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Steelers A Super Bowl stage provided Lynn Swann's ticket to Canton

Sunday, July 29, 2001

By Ron Cook, Post-Gazette Columnist

You might say the third weekend of January 1976 was fairly newsworthy around here.

Marc Boileau was fired as Penguins coach and replaced by Ken Schinkel.

Joe Paterno decided to stay at Penn State for the time being and turned down a job offer from the Philadelphia Eagles.

Lynn Swann threw out a ceremonial first pitch at Thursday's Pirates game. (Peter Diana)

Frank Cignetti took over at West Virginia, replacing Bobby Bowden, who reluctantly had left for Florida State, wondering if he could make it big in the Deep South.

And Lynn Swann made the Pro Football Hall of Fame ...

OK, so maybe Swann didn't make it officially to the Hall that weekend, but he almost certainly wouldn't be in Canton, Ohio, for his induction Saturday if not for the events of Jan. 18, 1976. He didn't just have, arguably, the greatest game by a wide receiver in Super Bowl history. And he wasn't just named most valuable player in the Steelers' 21-17 victory against the Dallas Cowboys. On that wondrous day at the Orange Bowl in Super Bowl X, he assured he would become part of the pro football lexicon.

"That, ladies and gentlemen, was a Swann-like catch by Jerry Rice."

"Would I have made the Hall of Fame without that game?" Swann asked, repeating a question. "I can't answer that."

Cliff Harris can. He was an All-Pro safety for the Cowboys in Super Bowl X.

"Tell Lynn congratulations and that I'm happy for him," Harris said. "And tell him he should thank every one of us."

Super motivation

The funny thing is Swann nearly didn't play in that Super Bowl.

Two weeks earlier, he was knocked out of the Steelers' 16-10 win against the Oakland Raiders in the AFC championship game.

"Jack Tatum had drilled me from behind in the neck at the end of the first half," Swann said. "It was a real cheap shot because I was completely away from the play ... "

Imagine that.

"Then, in the second half, I caught a pass over the middle and George Atkinson hog-tied me around the neck and drove me head-first into the ice."

Swann was hospitalized after the game and missed the next week of practice. Doctors didn't clear him until the team arrived in Miami the next weekend.

 
 

Swann by the numbers: A chart of his achievements.


Steelers in the Hall of Fame

Art Rooney
Class of 1964
Beloved founder, president and CEO of the Steelres from 1933 until 1988

Dan Rooney
Class of 2000
Steelers president and an active decision-maker in league matters

Bert Bell
Class of 1963
Co-owner of the team in the early 1940s and a former NFL commissioner

Johnny "Blood" McNally
Class of 1963
Played and coached for the Steelers ... 49 career touchdowns

Walt Kiseling
Class of 1966
34-year career as player and coach ... led Steelers to first winning season (1942).

Bobby Layne
Class of 1967
Swashbuckling quarterback who holds team record for passing yards in a game

Ernie Stautner
Class of 1969
Defensive tackle who played in the Pro Bowl nine times and had three career safeties

Joe Greene
Class of 1987
Ferocious defensive tackle and the cornerstone of the Steel Curtain defense of the 1970s.

John Henry Johnson
Class of 1987
6,803 career rushing yards ... No. 3 ground-gainer in franchise history

Jack Ham
Class of 1988
Classy outside linebacker ... appeared in the Pro Bowl eight consecutive years

Mel Blount
Class of 1989
Suffocating cornerback with a franchise record 57 career interceptions

Terry Bradshaw
Class of 1989
Four-time Super Bowl championship quarterback ... 27,989 career passing yards.

Franco Harris
Class of 1990
MVP in Super Bowl IX ... 12,120 career rushing yards and 100 career touchdowns

Jack Lambert
Class of 1990
NFL defensive player of the year in 1976 ... middle linebacker on Steel Curtain defense

Chuck Noll
Class of 1993
Coach and architect of the Steelers dynasty of the 1970s.

Mike Webster
Class of 1997
Nine times in the Pro Bowl ... franchise record 245 games.

   
 

"I had a horrible week of practice down there," Swann said. "I really wanted to play the ballgame, but I wasn't sure I could catch the ball or even run the right routes. The last thing I wanted to do was hurt the team. I kept looking for some sign to tell me what to do."

Swann found it in the Miami Herald three days before the game.

"Ninety-eight percent of the time when you read something in the newspaper it has no effect. But that day, I read where Cliff Harris had said I had better not come across the middle because he owned that part of the field. 'If Swann thinks he got hurt against the Raiders, he'll find out what hurt really is on Sunday.'

"That's when I decided to play."

Asked about that long-ago quote when reached at his Dallas office, where he runs an energy and communications company, Harris said, "That's Lynn's version. Mine is that the press manipulated me."

Harris fairly giggled.

"One of the reporters asked me if I was going to ease up on Swann because of his concussion. All I said was, 'This is pro football, fellas. If he runs into my area, I'm going to knock him out.'"

Much to Harris' chagrin even today, he never got his shot at Swann.

"Go ahead, ask him how many times he came across the middle that day. He caught zero balls in my area. He and Terry Bradshaw listened to me. They didn't jeopardize his health. They never called a play for him over the middle until the one time when I was in a safety blitz."

That turned out to be the play that iced the Steelers' win.

Leading, 15-10, with little more than three minutes to play, Bradshaw faced a third-and-4 at the Steelers' 36. Cowboys Coach Tom Landry called an all-out blitz, leaving cornerback Mark Washington in single coverage on Swann. Linebacker D.D. Lewis had a clear shot at Bradshaw but missed. Bradshaw stepped up and unloaded the ball just as Harris hit him in the midsection and defensive tackle Larry Cole hit him in the head. More than 80 million people watching the game around the world saw how the play ended, but Bradshaw didn't. He was knocked out with a concussion.

"He wasn't supposed to have that much time," Washington said of Bradshaw. "The thing is we weren't a really good blitzing team. We got away with it against some other teams, but we didn't get away with it against the Steelers. Bradshaw's arm strength was the difference. He made us pay. I give him all the credit in the world because he stood in there and took the shot."

Swann, running a post pattern, caught the ball at the Cowboys' 6, shrugged off Washington and sprinted into the end zone, NFL history and -- yes, it can be said now -- the Hall of Fame.

The 64-yard touchdown catch was Swann's fourth and final catch and gave him 161 receiving yards, then a Super Bowl record. He received a new Jeep as the MVP. In the 35-year history of the Super Bowl, the Raiders' Fred Biletnikoff and the San Francisco 49ers' Rice are the only other receivers to win that award.

"What's it been? Twenty-five years?" Washington asked from his Washington, D.C., office, where he works for the American Chemical Society. "I'm still seeing his catches on the TV. I keep looking for him to drop one. But he never does."

The leaper

Swann's first catch was his best.

He called it "the most important."

"I needed to make that first one. It didn't matter if it was a hook or a slant. After the concussion, I just needed a catch for the psychological boost. I needed it to get back on the horse, so to speak."

It happened on an adjustment route, deep down the right sideline. The Cowboys had scored early to take a 7-0 lead, the only first-quarter touchdown allowed by the great Steelers' defense all season. Bradshaw knew the Steelers had to respond. Washington had superb coverage on Swann, but Bradshaw took a shot anyway and gave Swann the chance to make the play.

"Jack Ham was just telling me the other day that he and Andy Russell were right there on the sideline where I made the catch," Swann said. "They thought the ball was going out of bounds. Hammer said he thought he had a better chance of catching it than I did."

At the last instant, Swann planted hard and leaped high above Washington. After making the catch, he somehow managed to get his feet inbounds before the late-arriving Harris knocked him to the turf. It was the only time all day Harris touched him.

Lynn Swann's acrobatic catch against the Cowboys in Super Bowl X.

"The thing that made Bradshaw and Swann different from other quarterbacks and receivers was Bradshaw's willingness to capitalize on Swann's leaping ability," Harris said. "Bradshaw would throw the ball high and let Swann go get it."

"There were faster guys than Swannie, but there was no receiver quicker from the ground to the ball than he was," said teammate John Stallworth, who will present Swann for induction tomorrow. "He always could go up and get it before a defensive back could."

The play went for 32 yards and set up Randy Grossman's game-tying touchdown.

The inimitable voice of John Facenda on NFL Films described it as "a kangaroo catch."

Ham and Russell had their own description.

"They both said it was the greatest catch they had ever seen," Swann said.

The best catch

The one thing you need to know about Swann's day at Super Bowl X is this:

That sideline catch isn't the catch that everyone remembers.

That would be his second catch, the one Facenda described as "a levitating leap."

The Steelers were in trouble late in the first half, trailing, 10-7, and facing a third-and-6 at their 10. Swann ran a takeoff pattern and had Washington beat easily. But Bradshaw's pass was a bit underthrown and gave Washington a chance to catch up. He went up with the leaping Swann and tipped the ball out of his hands.

Unfortunately for the Cowboys, Washington didn't tip it away far enough.

Swann never took his eyes off the ball as he tumbled toward the ground. He cradled it in his hands as he landed for an amazing 53-yard gain. The Steelers didn't score on that drive -- Roy Gerela missed a 36-yard field goal try -- but, as Swann noted, "It was a huge play in terms of field position. The last thing we wanted to do was punt from our end zone."

So many things happened during the game. Steelers punter Bobby Walden dropped one snap and nearly had two other punts blocked. Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert threw down Harris after he taunted Gerela after another missed field goal in the third quarter. ("The officials didn't even penalize Lambert," Harris said. "They never penalized the Steelers the whole game, and they were beating up our guys all day. I think the refs were Pittsburgh fans.") The Steelers' Reggie Harrison turned the game's momentum by blocking a Mitch Hoopes punt out of the end zone for a safety early in the fourth quarter. The Steelers sacked Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach a Super Bowl-record seven times. Steelers Coach Chuck Noll made the controversial decision to give the ball back to Staubach and the Cowboys at the Cowboys' 39 in the final two minutes rather than risk another punt.

But the play that stands out more than any other is Swann's catch of the tipped pass.

 
 
In Swann's class

Joining Lynn Swann Saturday for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio:

Marv Levy, coach who led the Buffalo Bills to unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowl appearances.

Mike Munchak, nine-time Pro Bowl guard with the Houston Oilers.

Jackie Slater, mainstay of the Los Angeles Rams' offensive line at tackle for 20 seasons.

Ron Yary, offensive tackle who started in seven Pro Bowls and four Super Bowls with Minnesota.

Jack Youngblood, fierce and durable defensive end with the Los Angeles Rams.

   
 

The image of him concentrating on the ball just before it settled in his hands made the cover of Sports Illustrated the next week, much to his amazement.

"I've always said if I had done it right, I would have caught the ball the first time, came down and kept running for a touchdown ...

"But that's the nature of the Super Bowl. Sometimes, you just do your job and the circumstances make you a hero. If Washington hadn't tipped that ball, it wouldn't be remembered as one of the greatest catches in football history."

You wonder what Washington thinks when he sees that catch whenever they show Super Bowl highlights. Does he think maybe he would have been the hero if he had intercepted that pass or, at least, knocked it down and forced the shaky Walden to punt from the end zone?

"Yeah, you think about it," Washington said. "A lot of people tried to console me after the fact by telling me I had good coverage the whole game, that he just had a stellar day. But the bottom line is he made the plays and I didn't."

"I kind of feel sorry for him," Swann said. "No player should have to spend the rest of his career" -- how about the rest of his life? -- "explaining what went wrong on any particular day."

Maybe Swann should feel sorry for Harris.

"I guarantee you if we had won that game, I would be in the Hall of Fame," said Harris, who played in six Pro Bowls and five Super Bowls. "If we had won three or four Super Bowls instead of just two, a lot more Cowboys and a lot fewer Steelers would be in there."

It didn't sound as if Harris ever will get over his one big regret from Super Bowl X.

"If Swann had just come across the middle early in the game -- just one time -- he wouldn't be going to the Hall of Fame. He would be just now waking up in some hospital somewhere."

Jersey exchange

Swann said he hasn't seen or talked to Washington since that Super Bowl Sunday -- "Mark's gone into seclusion, I think," Harris said, jokingly -- but he did have another memorable meeting with Harris.

No, it wasn't in Super Bowl XIII when Swann caught what proved to be the winning touchdown in the Steelers' 35-31 victory against the Cowboys.

It was at a charity flag football game at Three Rivers Stadium in the mid-1980s, the same day Harris said he accidentally broke Franco Harris' nose while going for an interception.

"After it was over, Lynn came up to me and said, 'You always were my nemesis,'" Harris said. "'Let's exchange jerseys.'"

So they did, right there on the field.

"Not long after that, they had a Pro Sports Recognition Day at my daughter's grade school," Harris said. "Ninety-nine percent of the kids showed up in a Cowboys jersey. Wouldn't you know my kid wore a Steelers' No. 88 jersey?"

Harris laughed again.

"Tell Lynn I burned it after that."

It's a good thing Harris didn't.

Do you know what a Hall of Famer's autographed jersey is going for these days?

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