"I'd like to say the draft was the result of horse sense and intelligence," joked Art Rooney, Jr., the since-retired Steelers' vice president and head of the team's scouting department. "But, it was just good luck. We got some great players."
While refreshing, Rooney's humility is an understatement. The Steelers had done their homework, particularly as it pertained to Stallworth. The Pittsburgh scouting department knew that Stallworth was a blue-chip prospect worthy of being selected in the first round. But the Steelers scouting department was willing to gamble that certain circumstances would cause other teams to overlook the talented receiver.
It was a gamble that Steelers Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll had to be convinced to take. Noll and his staff actually considered selecting John in the first round.
The "circumstances" the Steelers felt might work in their favor began with the belief that some scouts had simply failed to recognize Stallworth's talents since he played at a small school, Alabama A&M. Add to that, scouting combines had timed him at a somewhat unimpressive 4.8 in the 40-yard dash. And finally, the coaches in the 1974 Senior Bowl played him at defensive back, rather than at wide receiver.
"We got real lucky when Stallworth came to the Senior Bowl and they put him at defensive back," recalled Rooney.
"We knew we were going to take Lambert in the second round, and we had no third-round pick," remembered Bill Nunn the Steelers' assistant director of player personnel. "So we discussed Stallworth strongly in the first round. We also knew you either took Lynn Swann in the first round, or you wouldn't get him. So now it gets down to Chuck (Noll). He asked if we thought Stallworth might last. Lionel Taylor, our receiver coach at the time, and I both said yes."
Nunn knew Stallworth's scouting combine times were misleading. He had timed Stallworth prior to his junior season and the slender receiver ran the 40 in 4.5 seconds. A painful hip pointer, it turns out, was the cause of the discrepancy. Taylor, who agreed that Stallworth might be available in a later round, also felt that the scouts overlooked Stallworth's "soft hands."
Whether it was good scouting, luck, or more likely a combination of the two, John Stallworth went on to become the most prolific receiver in Pittsburgh Steelers history. Fourteen years after his retirement, he still leads the team in several significant receiving categories, including most receptions in a career, most yards receiving in a career, most career 100-yard receiving games, most touchdowns receiving in a career, and most consecutive games with a reception.
A native of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Stallworth was born on July 15, 1952. Like every kid at Tuscaloosa High, he dreamed of playing college football at the University of Alabama. So in 1970, when he learned that a member of the Alabama football staff had asked his high school coach for some game films he was understandably excited.
"I would defy any boy to grow up in Tuscaloosa and not want to play for Alabama," he told a Sports Illustrated reporter in 1986. Unfortunately, Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant was unimpressed with the tall, lanky running back who hit the holes standing too upright.
Stallworth hadn't planned on being a running back. Simply put, his high school team just didn't have a quarterback who could throw the ball with any consistency. Thus, Stallworth, with his coach's encouragement, opted to play running back.
Even before his high school days, however, Stallworth knew his hands, not his feet, were his greatest asset. "I was small, playing with a big group of kids," he said of his youth. "And the only way I could play was because I could catch the football. At that time, in pick-up games, it was three passes for a first down. A lot of times, I'd catch all three passes.
"It just came natural. I would reach out to catch the ball, and it would just stick. It's always been a God-given talent that I possess."
After being overlooked by Alabama, John took his "God-given" talents to Alabama A&M, the Division II school near the state's northern border. "Looking back, I wouldn't change a thing," he said of his college experience. "Hindsight is always twenty-twenty, but I could have been lost in the shuffle at Alabama. They weren't throwing the ball a whole lot in those days. They had just gone to the wishbone offense. Anything could have happened. Anyway, I met my wife at A&M. There was a lack of publicity, but it just made me a stronger individual."
That personal strength would serve Stallworth well in the coming years. He knew that when he reported to the Steelers training camp, he would not only be measured against the incumbent receiver corps, but against the production of fellow rookie Swann. Stallworth, who arrived in camp with none of the fanfare of the flashy first-round pick, wasn't intimidated by Swann's résumé that included Rose Bowls and a national championship. "I hadn't seen that many pro football players," Stallworth told The Sporting News in 1979. "I wanted to compare their speed and hands. Once I saw Lynn, I thought I could play with him."
"Those two (Stallworth and Swann) came to me and told me they would start," recalled Lionel Taylor. "They told me." Although neither earned a permanent starting berth as a rookie, both impressed their coach.
Stallworth played in 13 games that season, starting two, before an illness sidelined him. Nonetheless, his rookie performance earned him a starter's role the following season, but again a series of injuries kept him from permanently locking down the job. However, starting in 1976, he began a streak in which he started all but three games in which he played.
John had flashes of brilliance during his first three seasons in Pittsburgh. In 1975, for instance, he started nine games and tied Isaac Curtis for the AFC lead with a 21.2-yard average per reception. But just as it seemed that his time had arrived, he was again sidelined by a series of foot and leg injuries.