Some things are, you understand, very important. Such as a vacation trip to Europe. A vacation trip to Europe is very important. Justice can wait until the judge is back from the south of France with his Polaroids of the natives. Who knows? Rome may not be there next month.
On Aug. 14, Judge Henry Rolph, Superior Court, Dept. 17, City of San Francisco, declared a recess in the trial of a $2 million civil suit filed by Lynn Swann, the elegant pass receiver of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The prosecution didn't ask for a recess, nor did Swann's attorney, Michael Keady of San Francisco. From the bench, in his black robes but itching to get into his Bermuda shorts, Judge Rolph declared a recess because he had reservations to Europe.
Justice can wait, the judge was saying. Lynn Swann knows that too well. The night of Jan. 31, 1974, Swann has testified, he and two brothers and a cousin were brutally assulted by San Francisco policemen who called them niggers, monkeys and aborigines. That was more than five years ago and only now is the trial taking place and, after a month of testimony, Judge Rolph calls timeout so he can go buy chocolates in Zurich.
Swann can wait, too. The five years between the alleged brutality and the trial is, he said the other day, evidence of "manipulation, being as inconvenient as possible by the city attorney in hopes they could outlast us." They are picking on the wrong dude, Swann said, because he is going to see this through, not out of a racial crusader's passion but out of a man's belief that "we were terribly wronged . . . it is a matter of principle, you have to live with yourself."
Soon Judge Rolph will come home with his postcards of Parisian street scenes to resume on Sept. 12 the trial that San Francisco's judicial system has had in the works for nearly five years now. If Swann believes his brothers and cousin need him in the courtroom, or if he is recalled to testify further, the Steelers likely will have to get along without the game's best wide receiver for a while.
"I've been in the courtroom because I should be there," Swann said in answer to those Pittsburgh pigskinophiles who worried this summer that Swann might be blowing a career -- not to mention another Super Bowl for the Steelers -- over this thing with the cops. At one point, presumably to shut up the yammering that he ought to be in training camp, Swann simply announced his retirement.
Back with the Steelers now, he missed the first two exhibition games but with a week's work caught three passes last weekend and now says he is ready to play a full game. "I retired and then I unretired," he said. "It's been so misinterpreted I don't want to say anything else."
Swann is a dream in cleats. Maybe Isaac Curtis and Lance Alworth at their best could match the grace of Swann going deep, but certainly no wide receiver ever has been Swann's equal at the important catch in the important game. In Swann's five seasons the Steelers became the only team ever to win three Super Bowls. And Swann, who set a punt return record as a rookie in his first Super Bowl, now holds three pass catching records for the NFL championship game. He beat Dallas three years ago with 161 yards, and he caught the winning touchdown pass against the Cowboys last January.
Which is not really the amazing part.
The amazing part is Swann's concentration. Wide receivers live with fear. Darryl Stingley, a wide receiver, ran a pattern across the middle and will never walk again. People have told Swann to quit football because he is always getting concussions, the most memorable delivered by the forearm of Oakland's George Atkinson, an act of violence that presaged Stingley's paralysis.
But Swann keeps making the important catches, even in traffic, even with linebackers and defensive backs crashing against him -- even with the memory of that night five years ago haunting him to an obsession with seeing justice done. "Over the five years, I thought about it a good deal," he said, putting an elegant spin on those last two words.
On Jan. 31, 1974, Swann, an All-America with Southern California, was drafted No. 1 by the Pittsburgh Steelers. To celebrate, Swann, his brothers, Brian, 30 now, and William, 28, and cousin, Cecil Henderson, 31, went to dinner. On the way home the morning of Feb. 1, Brian Swann drove through a traffic light.
From there on, stories told by the Swanns and the San Francisco police diverge widely.
The Swanns say the police, after issuing a citation for running a red light and carrying a mutilated operator's license, became aggressive and abusive. The police say the Swanns started it.
In any event, the police made a call for help. From 10 to 30 police cars showed up. The Swanns were handcuffed and taken by paddy car to a district police station, where they were beaten with nightsticks and kicked while handcuffed and verbally abused (the Swanns say). The police say nothing happened. They charged the Swanns with assult on an officer, disturbing the peace and resisting arrest.
In July of that year, the Swanns were acquitted of those charges. Before the acquittal, the Swanns filed a civil suit charging the San Francisco police with assault and battery, false arrest and false imprisonment, among other things.
Lynn Swann, a wonder of nature, has testified that the police beat him on the knees with nightsticks.
"We were beaten brutally by the cops," Swann said this week. "But I'd rather not talk about the trial. It is still in progress."
With the judge gallivanting around the continent?
"Everyone needs a vacation," said Swann with the air of a man who knows right is on his side, even if right has to wait until the judge throws three coins into Trevi fountain.
"I'm just glad to be back in camp," Swann said. "I'm in good shape now and I'm working out the kinks in my pass routes. I'm ready to play a full game now."
Saturday night the Steelers play their last exhibition game, against the Dallas Cowboys.
"The Cowboys," Swann said. "Yes, yes, I have seen the cowboys once or twice."