|A picture in concentration, Swann held on for a big play.|
The very brief disclaimer: this isn’t a list that’s ranked in any order other than chronological…so don’t judge too much. It’s Super Bowl moment number 6 on the list of the top 25.
By January 1976, ten years into the Super Bowl era, two things were very clear. First, the Super Bowl was fast becoming one of the nation’s annual excuses to eat and drink way too much and be hungover the next day at work. And second, the two leagues that had seemed miles apart barely a decade earlier had now exchanged roles completely.
Since winning the first two Super Bowls to prove their so-called dominance, the old NFL (now known as the NFC) had managed only one win in eight tries. Only the Cowboys, on their way to becoming known as “America’s Team,” had carried the flag for the National Football Conference.
Teams that had been barely a blip on the nation’s radar when the Super Bowl began were now winning it nearly every season. First Don Shula’s Miami Dolphins had shown America what perfection looked like.
Now, the team from Steel Town, USA would show everyone what a modern dynasty was.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, wrought from the vision of their head coach Chuck Noll, had drafted smarter than perhaps any team ever (even to this day). In a single draft during 1974, the Steelers had landed four future Hall of Famers, including wide receiver John Stallworth, center Mike Webster and game-changing linebacker Jack Lambert.
But it was Noll’s first pick in that draft, wide receiver Lynn Swann from USC, who would captivate the country not merely for his talent, but because he seemed so out of place in professional football.
Playing for the Steelers made Swann a paradoxical figure. When people think of Pittsburgh’s football team in that era (or Pittsburgh itself for that matter) they imagine a person like Swann’s fellow ’74 draftee, Jack Lambert, a hard-nosed, blue collar-type who became famous for a sneer which only highlighted his many missing front teeth.
They were tough, steely men who destroyed you physically and mentally. They attacked remorselessly until you waved the white flag. This usually occurred about midway through the third quarter when only your third-string quarterback remained, though even he would already have the telltale grass stuck in his helmet from being driven into the ground by Steeler pass-rushers.
Even their cornerbacks, Mel Blount (a Hall of Famer himself) and J.T. Thomas were big and could hit hard (a concept Deion Sanders never became familiar with). All aspects of their defense petrified opponents.
It was into this environment that Lynn Swann stepped as an All-American who’d plied his college trade at flashy USC. Swann didn’t acclimate overly well in his first season, but roared to success in his second.
As NFL films once noted, “He caught only 11 passes in his first season, but in his second season he caught 11 touchdowns.” The turnaround was tremendous.
And though the Steelers had triumphed in Swann’s rookie season of 1974 (defeating the Vikings 16-6 in Super Bowl IX) he had unfinished business in the NFL’s top game. This was because he had not made a catch, nor even been thrown to in the Steelers’ first Super Bowl. When Pittsburgh advanced to the Super Bowl again the next season, Swann set out to remedy his non-impact.
That goal was made tougher, however, by the fact that Swann had sustained a concussion in previous week during the AFC Championship game at the hands of their classic nemesis: the Oakland Raiders.
Raiders’ safety George Atkinson had swung his forearm into Swann’s head, knocking him to the ground and nearly causing his helmet to pop off (what Raiders’ linebacker Phil Villapiano dubbed as the “can-opener” which you can see here in the first minute of the video on O.J. Simpson).
Almost unbelievably, the “can-opener” was a completely legal NFL move at that point (it’s a wonder any receiver caught for a thousand yards before rule changes in 1978 started to drastically reduce contact on receivers.)
But Swann played, having been motivated by Cliff Harris, the starting safety of the Steelers Super Bowl opponent, the Cowboys. Harris said in the week before the game that “I'm not going to hurt anyone intentionally. But getting hit again while he's running a pass route must be in the back of Swann's mind.”
Needless to say, Swann was now desperate not just to make a catch in the Super Bowl, but make a play that would shut up the bellicose Cowboys.
And on a crucial third down from nearly their own endzone late in the first half, Swann went far in accomplishing that. Steeler quarterback, the perpetually bald Terry Bradshaw, simply lofted the ball up for Swann to go and get it.
Dallas cornerback Mark Washington was glued to him in coverage, but Swann simply jumped over him. And even when Washington looked to have broken up the pass despite being out-jumped, Swann fell back on a weapon that seemed as out of place in football as it did in Pittsburgh especially: the ballet.
Hilarious as it sounds (and, frankly, is) there is truth to this part of the story. The great Lynn Swann, wide receiver for the tough-guy Steelers, did ballet to help him with football.
He once said in an interview that the ballet “helped a great deal with body control, balance, a sense of rhythm, and timing.” It also helped him with his already ridiculous ability to jump.
And using that enhanced sense of body control and balance, Swann had the presence of mind to reach out and catch the ball after tipping it to himself...all while falling down and smothered by the desperate Cowboy defensive back.
It remains one of the finest catches in Super Bowl history, a 53-yard grab that exhibited a perfect marriage between football’s strength and the ballet’s grace. It was embodied in Swann, who went onto catch four passes for 161 yards, capping it off with a game-deciding 63-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
The Steelers triumphed in the end, 21-17. Swann had gone from no receptions the year before and almost not playing to becoming the first wide-receiver to win Super Bowl MVP.