88 Goes Long

Lynn Swann
"I'm in this to win . . . I'm not out there to put a good face for the Republican party," says former Pittsburgh Steeler Lynn Swann, here accepting the GOP nomination for governor. (Carolyn Kaster -- AP)
By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 3, 2006


Novice politicians need to pass a few basic tests. First is the ability to work a room, dominate it, if possible -- or, at the very least, convey a sense that you relish being there, meeting everyone and hearing the stories about how this guy met you at a banquet in Pittsburgh 20 years ago and you were nice enough to sign an autograph that he still has, by the way, in a scrapbook somewhere . . .

Lynn Swann aces this test with an ease and grace that befit his status both as a Hall of Fame wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers and as a dancer who began studying ballet when he was 8.

Swann, 54, doesn't so much work a room as prance through it: His double-pump handshakes are brisk and authoritative, his grin and eye contact unrelenting. He stutter-steps in and out of conversations in 15 seconds or less, but never seems in a rush. Swann has mastered the art of Being a Famous Guy -- performing on the Famous Guy circuit of sporting events, speaking appearances and autograph scrums.

"Smile," says the man snapping a photo of Swann, who is, of course, already smiling. The Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania is working his way through a wine-and-hors d'oeuvres reception hosted by a chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), a trade group whose membership veers Republican. As for football loyalties, this south-central region of Pennsylvania is a battleground between Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles allegiances.

But, in this office park -- on this evening, in the presence of No. 88 -- the room is trending heavily Black and Gold. "I'm a lifelong Steeler guy," proclaims one, introducing himself to Swann, who spins into his celebrity meet-and-greet routine: signing the man's football, then a cocktail napkin, then posing for a cellphone photo.

He completes the set by signing another man's "Swann for Governor" lapel sticker, the likes of which are now selling for a buck on eBay.

Recurring Doubts

Another essential test for a first-time candidate is whether he has a compelling personal story, ideally of the Horatio Alger, up-from-nothing variety. Swann nails this one, too, although whether his superstar narrative qualifies him to lead a state of 12.5 million people is another matter.

The youngest of three boys, Swann was born in a small Tennessee town, the son of a dentist's assistant (mother) and a janitor (father). He attended the University of Southern California on a football scholarship, was an All-American, played eight years in the NFL with four Super Bowl victories, and is recalled as perhaps the most acrobatic receiver in league history. Announcer Curt Gowdy dubbed him "the Baryshnikov of football."

Swann retired from the NFL in 1982, worked hundreds of ABC college football broadcasts as a sideline reporter, hosted "Battle of the Network Stars" and "To Tell the Truth," played himself in "The Waterboy" with Adam Sandler and "The Last Boy Scout" with Bruce Willis, raised money for the Pittsburgh Ballet and chaired President Bush's Council on Physical Fitness. Now, Swann, who has never run for office before, wants to be the first black governor of Pennsylvania.

"My parents never thought their youngest son would be standing here accepting the nomination for governor," Swann said tearfully on the night in February when he was ensured the state GOP's nomination for governor (Swann has no opposition in a May primary). "We truly do live in the greatest nation of the world."

Still, as Swann traverses the nation's sixth most populous state he is trailed by recurring doubts about whether he's fit to tackle the job. Questions, in other words, about what Swann has ever run before. Besides post patterns.

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