooked back toward the line of scrimmage. Only this time Stallworth whirled and headed deep. Elmendorf was caught short, and the nickel back, Eddie Brown, misread the play. Bradshaw lofted the ball perfectly, just beyond Perry's reach, and Stallworth was gone for the 73-yard touchdown that put Pittsburgh ahead to stay 24-19. Such an occasion certainly called for a showy spike or perhaps a slam dunk over the crossbar. But Stallworth has never learned how to play to crowds and TV cameras in moments of triumph. "When I crossed the goal line," he said, "my only thought was to look downfield and see if there were any yellow flags." There weren't.
January 28, 1980
Bradshaw called the play once more—on a third-and-seven at the Steeler 33 with less than five minutes remaining and the Rams desperate for the ball. This time Stallworth made a beautiful over-the-head catch between Elmendorf and Perry for a 45-yard gain. Always low-key, Stallworth described the reception as routine. Five plays later Franco Harris cemented Pittsburgh's 31-19 win with a one-yard touchdown smash.
After the game it was Bradshaw, thrower of the two passes to Stallworth, who was named the MVP. And it was Swann, who caught five passes for 79 yards and one touchdown, whose name was listed three times on the list of new individual career records in the Super Bowl. Once again the spotlight was elsewhere. But at least this time Stallworth didn't trip over it.