John Stallworth steps out under the sun in Huntsville, Ala., where the verdant foothills of the Appalachians loom around him. "I love the open," he says quietly. "I always have." When he has a need to move, Stallworth will go one of two ways. One is to take a four-mile run up a trail in the hills, a way few know about, a path so narrow it begins to close in behind him as he follows its course. He stutter-steps to get past a thorn thicket. He evades arms of brier. It's move or be bloodied.
The other way Stallworth might go is along a weed-infested track that circles a forgotten field with rusted goalposts and stone bleachers. The track is behind Alabama A & M University in nearby Normal. He chooses this route today. He runs five 440-yard dashes, loping over the cinders and gravel, unmindful of time. He has the upper torso of nobody special, of any 34-year-old man. His hairline is receding. But even under warmup pants, his legs appear massive.
His mind wanders back, to the years before Pittsburgh and the four Super Bowl rings; before Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann and, lately, Louis Lipps; before all the big catches and the All-Pro recognition. "I was skinny when I was a boy," says Stallworth, whose listed playing weight is 202 pounds. "I was always outside, diving for footballs." In those days he lived in Tuscaloosa, 125 miles southwest of Huntsville. He wasn't the most graceful child. His mother, Mary Stallworth, says he "forever ran into things." When he tripped over curbs or banged into doors, he cried so angrily his mother called him Meany.
One summer night when he was eight years old, after a day of hard play, he became feverish. He shivered so violently his teeth chattered for hours. When the shivering stopped, he couldn't move. "I was paralyzed on the left side," says Stallworth. A day passed. He was taken to a local hospital, Druid City, where the doctors said he might have polio.
August 24, 1986
"I remember the look on my mother's face," he says. "Her face told me everything. Never to see the sun. Never to be able to move. Never to be able to catch. And all I knew I could do was catch a football. I clung to that thought."
After a few more days, he moved. It was not polio but a viral infection. Nevertheless, it was enough to panic an eight-year-old, and today he says it is the memory of that time that keeps him moving, keeps him playing.
Stallworth is approaching his 13th season with the Steelers. Along with center Mike Webster and safety Donnie Shell, he is the last of a great breed from those championship teams. And Stallworth does not simply endure—he is the finest NFL receiver of the last decade, one who always feels a fifth Super Bowl ring "is just one catch away."
He is the Steelers' alltime leader among pass receivers in receptions (462), yards (7,736) and touchdowns (60), and the leading playoff receiver in NFL history with 12 touchdown catches—three in Super Bowls. His Super Bowl average per catch is 24.4 yards. His average Super Bowl touchdown catch is 58.7 yards.
And on a team with a reputation staked on physical defensive play, Stallworth twice has been elected the Steelers' MVP. "I always thought John should've been the MVP of not one but two Super Bowls," says Swann, Stall-worth's old teammate and rival. "I can't tell you how many quarterbacks have told me, 'I wish I had just one receiver like you or like John Stallworth.' "
Even after the Steelers began slipping, Stallworth kept moving. He has caught passes in 105 of his last 106 games, his last 37 games in a row. He caught 80 passes two years ago, the most in team history, and 75 last season, second most.
In the 1984 playoffs, the Raiders' Lester Hayes and Mike Haynes shut down Steve Largent of Seattle and Art Monk and Charlie Brown of Washington. No one could get behind Haynes and Hayes as the Raiders won the Super Bowl. In those same playoffs, Stallworth beat Haynes for a 58-yard touchdown in the Steelers' opening-round loss. Said Haynes, "Covering John is like trying to dam a river with your feet."
The Miami Dolphins went to the Super Bowl in 1985, but Stallworth had touchdown catches of 65 and 19 yards in the AFC championship game against them. Mark Duper, Mark Clayton and Dan Marino were too much that day, and the Dolphins won 45-28. Two weeks later, San Francisco's secondary shut down Miami's passing game in the Super Bowl and the 49ers finished 18-1. The lone loss had come against Pittsburgh. Stallworth scored the tying touchdown, catching a six-yard pass over Ronnie Lott, who later said, "It's inevitable. Sooner or later, Stallworth beats everybody."
"There's an art to it," Stallworth says. "You just don't see many guys making catches anymore. It's all speed now. But the key to receiving isn't speed. It's pace. That's why I have survived." Stallworth's pace is a leisurely 50 as he tools along highway 72 in Huntsville in his Chevy Blazer. It is spring, but already a bone-bleaching drought grips the area. "The rain will come," he says, "whether we're patient or not."
He drives by the two apartment complexes his real estate and development company has built. People wave and call out to him warmly. Now Stallworth wheels the Blazer to his three-story Tudor house in the town of Brownsboro, outside Huntsville. His wife, Flo, and his two children, John Jr., 10, and Natasha, 7, have arrived just seconds earlier.
The Stallworths maintained two homes for a while, one in Huntsville, one in Pittsburgh. Stallworth enjoyed the flexibility, but John Jr.'s school performance suffered. "We'd come home and John would be behind in reading," says Stallworth. "Not from lack of ability, from lack of concentration. We couldn't have that. Before breakfast, we'd study. On the way to school. After dinner. And he caught up. I told him that while he was catching up, others were going on. We kept studying. Then one night John put his book down and started laughing. I got upset. I said, 'Why are you laughing? This is serious, Son.' He said, 'Dad, I'm laughing to keep from crying.' "
Soon after, the Stallworths built the comfortably appointed home in Brownsboro. "What John said had a great impact," says Stallworth. "I had forgotten what he was. He's just a kid. You have to let him be a kid sometimes."
A good life is balanced on choices and chance. Stallworth just happened to grow up near the University of Alabama. He watched Ray Perkins and Dennis Homan catch footballs thrown by Joe Namath and Ken Stabler. This is what Stallworth wanted to do. "I would defy any boy to grow up in Tuscaloosa and not want to play for Alabama," he says.
Football was the great natural resource of the state, outlasting the steel mills of Birmingham and bigger even than tourism on the Gulf Coast. Stallworth was thrilled when, in 1970, a member of the Alabama staff asked his high school coach for game films.
At Tuscaloosa High, Stallworth had resigned himself to playing running back on a team that won one game in his junior and senior years. He wanted to catch the ball but was told there was nobody to get it to him. So running back it was. Bear Bryant didn't like what he saw on film of this lean lad who hit holes standing too upright.
Stallworth swallowed his disappointment and went to Alabama A & M, the Division II state school near the northern border. He would not gain national exposure there, but he would have Flo nearby.
Displayed in the Stallworth home with 13 Steeler game balls, three All-Pro citations, a Dapper Dan Man of the Year award and an NFL Comeback Player of the Year trophy is a framed photo of John in his A & M uniform, looking like a kid, albeit a rangy one at 6'3" and 185 pounds. On the picture is this inscription: TO FLO, YOU ARE MY EXISTENCE. MEANY.
"At bigger schools, being an athlete had become something to scorn," Stallworth says. "At a small school, being an athlete was something to be respected. People expected you to lead." Stallworth's father, David, a retired plumber, told John he was proud because he had gone away to school and made it without anyone giving him anything. "It couldn't have been any better at Alabama," says his mother. Stallworth says, "I had a chance to be John Stallworth first. Then on Saturdays I might be a hero."
A hero many times over by his graduation (B.S. in business) in 1974, Stallworth was picked by the Steelers in the fourth round of the draft. Pittsburgh had taken another collegiate receiver, Lynn Swann of USC, in the first round. "Those two came to me and told me they would start," says Lionel Taylor, the former Denver Bronco All-Pro, then the Steelers' receiver coach. "They told me."
In 1975, Swann and Stallworth wound up alternating with veterans Ron Shanklin and Frank Lewis as the Steelers won their first Super Bowl with 14 rookies, the Steel Curtain defense and a running game featuring trapping linemen and Franco Harris. The next season, after Shanklin was traded, Swann became a regular. "I can't imagine what went through John's mind—being from a small school," says Swann. "He had to wait, although we both knew we should both start." In 1978 the Steelers traded Lewis to Buffalo, where he made All-Pro. Yet in Pittsburgh there was little doubt that Stallworth would fill the role.
"John and I worked against double-teams every day [in practice]," says Swann. "We competed with each other. Then, only then, did we compete with the rest of the league."
Swann made two memorable catches in the second Super Bowl win, over Dallas in 1976. Then in 1978 the rules changed, and the five-yard bump zone rule giving receivers an edge was adjusted. The Steelers began to throw more. "But never a lot," Swann says. "We didn't use our passing attack to its full capability the whole time I was there."
Indeed, for all the big catches he has made, Stallworth ranks but eighth among active reception leaders. "We weren't catching for numbers," he says. "We were in search of the great catch. Swannie and I were...intense. I wanted to make the best catch, the prettiest catch, and so did he."
There had been famous receiving combinations before. Tom Fears and Elroy Hirsch. George Sauer and Don Maynard. Dante Lavelli and Mac Speedie. Charley Taylor and Bobby Mitchell. But never had there been two on one team quite like Swann and Stallworth. Covering one was an accomplishment. Covering both was a fantasy. The duo would score 111 regular-season and 21 playoff touchdowns from 1974 to '82.
"It's a funny thing," says Mitchell. "Even now, when I think of the two of them, I think of Swann. People knew him, so everybody watched him. But when it was over, Stallworth was the guy who killed you. And still does. Isn't that amazing?"
"They could do anything," says Charley Taylor. "They could run any pattern. They could run away from you. They caught balls I knew they couldn't catch. They made plays you can never forget."
Take one pattern from Stallworth's career. Just the 60 Prevent Slot Hook-and-Go. Make it Jan. 20, 1980, against the Rams in Pasadena, in the fourth quarter of the last of the Steelers' four Super Bowl wins. Bradshaw is called over by coach Chuck Noll. The Steelers are behind 19-17. "You're not going to pick your way down against the Rams," Noll says. "Go for the big play." The big play has to be to Stallworth; Swann is sidelined with a concussion after being upended by Pat Thomas.
In the '79 Super Bowl against Dallas, it had been Stallworth catching scoring passes of 75 and 28 yards in the first half before collapsing with leg cramps in the locker room at halftime. Joe Greene told Stallworth the Steelers needed him, so he got up, only to collapse again. He was unable to return. Swann caught the clinching touchdown—a quick post—in the 35-31 win.
Now, in the '80 game, it is Swann who has caught a 47-yard scoring pass before going out in the third quarter. Stallworth, slotted to the right, takes an inside release against Ron Perry. The safety is veteran Eddie Brown. Stallworth paces through the middle of the Ram defense, Perry on his right hip. Ten yards from the line of scrimmage, Stallworth feints a turn. He barely rounds off his lead right step and shifts his eyes inside. Brown begins to lean forward, and Stallworth plants his left foot, drives and is at full speed. He motors past Brown. Perry, meanwhile, is on the wrong hip and a step behind as Bradshaw's pass comes down. Perry soars to try to knock the ball down. He fails. Stallworth flows on with the ball—a classic winning touchdown.
"All your life people tell you, 'Consider all viewpoints, don't look at things one way,' " says Stallworth. "Then you're a receiver, the ball comes in and nothing else can enter your mind. You must catch it. You have to be a fool at times."
Stallworth missed half of the 1976 season and much of the 1980 and 1983 seasons with leg injuries. He broke his right wrist early in '79 and still caught 70 passes. "I was more physical than Lynn," he says.
In 1982 the Steelers played the Cowboys in Texas Stadium. Swann was injured. Early on, Dallas cornerback Dennis Thurman gave Stallworth a forearm to the head when the ball was away from them. Stallworth went to his knees. This was the kind of shot that made Swann, a reasonable sort, want to retire. From his knees, Stallworth pointed at Thurman and said, "You can't cover me." He caught two more passes. Thurman belted him again on a pass in the end zone. Stallworth had to leave the game. On the next series he came back and caught a 25-yard pass from Bradshaw. He pointed at Thurman again and said, "You still can't cover me." The Steelers won 36-28. Stallworth caught seven passes for 137 yards.
Swann retired after 1982. He says, "John was All-Pro then and he's All-Pro now. He drove me to great heights. I didn't want to be second best. Those were tough, emotional times for us. He wanted more. I wanted more. But together, we knew no one could stop us."
Two years ago Swann's old spot was taken by another superb athlete, Louis Lipps. Since then Stallworth and Lipps have combined for 279 receptions, 3,389 yards and 37 touchdowns. Says Stallworth, "Louis and I compete, but nothing like it was with Lynn. Lynn and I never stopped competing. I'm sorry for that."
Stallworth's new peers are compact types built for speed. They are wideouts, smurfs, impact players and, sometimes, superstars. Stallworth is what was once called an end. "Steve Largent and Wes Chandler are the best pattern runners today," he says. "Largent has the strongest ankles in football. Mike Quick is outstanding going deep. Charlie Joiner. Tony Hill when he's healthy. And Louis Lipps will be great. Outside of them? Well, you just don't see guys making catches anymore."
"When John says catches, he means impossible catches, game-winning catches," says Lionel Taylor, now head coach at Texas Southern University. "He plays for the chance to make that catch. The bigger the game, the better the catch. That's what separates him. I've seen 'em all, and I can't say I've seen better. I'll say this. If you find a tall guy with a small upper body, long arms, cotton hands, great legs, a John Stallworth type, do me a favor. Send him to me."
Stallworth is at the wheel, heading for a class in the graduate school of business at Alabama A & M. He expects to get his M.B.A. next spring. "It has taken four years, one semester at a time," he says. "I took my time. Business is my hobby. Catching is what I am.
"It's the feeling it gives me. There's just nothing else like it. I would love for John Jr. to know that feeling of moving and making a great catch." Stallworth drives on. Finally, he says, "I guess what I really want is for him to feel free."